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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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The basic production elements of live opera as most people think of it today—what the French, and later the Americans, took to calling "grand" opera—were set into place between 1870 and 1920. This kind of opera, opera as produced at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, the Vienna Staatsoper, and the Paris Opera, could easily be starved to death by the public agencies and private philanthropies that maintain it—precisely because it is so expensive to produce, and hence so dependent on external support.

New productions of "grand" operas at the world's best-known houses now cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to mount, often (compared to successful productions in the commercial theatre) for relatively few performances. These productions frequently involve several elaborate sets, a great many custom-made costumes, intricately programmed lighting, and a corps of professional dancers. They may require the work of a hundred or more highly skilled musicians, as well as more hundreds of technical personnel, administrators, and office staff. They are presented in purpose-built, often palatial auditoriums seating from one thousand to three thousand or more. To perform the leading roles in such productions, audiences in many cities have come to expect (and occasionally the scores demand) singing actors possessed of rare and fragile gifts, a situation that allowed the best-known of these singers to command fees of $10,000 or more per performance in 1990.

It is impossible to write sensibly and analytically about "opera" as it exists today, to make coherent and universally applicable remarks about it as a written and a performing art. There are simply too many kinds of opera, performed in too many different ways, from Help, Help, the Globolinks! to Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen , from a church hall performance with piano accompaniment to a von Karajan première during Easter Week at Salzburg.

Student, amateur, semistaged, piano-accompanied, or otherwise inexpensive versions of opera can be heard in hundreds of places. These often provide excellent entertainment and respectable hearings of popular operas for audiences that would not otherwise be able to experience them live. Occasionally, student and amateur opera groups offer new or rarely performed works, or revealing insights into repertory standards.

With all appropriate respect for the college and church hall players, Gian Carlo


Menotti's Globolinks (an amusing children's opera), and the more than two hundred other-than-grand opera companies in America, what interest me are the kinds of opera and opera production that dominate the Western imagination, for better or worse: those that fill the big houses, attract the largest audiences (and the greatest amount of publicity), and end up recorded on disk, videotape, or film, broadcast by radio and television, thus to be seen and heard by millions of people.

The operas regularly performed by the so-called "international," or by the leading national/regional repertory companies are by definition the most enduring of the thousands that have been written since 1600. Occasionally, of course, such companies venture novelties and rarities, very few of which win places in the standard repertory. But it is by means of such ventures that the standard repertory does , in fact, alter over time.

In at least fifty-five cities—forty-seven of them in Europe, six in North America, and two in Australia—one could attend in any given recent year at least ten different operas, and a total of at least forty opera performances, in fully staged professional productions. (I lack figures for the Soviet Union and some cities in Eastern Europe.) At least eighteen of these cities are in Germany or Austria—thanks to exceptionally generous government subsidies, which generally cover 85 percent or more of a company's expenses; eight are in Italy; seven are in France; three each are in Switzerland and Britain; and two each are in Belgium and Spain. (The two British companies on the list based outside of London—Opera North in Leeds and the Scottish Opera in Glasgow—also tour extensively. In fact, with the three other professional touring companies of the United Kingdom—the Welsh National Opera, the Glyndebourne Touring Company, and the Kent Opera—they offer each year a total of almost five hundred performances of some fifty different productions in British cities outside London.) In nineteen of these cities (thirteen of them German-speaking), one could have a choice of one hundred or more opera performances a year staged by permanent and professional companies. And in five of them—Berlin, London, Munich, New York, and Vienna, each of which houses at least two full-time major opera companies—at least three hundred professional opera performances are mounted every year.[5]

Three of the best-known and most elegant European opera houses—the Teatro alla Scala in Milan (which opened in 1778), the Paris Opera (1875), and the Teatro


dell'Opera in Rome (1888)—offer relatively limited seasons, closer in numbers to those of Chicago or San Francisco than to those of, say, Hamburg or Zurich. With the opening of the Opéra-Bastille, in fact, the "old" Paris Opera is now used primarily for dance and baroque music concerts. The historic eighteenth-century houses in Naples and Venice offer too few performances today to make the list.

Qualitative distinctions among these companies are difficult to make, unless one is able to attend several productions in each of them over a number of seasons. Over thirty-eight years, I've attended more than six hundred productions of 160 different operas in thirty of these cities, as well as in several other places. But this is nowhere near enough to venture meaningful comparisons.

Many serious devotees and regular music critics have seen a great deal more opera than I have. Such assiduous operagoers may learn a great deal about the repertory, about individual performers, and about productions, but they are still likely to know the offerings of only one region. Only a few music critics and opera fans have enjoyed the freedom to travel extensively year after year and compare performances around the world.

The important second companies in the cities that have more than one—the Komische Oper in (East) Berlin, the Volksoper in Vienna, the English National Opera in London, the New York City Opera, the several "second companies" in Paris, and the Theater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich—tend to offer more light opera and operetta, as do many of the smaller German companies. In the latter, as at the Volksoper and the Gärtnerplatz, an "opera" season will often include performances of My Fair Lady or Fiddler on the Roof as well as The Gypsy Baron and The Merry Widow—and Mozart, Puccini, and Weber.

Most European companies, some with an annual repertory of thirty, forty, or even more different operas performed in what seems like random order night after night over a nine- or ten-month season, depend almost entirely on a resident company of performers whose names and voices are likely to be unknown beyond the immediate region. (This applies to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as well as the West.)

But this need not mean that a serious and well-managed "regional rep" opera house achieves a lower level of overall quality than the house that tends to import its lead singers from the international pool. Summer festivals (there are perhaps twenty summer opera festivals worldwide deserving more than regional attention) such as Glyndebourne and Santa Fe have earned much of their high reputation from putting on distinguished, carefully rehearsed productions cast with good but lesser-known singing actors.

The opera companies that make most use of well-known, nonresident, international stagers (and frequently of visiting producers and conductors as well) are New York's Metropolitan, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, and the Vienna Staatsoper—the Big Three; the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of


Chicago, La Scala in Milan, the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona, the Teatri Comunali in Genoa and Florence; and to a slightly lesser degree the companies in Bologna, Houston, Madrid, Paris, and Toronto. (The Los Angeles Music Center Opera, which had its first season in 1986, hasn't yet reached my arbitrary ten-opera/forty-performance minimum, despite a formidable annual budget. When it does, it will join this list, because it also makes use of star singers and producers drawn from the international/recording pool.)

Residents of or visitors to many other cities—(West) Berlin, Geneva, Hamburg, Lyons, Marseilles, Munich, Nice, Turin, Washington, Zurich—are likely to be able to see several international class singers each season, along with a company of local or lesser-known performers. Other important opera companies, some with very extensive seasons and repertories—Cologne, Dresden, Duisberg/Düsseldorf (the two cities share one company, which puts on more than three hundred opera performances each year), East Berlin, Hannover, Liège, Mannheim, Strasbourg (the companies based in Liège and Strasbourg also perform at neighboring cities), and Sydney, plus the four Scandinavian capitals (where most operas are performed in the local language) depend almost entirely, and in some cases entirely, on resident troupes. On occasion, these troupes have included performers who are also, or who go on to be, international stars: Theo Adam in (East) Berlin, Joan Sutherland in Sydney, Martti Talvela in Helsinki, Elisabeth Söderström in Stockholm. But the same is true of most of the world's serious resident companies, small as well as large.

There are opera houses in Cairo, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv that offer annual seasons from the traditional Western repertory. Elsewhere in the non-Western world—particularly in wealthy, West-oriented cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong—citizens can receive frequent doses of opera by means of visits from important American or European companies. Between 1988 and 1990, the Japanese subsidized extensive and expensive visits by the Teatro alia Scala of Milan, the Bavarian State Opera of Munich, the Bayreuth Festival Opera, and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. A lavish new music center in Hong Kong opened in November 1989 with a two-week visit from the Cologne City Opera, performing Fidelio and The Barber of Seville .

Except for the pure voice fancier or star follower (a not insignificant category of opera fan), the presence of "name" singers does not of itself guarantee a memorable, even necessarily a tolerable, evening of opera. Singers like Caballé, Carreras, Domingo, Freni, Pavarotti, or Te Kanawa (the names at the top change every ten or twenty years) may sing from forty to eighty opera performances a year, in perhaps a dozen or twenty different cities, in productions that range from brilliant to deadly dull. Although it is the "starriest" company in the world, performance for performance, the Metropolitan in New York is not everyone's idea of opera heaven. Some of the most interesting opera producers and conductors—who


often have more to do with the overall quality of a performance than individual singers do—tend to concentrate their activities in their home cities, which helps to guarantee certain places a consistently high level of production. In the eighteenth century, the quality of the resident orchestras in Dresden, Prague, Mannheim, and Munich led composers like Mozart to prefer them for premières. The same may be true today of cities like Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Milan, and London, where the opera orchestras tend to be led by conductors of greater-than-usual distinction.

The range, depth, and adventurousness of a given company's repertory may also give some clue to its quality. If an overabundance of Mikados or Merry Widows may hint at a certain shallowness in the repertoire, the ability and willingness to mount Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen may be taken as a sign of serious resources and intentions. In the past twenty-five years, new and complete Ring cycles have been mounted by at least thirty different cities, including those at the Wagner festivals in Bayreuth and Seattle. One should expect to see more Italian operas in Italy, more German operas in Germany, more French operas in France; all three countries, moreover, retain a popular fondness for their own lighter operas (Le comte Ory, Zar und Zimmermann, Mireille ), many of them little known outside their borders. The Finns do more Finnish operas, the Russians more Russian, the Czechs more Czech; but all of them depend on the standard Western European repertory as well. The Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden, like other U.S. and British companies, are more evenly international in their repertory, because so few English or American operas have made their way to the list of accepted standards.

Among them, the fifty-five most operatically active cities might produce six "world premières" of totally new operas—out of some three hundred or four hundred works altogether—in a typical year. At best, two or three of these will go on to be produced again somewhere else. The most recent operas to have had several sequential productions at major houses were Aribert Reimann's Lear (Munich, 1978), Philip Glass's Satyagraha (Amsterdam, 1980), and John Adams's Nixon in China (Houston, 1987). The more adventurous companies, those that take their "educational" or creative responsibilities most seriously, try to offer several recent or rarely performed works every season, in order to expand the acquaintance and taste of their audiences beyond the standard repertory.

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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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