City Opera’s back — with an improvising orchestra!

I went to both New York City Opera productions — Don Giovanni and Hugo Weisgall’s Esther — in their fall season, their first since returning from the abyss.

And good news — the company is definitely back. Definitely a sense of something going on, both onstage and in the house. You could love or not love what you saw. I didn’t love Esther as an opera, for instance (far from it), but it was sung, staged, and played (by the orchestra) really well. The Giovanni production, by Christopher Alden, wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Too busy, too mannered. But i found myself drawn in, and often enthralled, even if, at various moments, I didn’t love what I saw. Moments like the first act quartet really wowed me, with the four characters sitting on a bench together, variously baffled or frustrated, conversing like people in a setpiece from a Godard film.

And both nights were alive. It’s a great start for the company, on its road back. Bravo to them. I’d wondered if anyone would come to see Esther. Long atonal opera, deady serious, respected ever since its premiere many years ago, but not heard. Very brave of the company to bring it back, and people did go.

George Steel had told me he thought he’d get a Jewish audience, for an opera about a famous episode in Jewish history. I was skeptical. But the Jewish audience showed up. The night I went was Jewish singles night, with a special area roped off for participants, who at the first intermission were numerous and animated. (At the second intermission, the area was almost empty, as was the promenade as a whole, which had been packed after the first act. Made me think that many people left, but that’s only a guess. What matters right now is that City Opera got them to come.)

And now for the improvising orchestra!

Toward the end of “Madamina,” Leporello’s aria in the first act of Don Giovanni, I heard a flute trill that isn’t in the score. You can listen to the passage as Mozart wrote it. (I ripped it from the René Jacobs recording, with Lorenzo Regazzo as Leporello.)

Listen for the four long flute notes, just after the music fades in. At City Opera, there was a trill on the last one. Too bad I don’t have a recording with the trill in it, so you can hear the difference. The trill was terrific — wonderfully appropriate, so much so that the passage now sounds empty to me without it.

I double-checked the full score, just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. And afrer I’d verified that, no, Mozart never wrote that trill, I emailed a friend in the City Opera administration, asking how the trill had gotten there.

My friend emailed the conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, whose answer really warmed my heart. I can’t quote him, because he hasn’t authorized that, but I’m told it’s OK to report what he said.

Yes, the trill was improvised, by Bart Feller, City Opera’s principal flute. When he’s not playing, the trill isn’t there. Wedow encouraged people in the orchestra to improvise during their solo bits, and this trill was one result. He also added some slides in the strings, saying that some people might question them (bad taste), but that they’re funny and appropriate, and most of all true to 18th century practice.

In all of this, he was guided by 18th century models, which he clearly knows very well.

So how about that! City Opera returns to the freedom of classical music’s past. All unheralded, under the radar. They could have gone further, but what a great start, and as far as I know, nobody’s talked about this until now.

I’m delighted. It’s the kind of thing I’ve been hoping for, for years. Freedom for classical music.

Let’s do more!

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Very nice! About time that improvisation was brought back into the field even in a rarified form.

    You know, I’m wondering, since the last few pieces you’ve posted about overall declining audiences–and since you mentioned the Jewish audience that was there (even if only at the beginning) if maybe there might not be more people actually going to, say, music performances that just don’t even fit into the model of a ticketed event in an orthodox venue.

    I would suspect, given for example and ethnic audience, might go to far more events than might be measurable just because these things happen to fall off the radar.

    I’m also recalling how the ISO brought in Ice T for a reading of Langston Hughes, “Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz” which, from what I understand was attended by a very large African-American audience (I believe I’d heard it sold out, but don’t quote me on that). Also, when Gabriela Lena Frank was composer in residence with the ISO her work with the Orchestra inspired the some departments in the University of Indianapolis to launch a year long Spanish Song Project.

    I think we might be surprised at the number of the growing ethnic populations in the US might be going to concerts, or in many cases, sponsoring their own events that just happen to fly well off the radar because of established venues (both Classical and Pop/Rock) don’t necessarily support, or bring in the types of artists these groups would normally go to see.

    There’s proof that you’re right. In the ’90s, a big classical music institution in NYC did a major survey of its audience and potential audience. They found quite a few people who said they didn’t go to the institution’s performances because they didn’t know about them. And they didn’t know about them because they didn’t read the NY Times. That suggested a potential audience of Times non-readers, and I told a friend at the institution that they might try to develop a joint promotion with the NY Daily News. Whether that was a good idea or not I can’t say, but they never made any moves in that direction.