Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Culture War at Home

November 25, 2009

Act II of Turandot
Photo: Met Opera 2009

I failed to mention that while I was in New York last weekend I did see the revival of Zeffirelli’s Turandot production starring Maria Guleghina and Franck Porretta. I wasn’t going to say much about it, but since I’m sparing the other audience members at tonight’s Berlin Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles from having to listen to my cough, I thought I might mention a few things. As for the show itself, what can you say at this point? It’s beyond camp. And the funniest bits are in the small gestures like Guleghina’s karate chop “Off with his head” maneuver. But my personal favorite is in Act III when Ping threatens to give Liu a big fat knuckle sandwich in order to get her to reveal Calaf’s name. Nothing forbears impending grizzly torture like a sternly shaken fist. Guleghina still seems a better idea of a vocalist than an actual one to my ear. Porretta seemed to be laying back vocally throughout the whole evening until he suddenly went all commando on us in “Nessun Dorma”. You certainly couldn’t fault him for playing his chips when they mattered most. A little less ham in the acting department would have been helpful; though, as I mentioned, he hardly stood out considering how over-the-top giggle-inducing everything else was. The orchestra sounded great and I was rather fond of Andris Nelsons’ conducting overall.

But perhaps the most interesting part of that Saturday afternoon was not the matinee performance, but the 2 and a half hour backstage tour I got of the Met beforehand. I’m by no means an insider to the artistic operation of any company much less the Met, and I was excited to get a look around the business end of the big house. Our guide, a 20 plus year veteran of the company took us to many of the usual sights - star dressing rooms, costume department, set shop, etc. It was a whirlwind of activity this particular Saturday with the upcoming first dress rehearsal of the new Les Contes d’Hoffman production the following Monday as well as several other shows currently running or about to kick off. I wasn’t aware of just how far in advance the company works on projects still in the planning stage, and was surprised to see numerous set elements for the next season's production of Adams’ Nixon in China that were assembled and waiting for an upcoming technical rehearsal.

The tour really got interesting, though, when our guide ran into a 40 plus year company colleague of the technical stagehand variety. We got to walk out onto the legendary stage in front of the mammoth Turandot set that was being assembled at the time for a look at the house. There were questions from the small group about the general ins and outs of running such a large operation. Everyone was nice and very forthcoming as we discussed the aspects of putting Zeffirelli's Turandot together and taking it apart so many times in a single week. And then the topic turned as it always does to trouble and strife. Namely the stress created by the many changes implemented since general director Peter Gelb has come to town including ever so subtle pressure to move the company into the post-WWII era artistically. The stagehand and tour guide began to lament certain changes and before you know it the word "Eurotrash" starts to get thrown around. The complaints could be broken down into two categories. The first concerned the realistic changes faced by a workforce accustomed to a handful of new productions a year to one that now sees 7 or 8. With the company always working on something new and unfamiliar, so they noted, it becomes hard to catch one's breath. Less and less is familiar and everyday is about solving new and unexpected problems.

The second line of concern seemed to focus on (what else) messing with the tried and true. "You don't mess with the Ring. You don't mess with Bohème. You don't mess with Turandot" was the refrain amongst the guides and the denture wearers in the group. "That's what New York City Opera is for" quickly followed. However, the house staff seemed sure that all favorites would soon be on the chopping block, "if Gelb is still here in a few years." The tsk-tsking continued for several more minutes, but the tone was clear. It should come as no surprise that the changes which have been so difficult for some segments of the audience to accept have been just as difficult for some of the staff to accept as well. Which I can understand. Change is hard in any organization. But change, more often than not, is also a necessary fact of life.

Now I'm from the Midwest and come from a line of people who sincerely believe that it's uncouth to get in an argument with someone when you're a guest in their home. So at the time, I kept my mouth shut and nodded politely. However, as an audience member, and a donor, I continue to think that this particular opera company is on exactly the right track artistically and hopefully financially as well. There is nothing more boring than seeing opera as a museum piece. The Metropolitan Opera, like any arts or other organization, can't just keep doing the same things over and over and expect to remain relevant or financially viable. Playing to the lowest common denominator of audiences and donors is only going to get you so far in the long run. And while the thought of staff no longer having the opportunity to lovingly restore an ersatz Chinese pagoda may bring a tear to some eyes, it fills me with joy. The same day as this tour and performance of Turandot I also got to see From the House of the Dead. And there is no doubt in my mind which one I'd rather spend money on to see again. So, if in fact a war of sorts is on in America's biggest opera house—whether or not I'm supporting the winning side in the end—I think Peter Gelb is fighting the good fight.


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