Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

More complaining

September 04, 2007

I keep wanting to give David Gockley a chance. I don’t know why—other than out of a sense of fairness. Ever since he took over the reins of San Francisco Opera, however, each savvy move he makes is accompanied by a dose of populist anti-intellectual drivel. At best this seems designed to pander to the basest elements of the audience there and at worst he may actually mean it. I’ve expressed these reservations before, but they seem to keep rearing their ugly head.

Take for instance the horrid Season Preview CD the company has mailed out again this year. After about ten minutes of this marketing garbage, I wonder why anyone with half an interest in opera would bother attending at all. He jumps right into the muck early this year by doing some compare/contrast work with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
San Francisco Opera is clearly back in second place to the Metropolitan Opera budget-wise and we are on track to reclaim second place in terms of production quality and creativity. Night for night, I would like it to be said that we compete evenly with the Met, especially in terms of musical and vocal values and theatricality. We, however, will never have their huge production budget, stage size, or technical capabilities. Like Avis, we will always have to "try harder."

So apparently the productions will have the benefit of being both sparse and expensive. If the artistic quality of the Metropolitan Opera of the last decade is the goal of the company, San Francisco Opera is in more trouble than I imagined.

Later on we have his discussion of the company’s new production of Tannhäuser starring Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer. To wit:
It will also be my first new production as General Director, so how it is conceived and performed will show how I think about opera and what aspects about it I think are most important. … When I spoke to the brilliant and sometimes controversial British stage director Graham Vick, I told him that I wanted a production that was psychologically probing, but looked elegant and would be set "in period" with gorgeous Medieval costumes. "No, fedoras?" he asked. And I shook my head.

Thus with the bogeyman of the avant-garde European stage director firmly banished, the good citizens of San Francisco can now rest easy. What is the point of hiring a "sometimes controversial" director only to turn around and ask him or her specifically not to do that very thing. As much as everyone complains about the influence of a Hollywood mentality in opera elsewhere, it appears to have taken a firm hold in San Francisco. We in LA immediately recognize this flim-flam: give me something "fresh", just make it look like everything I'm already familiar with.

So apparently not only will the productions be expensive without appearing so, they will have the added benefit of being both pedestrian and uninspired. Gockley’s vision of the future is apparently rooted somewhere around 50 years ago. And I don’t know about you, but I think it’s going to take a little more than “elegance” to fill those seats. How about some heat and dazzle? Gockley has lined up some big stars this year, though. Good thing. It looks like he’ll need them since if you believe all his talk, there’ll be little else to look at.


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