Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

A Tale of Two Cities

September 20, 2006

Looking back on last weekend in San Francisco, it was sometimes hard to believe that I was in the same city from one moment to the next, at least judging by the local arts events and their audiences. Of course it’s unfair to think of San Francisco or any place as a unified community, but events there certainly invited the vision of San Francisco as two different cities when it comes to the world of the arts.

On the one hand there was the marvelous SFMOMA exhibit Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint. This very unusual, experimental and challenging show was well reviewed, drew significant crowds (at least on the day we were there), and generally seemed to excite a lot of the people who saw it. This was an arts community interested in the future of art and having new experiences.

On the other hand there was the very lackluster Un Ballo in Maschera at San Francisco Opera. Oddly enough, the forward-thinking San Francisco crowds were nowhere to be found in this part of town. The contrast was especially heightened during a post-matinee public comment session the new general director, David Gockley, invited all audience members to attend. I went, but wish I hadn’t. The time he didn't spend fielding complaints about restrooms, supertitles, fragrance, and the catering was spent reassuring older patrons that nothing new or exciting will be happening at San Francisco Opera any time soon.

Of course the writing has been on the wall for a while – Gockley sniping about Runnicles in Opera News last month and now the announcement that Runnicles is on the way out are just the latest harbingers. Many in the Q&A audience expressed concern that they would be exposed to more “Eurotrash” productions and longed for “Handel done right.” The most depressing thing about this is not that some people seem content to see the same old thing over and over endlessly, but that Gockley seems intent on pandering to them. He pointed out that he also shares their concerns and leans towards more traditional period productions which set off a small round of applause.

(Of course who knows what “traditional” or "period" means anyway. A 21st century representation of Handel’s Roman characters would look very different from, say, a 18th century version: neither of which comes close to resembling an actual Roman. It seems that some people are only happy if everything looks as they would imagine it from watching television.)

Gockley then spoke about the cliché notion that opera’s audience is dying out. He reminded us that if opera is going to be around in 20 to 25 years, it will have to attract new audience members. However, it is ironic to think that catering to the provincial tastes of audience members who (as they themselves point out) have attended the San Francisco Opera since the 1960s and 70s will accomplish this.

As a person in the my mid-30s who is likely to be one of those desperately-sought future audience members, I can state that some of the most rewarding productions I have seen in the last five years came out of Pamela Rosenberg’s supposidly avant-garde tenure at San Francisco, including Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in 2004, Adams’ Doctor Atomic in 2005, Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in 2004 and Handel’s Rodelinda in 2005. Even when the productions failed, like Busoni's Doktor Faust in 2004, they were fascinating missteps. I, for one, don’t believe that drawing new opera goers will be done by producing the same old tired worn out period productions of the same old tired worn-out operas for the next 50 years. I have seen good and bad “traditional” opera productions and good and bad Regietheater productions. I think that both of these are completely legitimate approaches and the idea of needing to sacrifice one for the sake of the other makes the opera world much poorer on the whole.

Of course, Gockley may be responding to one of the golden rules of capitalism – it’s not about selling people what they want or need, it’s about making people want or need whatever it is you have to sell.

I guess the image I'll be left with are of the middle school students at the Matthew Barney exhibit who seemed excited, amazed, perplexed, and sometimes revolted by what they saw; children who were strangely absent in any form from the Ballo performance.

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