Gesamtkunstwerk and its Discontents, part I

In a post long overdue, I’ll cast an eye forward to the Lyric’s 2015-16 season and rationalize some of its programming choices in context of what I perceive to be general director Anthony Freud’s  long-term strategy. I’ll also point out some of the more exciting productions and casting choices we can look forward to in part II.

By the Numbers: The Season at a Glance

The Lyric will present eight operas in its 2015-16 season. Five of them can be properly considered warhorses of the operatic repertoire, listed among the 50 most-performed works worldwide:1

  • Le nozze di Figaro, Mozart (#7)
  • Nabucco, Verdi (#17)
  • Die lustige Witwe, Lehar (#23)
  • La cenerentola, Rossini (#26)
  • Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss (#46)

Combined, they contribute 41 of the complete season’s 63 performances, approximately 65% of operatic activities compared to a worldwide average of 50%.2 This programming places the upcoming Lyric season in line with those presented by the world’s more conservative opera companies, including the Houston Grand Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Státní Opera (Prague).3

The Great American Opera Company

If we interpret this data within the context of operatic activity in North America, however, the Lyric season suddenly seems incredibly innovative. Only Figaro falls within the 20 most-produced operas from the ten seasons between 1996-97 to 2005-06, according to Opera America.4 (These were the most recent figures I could find.) Recall that the ongoing Breaking New Ground campaign announced Lyric’s aspiration to “become the great North American opera company of the twenty-first century” through its “blueprint for a world-class, 21st-century [sic] opera company.”5 The new season largely reflects Lyric’s attempt to bring its programming in line with worldwide norms and its willingness to challenge local audiences with less conventional works. I mean this last statement in the general sense only. Though Nabucco is the only remotely adventurous work in the above list and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is about as grand as grand opera gets, Berg’s Wozzeck and the world premiere of Bel Canto are certainly more daring choices to put in front of traditionalist Chicagoans.

As Mr. Freud’s first independent season, 2015-16 continues the programming direction established by the 2014-15 and 2013-14 seasons inherited from his predecessor, William Mason. In 2013-14, four out of eight productions were warhorses:6

  • Tosca, Puccini (#4)
  • Don Giovanni, Mozart (#10)
  • Il trovatore, Verdi (#18)
  • Tannhäuser, Wagner (#50)

Combined, they contributed 34 of the complete season’s 68 performances, exactly 50% of operatic activities. Only Tosca and Don Giovanni fell under the 20 most-produced operas in North America.7 More radical is the departure from the monolithic 2013-14 season in which seven of eight productions were popular works from the repertory (60 of 67 performances, approximately 90%):

  • La traviata, Verdi (#1)
  • Madama Butterfly, Puccini (#6)
  • Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini (#8)
  • Die Fledermaus, Strauss (#12)
  • Otello, Verdi (#22)
  • Rusalka, Dvořák (#39)
  • Parsifal, Wagner (#44)

Which can still be considered mildly innovative in the context of North American programming, with only TraviataButterfly, and Barbiere among the most-produced operas on the continent.9

A Dolla Make Me Heiaha!

No detailed figures on the prevalence of coproductions and rented productions are available, except a note by Agid and Tarondeau that “there is a general trend towards more coproductions” as opera houses the world over respond to “economic and financial concerns.” 10 Of the eight operas presented next season, five are either coproductions or rented productions. The mechanics of cost-sharing between peer institutions and the prestige of presenting an opera with the likes of the Royal Opera House and La Scala no doubt give Mr. Freud something to brag about on his balance sheet and in the press.

This leaves three new Lyric productions in 2014-15: Figaro, Wozzeck, and Bel Canto. This past season saw Don Giovanni as its only new Lyric production; 2013-14 added a new ParsifalTraviataBarbiere,  and Rusalka to the arsenal. More illuminating is Mr. Mason’s 2003 comment on coproductions being “mainly justified for productions that are not intended to be replayed in future seasons in his theatre.”11 From the choices of new productions in these past three seasons we see an attempt by Mr. Mason, apparently continued by Mr. Freud in his first season, to update the Lyric’s core repertory. With the exception of Bel Canto (a world premiere) and Wozzeck, every other new production in the past three seasons have been operatic warhorses.  Parsifal was last commissioned in 2002, Traviata in 1993,  Barbiere in 1989. We’re seeing routine spring cleaning on an operatic scale. Bel Canto and Wozzeck show promising steps toward diversifying the main repertory, but we cannot be sure without seeing what future seasons have to offer.

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen

Now a bone to pick with the Lyric’s claims to financial strength: It devotes almost a quarter of its season in terms of performances to a musical! Justify it however you like—money, publicity, audience development, etc.—to augment opera activities with marginally related media is to admit the failure of its core business in bringing in money, publicity, audiences, etc. “Our singers don’t need microphones,” bragged a 2011 Lyric ad in promoting its new Long Live Passion campaign.12  (Although Johan Botha’s substitute in Tannhäuser could damn well have used one.) That’s a claim that Broadway can’t uphold and that the Lyric uncomfortably contradicts. If the goal is to give audiences something refreshing and accessible, why not introduce Chicago to operetta? Offenbach (Orphée aux enfers, La belle Hélène, La vie parisienne, I could go on) or Puccini (La rondineIl trittico if you break it up) or good ol’ Gilbert and Sullivan, if Fledermaus and Witwe are too cliché. What’s the difference between Rogers/Hammerstein and Gilbert/Sullivan? And I answer: recitative.

The “great North American opera company of the twenty-first century” should be an opera company, not a vaudeville.

Footnotes:

  1. “Opera Statistics 2013/14.” Opera Statistics 2013/14. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://operabase.com/top.cgi?lang=en.
  2. Agid, Philippe, and Jean Tarondeau. The Management of Opera: An International Comparative Study. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 271.
  3. Agid, Philippe, and Jean Tarondeau. The Management of Opera: An International Comparative Study. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 55.
  4. “Most Frequently Performed Operas in North America.” Infoplease. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0781613.html.
  5. “Breaking New Ground – Lyric Opera of Chicago.” Lyric Opera of Chicago. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.lyricopera.org/breakingnewground/.
  6. “Opera Statistics 2013/14.” Opera Statistics 2013/14. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://operabase.com/top.cgi?lang=en.
  7. “Most Frequently Performed Operas in North America.” Infoplease. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0781613.html.
  8. “Opera Statistics 2013/14.” Opera Statistics 2013/14. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://operabase.com/top.cgi?lang=en.
  9. “Most Frequently Performed Operas in North America.” Infoplease. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0781613.html
  10. Agid, Philippe, and Jean Tarondeau. The Management of Opera: An International Comparative Study. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 96, 94.
  11. Agid, Philippe, and Jean Tarondeau. The Management of Opera: An International Comparative Study. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 96.
  12. “Long Live Passion.” Lyric Opera of Chicago. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.lyricopera.org/uploadedFiles/Homepage/Whats_New_Items/09.08.11v2.pdf.

All information regarding the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current and previous seasons and performance history found (at times with great difficulty) on their website.

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