Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Boston's Women of Opera and Music, Part Two

In 1975, The Associate Artists Opera, for which I had been the resident set designer for four years, began to experience financial difficulties and merged with two other smaller companies to form the Boston lyric Opera. There wasn't much activity for a while when I received a call from British conductor John Balme who was now running the fledgling company, asking me to return to be his designer and production manager. I agreed at once and began immediately, designing two seasons for Boston Lyric, which also provided production services to the brand new, now famous, Boston Early Music Festival, meaning that I designed their first two opera productions as well.

Balme's major project, Wagner's Ring of the Nibleung, cast with Boston musicians and mostly Boston singers, was performed in concert for one season, and staged in elemental sets for a second season. Boston critics had condescended to it (one asked why he should listen to a bunch of Bostonians when he could put on a recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and big stars), missing the point and the tremendous achievement entirely. The New York Times, on the other hand, was positively effusive in its praise and admiration for all involved when the production traveled to New York City.

John Balm soon returned to England, succeeded by this hugely talented women:

Anne Ewers began in the trenches as an assistant director with the San Francisco Opera and took over the Boston Lyric in 1984, faced by scant resources and the outstanding debts of the three companies that were in the mix, exacerbated by the debt from the Ring project. Ewers settled down to a pattern she would repeat with troubled companies in future: instead of being cautious, she increased the length of the season, raised funds, and retired 1/2 million dollars of debt. She brought exciting, unfamiliar material into Boston, scoring a big success with Poulenc's great Dialogs of the Carmelites. When she left Boston in 1989, she handed over an established, secure, solvent and well organized company.

Having taken the Boston position specifically to gain administrative experience, Ewers then embarked on 12 years of gypsy-like life as an international stage director, from Isreal to New Zeeland and points in between. Armed with intimate knowledge of opera production as practitioner and manager, Ewers then secured the position of President and CEO of the Utah Symphony and the Utah Opera in 2002.

One of the first things Ewers did, originally experiencing intense opposition, was to merge the two companies, cutting costs to each, combining and streamlining the companies' management structure. Along the way she retired the debt and began to run a surplus, doubled the endowment, sent the Symphony in its first European tour, and founded an annual Festival -- all in five years, an astonishing achievement.

Again, Ewers left a company after five years, having transformed it completely and left it in an enviable condition. She decamped for Philadelphia in 2007, becoming President and CEO of the Kimmel Center and Manager of the Academy of Music which is home to eight performing arts companies. The job also includes running the city's Celebrity Series.

It didn't take five years this time. In just one season, Ewers paid off a $30 million debt, increased the endowment from $40 to $72 million, raised another $10 million to found a city-wide Festival and ended the year with a $1.2 million surplus.

I have no idea if the New York City Opera, which was in disastrous financial and organizational crisis two years ago, tried to lure Ewers away from Philadelphia but it would have been a very smart thing to do. Anne Ewers is rather obviously a skilled company savior.

Janice Mancini del Sesto became Boston Lyric's next long-term director, one with the strength and determination to loft the company into a much higher level of achievement. Casting improved and her music director Stephen Lord became the rock on which she would build a first rate "regional" company.

Mancini del Sesto was particularly successful at bringing emerging singers to Boston as well as getting established stars to appear in material that was fascinating but not usual for them. In the former category, Nathan Gunn's appearance in Faust as a very young baritone sounded from the first notes he sang like a future major artist, which is exactly what he proceeded to become. Patricia Racette, now a regular at the Metropolitan Opera in the great roles of the standard repertory was, eighteen years ago, close to a sensation as the three contrasting heroines of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. The greatest of these emerging artists was a statuesque soprano with an astonishingly large and brilliant voice who was on the brink of giving up her operatic career for lack of recognition. Deborah Voigt blew the roof off the Majestic Theater as Ariadne in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos in a performance whose reverberations reached New York City in record time. A major international career and a raft of continuing publicity followed closely on her BLO appearances.  And Voigt paid the company back generously by later, as a major star, giving a benefit fund-raising recital for Boston Lyric.

In the later category, the beloved, late, and dearly lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson gave BLO what I believe to be her only performances ever as Carmen, a highly complex, introverted characterization that was sung with intelligence and consistent beauty. At the height of her BLO career, Mancini del Sesto gave the city of Boston another Carmen, free and outdoors on the Common, that was expected to draw maybe a couple of thousand people. 150,000 showed up to launch the international career of the young, beautiful and sensuously voiced Jossie Perez in the title role.

When the great economic crunch hit, donor money dried up and attendance fell as ticket buyers set their priorities on basic necessities rather than opera tickets. Mancini del Sesto had two choices: forge ahead with interesting repertory and strong box office appeal artists, or fall back on the standard works that everyone knows and loves and hope to ride out the storm; unfortunately, in a very musically sophisticated city, she chose the wrong one. She declared in the pages of the Boston Globe that the company would henceforth focus on "the top 20" and she announced a season that included tried and true works many of which would be repeats from the very recent past. The idea was to keep the loyalty of subscribers from Boston's moneyed and rather conservative western suburbs. What happened was that subscribers from the city itself AND the suburbs dropped their subscriptions because of the uninteresting offerings. Her departure from the company was announced shortly thereafter.

Mancini del Sesto's successor is Esther Nelson, a solid administrator who has now completed her first season at the helm of Boston Lyric. She has advocated a return to more varied and interesting repertory, but the jury is still out on how she produces it. She began with the eternal Carmen, decently if not spectacularly cast, but put only about 75% of Bizet's great score on stage. In a hack job of brutal proportions, cuts were made in about 50% of the numbers, several of which were dropped from the opera altogether,including one of Carmen's great moments, the Gypsy Song that opens Act 2. The lively and important characters Frasquita and Mercedes were reduced to walk-ons. As the opera limped on, its structure and shape becoming ever more obscured by the cuts, I began to make note with surprise of the few numbers that weren't either removed completely or eviscerated by having their middle sections cut out of them. Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart and the company itself were savaged in the press for this travesty. 

One hopeful development is the introduction of one non-mainstream opera every year produced in an alternate or non-traditional venue.  Last season it was Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw starring the charismatic soprano Emily Pulley and magnificent old veteran Joyce Castle, performed in an old armory in the city's Back Bay.  (Next season it is the legendary Emperor of Atlantis, written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp by composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist Peter Kien.  The Nazis saw through the fairy tale setting and realized that Hitler was being satirized; Ullmann and Kein were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz and the opera was banned.)   

The season ended with a poorly directed production of Mozart's Idomeneo, well conducted but inconsistently sung and dramatically inert. Boston Lyric's future is still somewhat in doubt.

To be concluded next time.

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