Frankenthaler at Eighty: Six Decades (Knoedler & Company, 19 E. 70, up through Jan. 10). Nine large-scale canvases and works on paper painted between 1957 and 2002 by America’s foremost abstractionist. A superb miniature retrospective that concisely sums up Helen Frankenthaler’s creative achievement (TT).
Archives for November 7, 2008
Gérard Mortier resigned from the New York City Opera earlier today, leaving that already shaky institution in desperate straits. The New York Times broke the story here. Here’s the heart of the matter:
Speaking from his apartment in Ghent, Belgium, Mr. Mortier said he decided to resign when it became clear that the board would not give him the money needed to produce a meaningful slate of opera productions. He said that from the start he had been promised a budget of $60 million, a number even mentioned in his contract. But the board was prepared to approve only $36 million, he said, not much more than the basic fixed costs of running the company, leaving him little room for innovative productions.
“I told them with the best will I can’t do that,” Mr. Mortier said. “I cannot go to run a company that has less than the smallest company in France.” Mr. Mortier is in the final year of running the Paris National Opera, which has a budget closer to $300 million. “You don’t need me for that,” he said.
Previous City Opera budgets had been around $42 million, not including overspending that created a $15 million deficit….
In June I wrote a “Sightings” column for The Wall Street Journal arguing that Mortier’s programming innovations might well end in disaster for the company. Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate to reprint that column in its entirety. Here it is.
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New York’s second biggest opera company is closing up shop–temporarily. Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater, home of the New York City Opera, will be undergoing major renovations throughout City Opera’s 2008-09 season. The company had originally planned to present a series of concert opera performances in various locations around the city, then decided to trim costs by cutting back to a single semistaged version of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” that will be be performed at Carnegie Hall next Jan. 15 and 16. In addition, City Opera’s orchestra will be giving five concerts of modern music, one in each borough of New York City.
That’s all, folks.
Not until the fall of 2009 will the New York City Opera resume its regular schedule, and when it does, the repertoire will consists of six 20th-century operas. No Handel, no Mozart, no Puccini–just Claude Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” Leos Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case,” Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” Benjamin Britten’s “Death in Venice,” Olivier Messiaen’s “St. Francis of Assisi,” and Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.” All of these works are widely admired, but none has ever been mistaken for a box-office draw.
Gérard Mortier, City Opera’s new general manager, is the man behind this risky roll of the dice. Mr. Mortier, who previously dished up postmodern opera at the Salzburg Festival and the Paris Opera, has said that New York needs “a new vision in opera,” and his first season definitely fills the bill. But he doesn’t think that New York needs a new opera house, and so City Opera is abandoning its long-standing attempt to move out of the theater it shares with the New York City Ballet and build one of its own.
To be sure, Mr. Mortier is well aware of the inadequacies of the State Theater, which was built with dance, not opera, in mind. Among other things, the house was designed in such a way as to deaden the sound of dancing feet–the opposite of what should happen in an opera house, where the goal is to make the singers on stage more audible, not less. Hence the renovations, whose purpose is not only to spruce up the shabby-looking auditorium but to improve its inadequate acoustics by installing an orchestra pit that can be raised and lowered at will.
I wish Mr. Mortier all the luck in the world, but I fear that he may have gotten things backwards. Paul Kellogg, his predecessor, had already breathed new artistic life into the once-moribund company by presenting a smartly staged, shrewdly chosen mix of operas that ranged from baroque showpieces to brand-new American works. As Mr. Kellogg saw it, the company’s main problem was that it performed in a 2,800-seat auditorium that was both acoustically flawed and too big to suit the theatrically serious productions he favored. After 9/11, he pushed hard to build a three-theater complex at Ground Zero, a plan that I backed on this page five years ago. Alas, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation turned up its nose at Mr. Kellogg’s ambitious scheme, and now that the redevelopment of Ground Zero has gone sour, the chances of building an opera house there are…well, zero. That’s why Mr. Mortier has chosen to renovate City Opera’s currrent home rather than trying to build a new one.
While I see his point, I can’t help but wonder what effect the company’s year-long hiatus will have on the loyalty of its current subscribers. Will they find new ways to spend their money? And even if they don’t, what will they think of the fare that Mr. Mortier plans to offer them in 2009? In Europe he has long been identified with ultratrendy, government-subsidized updates of familiar operas, most notoriously a “Fledermaus” in which Johann Strauss’ lovable characters snorted cocaine and got beaten up by Nazis. If that’s what he has in mind for, say, “Pelléas,” I have a feeling that his stay in New York might end up being shorter than he expects.
But Mr. Mortier is right about one thing. The New York City Opera needs to try something different–not because Mr. Kellogg’s productions were inadequate, but because the Metropolitan Opera, City Opera’s neighbor at Lincoln Center, has changed its once-stodgy theatrical ways. Under Joe Volpe, the Met offered a steady diet of blandly staged warhorses spiced up with an occasional dash of Eurotrash. But Peter Gelb, his successor, is bringing in stage-savvy directors like John Doyle and Bartlett Sher, and while the results so far have been artistically uneven, they have also brought the Met into direct competition with City Opera, which for many years had a near-monopoly on imaginatively staged large-house opera in New York.
So how does Mr. Mortier propose to fight back against the 10,000-pound gorilla next door? By offering the public a megadose of modernism. And he might be right, too, since under-40 classical-music fans appear to be more open to new sounds than their parents. If, on the other hand, he’s guessing wrong about the open-mindedness of his audience, then Gérard Mortier may be remembered as the man who turned out the lights at the New York City Opera–for keeps.
I’m back in New York and feeling grumpy: today’s Wall Street Journal drama column contains thumbs-down reviews of Black Watch and Romantic Poetry. Here’s an excerpt.
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What is war like? Those who, like me, have never seen combat in person often look to art to tell us what we missed, while pacifist playwrights seek to portray war in order to persuade us that it is ever and always a bad thing. Yet both groups ignore the warning of Walt Whitman, who worked in the army hospitals of Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, a harrowing experience which persuaded him that “the real war will never get in the books.” Nor has the National Theatre of Scotland succeeded in putting it on stage in a believable fashion in “Black Watch,” a theatrical spectacle about the Iraq war whose return engagement at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse has just been extended through Dec. 21….
“Black Watch”‘s portrayal of modern war is aestheticized and prettified almost beyond recognition. Much of the show consists of a series of tableau-like montages whose elaborate choreography is meant to juxtapose the regiment’s ceremonial duties with the bloody realities of war. Yet those realities are carefully kept at arm’s length, just as the composite personalities of the soldiers seen in “Black Watch” are never allowed to emerge save in flashes.
Of course there are many ways to show war on stage, and some of them, like Shakespeare’s battle scenes or the dream-like vignettes of violent death woven into “Company B,” Paul Taylor’s World War II ballet, are highly aestheticized. But these great works of art never pretend to be anything other than works of art. They do not offer themselves as documentary slices of life, and so we feel no need to trust their makers to tell the truth. Nor do Shakespeare or Taylor ever indulge in the tear-jerking sentimentality to which “Black Watch” not infrequently stoops…
John Patrick Shanley is a gifted but uneven writer in whose authorial personality tough-minded realism and dopey whimsy exist side by side. When the former is in command, we get “Doubt” and “Defiance”; when the latter takes charge, we get “Joe Versus the Volcano” and “Romantic Poetry,” the dreadful new Off-Broadway musical to which Mr. Shanley has contributed the book and lyrics. It’s about a cellphone salesman from Newark who longs to be a poet, which tells you just about all you need to know about the plot, in which–are you sitting down?–love conquers all….
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Read the whole thing here.
This being an inescapably political week, I’m addressing a political topic–of sorts–in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column.
My inspiration was a recent New York Times story called “Liberal Views Dominate Footlights” in which several American theater professionals were asked why the only political plays that get produced in this country are written from a liberal point of view. All replied that so far as they knew, conservatives don’t write plays. What struck me most forcibly about the story was its tacit assumption that anyone in his right mind would want to watch a “conservative” play that was the ideological inverse of the left-wing political plays to which my job requires me to subject myself from time to time.
I dropped that conceptual coin into my mental slot, and out came tomorrow’s “Sightings” column. Pick up a copy of the Saturday Journal and see what I have to say. It might surprise you.
UPDATE: Read the whole thing here.
“Democracy is the fig leaf of elitism.”
Florence King, Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye