Sunday, April 17, 2005

Reading the New York Times

I like to comment on items in the New York Times, and there is an excellent article today about the use of stars at the Met. The empty seat phenomenon seems to have spread to them as well and is not unique to the San Francisco Opera. There are a lot of facts and figures included in the article, something I don’t do. I just write from my own experience.

The way opera is organized in Europe is somewhat different from how it is here in the USA. What I’m going to describe are just generalities which vary from place to place.

The main difference lies in how the employees are organized. In Zurich, and Ulm where I worked, the house employs a staff of first line performers and expects the bulk of the roles in any season to be played by these people. It’s like a regular job. So when they need someone special for a particular part, they can still save on the rest of the players by using their own employees. (However, Ursula told me that for Giulio Cesare none of the performers were part of their regular staff.)

At the Met and San Francisco there are regular employees, but these people generally appear only in the smaller parts and never play major roles. In San Francisco these are the Adler Fellows. I know Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters were associated to the Metropolitan in a way that more resembles the European pattern, but generally that isn’t the case. The opera hires practically all the performers in major roles for specific performances only.

The difference here lies in the training effect. Let me try to explain.

If I have a regular job where I play very minor roles, I can progress from amateur to some level of competence. I will get professional quality coaching, a crucial part of any opera performer’s training no matter what their level of experience, but I won’t be ready for a major career just from this. Now try to imagine the difference if I have a regular job where I play major roles, a wide variety of major roles over a short period of months and receive professional coaching for all of them. This is an enormous difference. This system, not seen anywhere in the US as far as I’m aware, is where the top quality performers come from. Then you’re ready to move on to single gigs in lots of different houses.

Opera in Europe is heavily subsidized and according to the Times article, pays better, at least for the first rank of stars. This puts us at a disadvantage. It’s their opera, as I have pointed out in other contexts. They have put in place a system that develops the great singers, and we haven’t.

There is no substitute for professionalism. You have just three choices: you can develop your own talent, you can buy talent developed elsewhere, or you can do without. In San Francisco they are trying to see how far they can go on doing without. Apparently the Met is trying it, too. Eventually, though, the difference between the San Francisco Opera and the Berkeley Opera starts to fade.

Traditionally the great stars were lured west not merely by money, but by offering them something they couldn’t resist. Adler would find out what a singer was dying to sing, couldn’t get anyone to let them sing, and would offer it to them on a silver platter, new production and all. Now the productions all come from somewhere else. Or they are done for their own sake, something I just don’t get. No one repeat no one goes to the opera to see the productions. A food fight in Hansel and Gretel, maybe. Nudity, perhaps. But even these extreme events are no substitute for great singing. Singing is opera. Opera is singing.

American opera has been living off of the European talent factory for its entire history. Maybe it’s time we started doing a little development of our own.

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