ON THE STATE OF OPERA

A lot of ink has recently been spilled about the demise of opera. Audiences are supposed to be drifting away; the number of subscribers is dwindling; people generally are not interested in our art form; all is gloomy, and opera has been described as being pushed off a precipice by public disdain and disinterest.

Based on my experience as a General Director of a major opera company for thirty-one years and in the business of opera one way or another since 1965, I disagree. I have often said that the tradition of opera lovers looking backwards to seemingly rosier times caused our ancestors at the first performance of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, in 1642, to tell their friends that if they thought this was good, they should have been at Orfeo some thirty-five years before. They also probably complained about so many older people in the audience, reasoning that the new art form was headed for the dustbin. It certainly wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.

The United States (and most of the world) has been through a terrible Recession. Most opera companies had to cut back on what we intended to do; if we didn’t and still kept producing at the same level, we would now be in financial trouble. At Seattle Opera I told the audience that we would reduce the physical productions but never skimp on the singers or music.

Did we lose subscribers? Yes. Did we lose single-ticket buyers? Yes. But have these lost, vital members of our audience begun to return? Absolutely. We have worked hard to encourage them both by keeping up artistic standards and by intriguing them with new ideas. They have responded in every way. We have fewer subscribers now than we had in 2008, but this year our subscription renewal rate was the highest since 1998. When bad economic times hit–and I have seen quite a few blips since 1983–I would say that considering the severity of this crisis, we have found the audience coming back at a surprising rate both as subscribers and as donors.

The age of the audience is, as I suggested, a shibboleth that has been around forever, and it is very explainable. When men and women get married and have children, they don’t have the time or the money to buy opera tickets. When they are older, they can more easily afford to come to the most expensive artistic entertainment that exists. If we look back at the early 80s, the audience at Seattle Opera was older on average than it is now. This improvement has come from a vigorous educational program. Schools rarely expose their students either to orchestral or vocal classical music, and it is up to us to do the job. Our education department is twenty-five times more effective than it was when I came. At Seattle Opera in fiscal 2014 we had over 500 education events to all ages, from Kindergarten through retirement communities, all of which encouraged people to discover and explore more about opera.

Marketing uses every possible avenue to attract audiences. Though newspaper advertising is still important, our company uses social media extensively. It isn’t my area of expertise, but we have very aware men and women to keep us up-to-date on Twitter, Facebook and whatever new kind of social media is popular.

Seattle Opera’s board is very active in overseeing our financial condition; the finance committee meets frequently, and we have to present budgets that are balanced and that work. No one on our board has ever tried to get into artistic decision making; they leave that to those of us who are hired to do it. But they require us to be financially realistic.

I believe that one of the ways to keep an opera company in good shape is to keep the public informed of the opera’s financial situation. In the darkest days of the Recession, I made a series of talks in public and on our website explaining what we were doing and why. I have no idea if they helped, but at least we took those interested in Seattle Opera into our confidence. When we then asked them for help, they knew what we were doing to keep alive.

In an earlier blog I pointed out that if since 2008 Dr. David DiChiera has kept a large opera company alive in Detroit, possibly the most depressed large city in the United States, any opera company should be able to do it. I still think that, and I know I live in a city that while it suffered in the recession has a lot of youth and vigor in its business and in such corporations as Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, and of course Boeing. Although the amount that each of these corporations contribute directly to Seattle Opera varies greatly, they employ lots of people who both attend and contribute. Still, we have had to work hard to keep and bring in new donors and have tried consistently to turn out a product that people really want to experience. We have, I think, stuck to our core beliefs, the most important of which is quality, and we have kept producing a variety of opera so that our subscribers would never get bored.

We still have financial problems and live very much on the edge; we are after all an opera company. I’m writing this at the beginning of fiscal 2015. Like all non-profits we start every fiscal year at zero. But I know that everyone who works for Seattle Opera, both our union and non-union employees want the Opera to continue and succeed. I further believe that as long as there are people who love the sound of the human voice, unamplified, and are excited by emotional music and live theater, opera will continue to be performed. We are the most expensive art form in the world, but we have the most devoted audience. To say that we are doomed is to forget or ignore how intensely our audiences love opera and how new audiences, if given the access, are moved by what we do. That love based on what Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and all the others have given us, plus a lot of hard work on our part, gives us an exciting future.

In Memoriam: Julius Rudel

I first heard Julius Rudel conduct on two consecutive nights in the fall of 1957, my first year as a graduate student in New York:  Turandot with Frances Yeend and Susannah with Phyllis Curtin and Norman Treigle. I had never heard either opera, and his dynamic leadership as the conductor made a huge impression on me. He had joined the New York City Opera in 1943 even before the company started performing. He worked as an accompanist and played a spinet piano in a room at the New York City Center, as he told it, with one electric light hanging over his head and assumed the leadership of the company shortly before my first City Opera  performances.

Years later after schooling and the army I came back to New York and vividly remember his opening the spring season of the City Opera in 1967, the second year in the State Theater, with Placido Domingo singing the title role of Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo. He bowled me over with the amazing sense of drama in his conducting and his ability to make even thorny music exciting and fascinating. Rudel also never failed to balance an orchestra so that words and singers’ voices could be easily understood and appreciated.

The next few years were the last years of Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan Opera. Not to discount his remarkable tenure or the fact that the most famous international opera stars were singing at the Met, I remember the City Opera in the late 60s and early 70s as presenting the most exciting opera in New York. The combination of Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle, both in their prime, conducted by Maestro Rudel, brought to so many performances a total experience. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq d’Or with the two of them made this fanciful opera an immediate hit.  I remember them also in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, Gounod’s Faust, and Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Rudel conducted many performances of Massenet’s Manon with Sills, still the best performances of the opera I have ever attended, and Treigle’s greatest triumph, Boito’s Mefistofele. The production of that opera by Tito Capobianco as well as the orchestral and choral sound he drew from his forces live in my visual and aural memory as vividly as in 1969.

What Rudel did at the City Opera in those years created a real company, singers who worked extraordinarily well together and enjoyed each other, played to each other’s strengths, and consistently gave the audiences evenings of intense theater. I recall the night in the fall of 1970 when Sills had one of her greatest personal triumphs, Queen Elizabeth in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. At the conclusion Treigle, every bit as big a star as Sills, was sitting right in front of me, and at the conclusion he leapt to his feet literally jumping up and down, cheering for the cast and for Rudel. The sense of community in that company at that time made great performances frequently happen.

As time went on, Treigle retired, Sills went on to the Metropolitan, and the thrill of those six or seven years faded, but those of us who experienced it will never forget it. Maestro Rudel retired in 1979, turning the company over to Beverly Sills. He and the New York City Opera were synonymous, and its greatest years were with him at the helm.

He went on to conduct frequently at the Metropolitan Opera and many other companies in the United States and in Europe, always bringing his perception of the music and consideration for the singer to everything he conducted. I knew him first when I was an editor at Opera News, then as a critic for the New York Post. He had a marvelous way about him of answering questions with great sincerity and saying exactly what he wanted to say on the subject in question whether it was responsive to your question or not. His very Viennese nature did not change because he lived in New York, and he taught me much about the fascinating ways of his birth city.

I have no idea what he thought about my being appointed General Director of Seattle Opera, but I do remember one bit of advice he gave me. There was a new production of Faust by Frank Corsaro in 1969 with Sills and Treigle. It was generally applauded with one exception. On the first night Sills as Marguerite walked up a flight of stairs on stage right. At the top was a grim executioner with an ax. The curtain fell as she reached him. At the time it seemed incongruous, with the chorus singing of the Resurrection of Christ and the very religious and effective music that ends the opera, and many commented on it negatively. When Julius congratulated me for my appointment to Seattle, he said, “I have only one thing to tell you. If you don’t like something onstage during rehearsals, don’t ever let it get even to a dress rehearsal and certainly not to a first performance. If it gets to the premiere, you will never be allowed to forget it.” And then he mentioned the Faust. He said, “I hated the executioner, and he never appeared after the premiere, but no one ever spoke or wrote about that Faust without mentioning the executioner.” I have lived by that advice.

Julius Rudel loved opera, produced it with joy, conducted with keen understanding of the composer’s wishes and the inherent drama in the music and knew how to get the best out of musicians and from those who worked for him. His opera knowledge, musicianship, and general intelligence, made him the very essence of an esteemed musician. I treasure my memories of him.

Ben Heppner

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Photo: Gary Smith

The announcement of Ben Heppner’s retirement took me back more than twenty-five years to June of 1988 when a tenor I had never heard auditioned for me. We were planning a new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg, and he, described as an heroic tenor, had just been named a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera’s National Auditions. When I heard his “Am stillen Herd”—even in a somewhat cramped audition space, I knew I was listening to vocal gold.
Ben sang in five different productions at Seattle Opera between the 1989 Meistersinger and the world-famous Tristan und Isolde in 1988, and all of them were unforgettable. When he first sang here, I thought he was a heldentenor; I now believe that he was really a very big lyric in the same way that Leontyne Price called herself not a spinto soprano but a big lyric. He began his career with Mozart and Bach which gave him great flexibility of voice and helped him develop a strong technique. His Walther von Stolzing, although costumed as unfortunately as any singer we have ever presented (period white satin tunic and tights did not suit his frame), was magical. Never tiring, completely prepared in one of the wordiest and most difficult texts in opera, he sang with an easy lyricism that could make angels weep.
He came back in the fall of 1990 in what turned out to be one of Seattle Opera’s most famous events: a new production by Guenther Schneider-Siemssen of Dvorak’s Rusalka, which was the first major appearance for Renee Fleming in opera with Susan Graham as the Kitchen Boy. Ms. Fleming’s Rusalka, so lyrical and expressive, was enhanced by Heppner’s remarkable Prince. The sheen of his gleaming tenor, the ease of all the high notes, including the very exposed high C in the final scene, made the audience deliriously happy.
In 1994 he sang his first American Lohengrin in a new production by Stephen Wadsworth. I have attended Lohengrins since 1947, and never can I remember the title role sung better: silvery when necessary, heroic at the big moments, romantic when he sang specifically to Elsa, he was a magical knight of the Grail. The set by Thomas Lynch was one of our most beautiful with an animatronic swan that nestled close to Ben as it floated on a river between fields of tulips when he sang to it twice with silver tone.
He came next for his first Andrea Chenier in 1996 and proved both that he could sing Italian music wonderfully and that he was very smart. Paired with the extraordinary verismo artist, Diana Soviero, he paid attention to everything she did and learned a lot. In those performances his Chenier had power, authenticity, and great beauty. Each of Chenier’s four arias came easily to him, and he shaped them all with the kind of expertise that would serve him in good stead as he added more Italian roles to his repertory.
Next came the big one. I believed that he and Jane Eaglen should do Tristan und Isolde, and that it should be in Seattle. Jane couldn’t wait to sing Isolde; Ben thought a lot about Tristan, studied it, and decided it was time. I asked Francesca Zambello to direct the new production; she chose Allison Chitty as set designer. In my 31 years as General Director of this company, this Tristan has a distinction all its own. Word that both would do their first performances of the opera here went around the world, and we opened single-ticket sales on a day early in December 1987 for the next summer’s performances. The demand was so great–and this may be hard to believe but I swear it is true–that the phone lines to our company were completely blocked for hours. In other words there were so many calls coming in that no one in the office could call out and no calls could come in. We did ten sold-out performances that summer; Jane sang all of them, Ben sang the first eight. He went on to sing many Tristans after, but these were special. With the guiding hand in the pit of the late Armin Jordan, he could be lyrical when needed and dramatic when it was necessary. Each was a moving, shattering performance; I can still hear the duets of Jane and Ben, and the marvelous work of Ben with Greer Grimsley as Kurvenal in the third act. As General Director, I have neither before nor since received from so many audience members so much sheer gratitude. The two sang the opera many times thereafter, but this engagement had a magic that will never be forgotten by any of us who were here.
Ben worked on in many different theaters in Europe and America but never, I’m sorry to say, returned to Seattle. I had the pleasure, however, of flying up to Calgary Alberta a few years ago for his Ahab in Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick. The role is a very, very tough one, and the opera is to me Heggie’s greatest to date. He composed it for Ben, and on the night I heard him sing, he was marvelous. Even without the silken bloom of his earlier performances, Ben truly became Ahab–older, really crazy–conveying vocally the kind of desperate intensity that expressed the old sea captain’s hysterical search for the white whale.
Now Ben Heppner has announced his retirement. His wife, Karen, always at his side at every performance, and his children will get to enjoy him, but those of us who heard him sing in his prime will count ourselves always lucky. He was larger-than-life, always prepared, completely professional and possessed of one of the most unforgettably ravishing voices of our time.

BIRGIT NILSSON

I am honored to be a member of the artistic panel making the selection for the Birgit Nilsson Prize for 2014. Ms. Nilsson set aside a great amount of money to make this largest single award in classical music significant and designated that it be given to an active artist or organization that was fulfilling the kind of dedication to the highest standards of opera and/or concert to which she had given her life. We have given three awards: she selected Placido Domingo for the first; the panel selected Riccardo Muti for the second, and this most recent award goes to the Vienna Philharmonic.

I first heard the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson in August of 1959. It was my first trip to the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, and when she sang her first words as Isolde, I sat up straight. I knew I had never heard a voice like this. The whole act, with Wolfgang Windgassen as Tristan and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting, filled me with nothing short of wonder. I knew that the Wagner sun, dimmed somewhat, at least in New York (where I lived at that time), was rising. When the act was over, I walked out of the Fespielhaus and on what is called the Green Hill without speaking to anyone. I was totally mesmerized.

That December 18 th Ms. Nilsson made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Isolde. It was a rainy Saturday night, but it was sunny inside the Met. With Karl Boehm conducting, she delivered a performance that properly made the front page of the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. From then on until October of 1981 when she sang her last Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ms. Nilsson delivered 222 performances of 22 roles, all extraordinarily musical, exciting, and to me rewarding. Except for my time in the U.S. Army when I missed her Lady Macbeth, I enjoyed every one of the roles many times over. Her capacity to take on different characters with the right tone for each, her constant working to improve herself, her dedication to what she perceived as the composer’s markings, and the basic thrill of hearing her sing never wavered.

The stories of her humor are legendary and all true. She never seemed to take herself seriously except when she was working, loved to laugh and have a good time. She respected her audiences and never, ever coasted on her fame. One example of her humor among many came after I became General Director of Seattle Opera. I asked her to come out to attend our Ring. She wrote me that she couldn’t come at that time, using Vienna State Opera stationary. As a P.S. she pointed out that she had taken a job working as cleaning lady at the Opera and had stolen the stationary she was using. That was Birgit.

After almost a half-century as a professional in opera—both as a critic and a producer—one experience with her I can honestly say is unique. In 1961 when she brought Puccini’s Turandot back to the Metropolitan after an absence of thirty years, Rudolf Bing, the Met’s General Manager, wisely scheduled nine performances of the work with her as the Chinese princess. One night I treated myself to an orchestra seat. In Act II near the conclusion of the riddle scene Turandot sings two high C’s over the full chorus and a powerful orchestra. When she hit those two C’s, I literally felt the sound waves hitting my chest. No voice has ever done that since.

I am honored to be a member of the artistic panel making the selection for the Birgit Nilsson Prize. She set aside a great amount of money to make the award significant and determined that it be given to an active artist or organization that was fulfilling the kind of dedication to the highest standards of opera and/or concert to which she had given her life. Rutbert Reisch, the distinguished President of the Foundation and one of Ms. Nilsson’s closest friends, keeps alive her legacy by his careful control of the funds. It is the artistic panel’s job to make sure that the funds go where she would want them to go. It is a great privilege.

MONEY TALKS

Talk to almost any European in the opera business, and he or she will make some comment about the wicked control American donors have over the productions for which they give the funds. They usually bemoan the fact that art is sacrificed to the conservative will. No matter how many times I say that no donor to Seattle Opera has ever even suggested that he or she have anything to do with the look, time of the production, or the cast, they don’t believe me. I do think that I have been very lucky in this respect; I know that this does happen. I also know of cases where some of my colleagues have turned down possible productions because donors had attached visual, dramatic or artist strings.

The most prominent case in America of a donor’s requirements governing art came about from the extraordinary generosity of Mrs. Sybil Harrington to the Metropolitan Opera. Mrs. Harrington loved the work of Franco Zeffirelli and his hyperrealism. She spent a lot of money making that happen. A lot of critics deplored what she did, and there were examples toward the end of Zeffirelli’s work at the Met—the Tosca, La Traviata, and Carmen—when in my opinion the opulence went far over the top. In all the criticism of those productions the great ones never get mentioned—the 1963 Falstaff, the current production of La bohème, the Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, and as for the truly extravagant Turandot, I think the gaudy spectacle is exactly right for this “circusy” opera.

Still, art should not be dictated by donors, and certainly in Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan the move of the company into very contemporary and, for America, radical productions that must fulfill their creators wishes has proceeded inexorably forward. If the current donors to the Met want opera as it once was, they certainly are not getting it.

All that came to my mind on the occasion of the Supreme Court’s decision on April 2, enlarging upon the Citizens United opinion of a few years ago. After this decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a donor can give as much as he or she wants to influence an election with limits only to the amount to any one candidate or to one political party. The importance to our democracy is far more significant in this decision than anything any donor could ever do to or for an opera company, but the same rule applies. If the Court is letting one person’s political opinions have such a potential effect on the ballot box, the United States envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and company, not to mention Franklin Roosevelt, has changed dramatically for the worse. I don’t think this has anything to do with party; if anyone is given this power in either national politics or opera, the problem is great. In other words if the excesses of the later Zeffirelli era at the Met made opera there seem senescent, or at least behind the times, the Court has now created the world of the late nineteenth century where monopolies thrived and tycoons controlled political decisions. Where is the Theodore Roosevelt to battle this new Gilded Age?

The Cost of Opera

In 1763, just when Christoph Willibald Glueck was in the process of reforming opera and creating the art form as we know it today, Samuel Johnson described opera as “an exotic and irrational entertainment.” Its irrationality comes from its inability to pay its way and its consequent need to be supported–first by the nobility, then by the Gilded society of a century ago, and today by a multitude of donors who love it.

Why is it so expensive? Many believe that its expense comes from the fees of star singers or unrealistic union demands. As a general director of Seattle Opera for nearly 31 years, I don’t agree with either hypothesis. The reason opera is so expensive is basically because it is the most complex art form, involving many more people than any other. We are expected by our audiences to present extraordinary theatrical productions with superb singing, great acting, elaborate costumes, handsome sets, and the most modern and inventive lighting. Though the size of orchestras vary depending on the composer’s requirements, if a major opera company doesn’t supply enough strings to balance the brass, winds, and percussions, severe criticism not just from music critics but from its subscribers will ensue.

Its expense comes from what composers and librettists, working in a much less expensive time, demand. In the 1920s, for instance, the Metropolitan Opera is reputed to have made money. Star singers were paid well, but everyone else–the other singers, chorus, crew, and orchestra musicians, received very little. Any profit was achieved on the backs of the people who were making it happen. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Since the advent of musical and theatrical unions, wages are determined by collective bargaining; both sides have to agree on what is fair. And I can say that as far as Seattle Opera is concerned, the Opera and the unions have consistently worked well together. But because there are so many people involved, the cost of opera has skyrocketed. 76% of our cost comes from paying the artists and artisans who create the magic onstage.

There are other costs that were unknown to opera companies in the past, such as health care and theater rental. Most opera companies in Europe or America owned their own theaters. Now, many like Seattle Opera rent our theater when we use it. There is also another factor that has deteriorated since about 1980. In the roughly fifteen years prior to that governmental support of opera companies, while not comparable to the kind of subsidy enjoyed by many European companies, was much more generous that it is today. We are fortunate in Seattle to receive funds from our city, county, and state. But these, added to the what the National Endowment for the Arts grants, now constitutes about between 3% and 5% of our budget.

Prices for all that goes into a production have risen. Although this is not a huge part of our budget everything from steel and lumber in building sets and material for costumes costs vastly more today than even in 2000. The ingredients of a new production now costs more than double what it cost then. Our ticket prices since then have increased on average 3.5 % annually. This is not atypical for most U.S. opera companies. At Seattle Opera we used to bring in 45% of our budget from ticket prices, and 50% from fund raising. The other five percent would come from rentals, interest income and the like. Unfortunately one important source of contributions when I became General Director of Seattle Opera in 1983 no longer plays as large a role: corporations. The result is that the overwhelming source of our funds are individuals and foundations. And the formula is now different. We are lucky if we can bring in 42% of our funds in ticket sales, and the extra 5% has always been variable. The rest must come from individuals.

By increasing our ticket prices, we can keep up with inflation, but the audience will bear only so much. The other possibility is a non-starter: cutting costs to the detriment of the product. If what one puts on the stage is not what the public expects, they will not come, and all is lost. It’s very popular to write about the declining opera audience and that those who come are older. I think this probably was said by those who came in 1643 to the premiere of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppaea. They no doubt thought that the audiences were more with it in 1607 when his Orfeo was premiered. Opera audiences always look backward; nothing is ever as great or as good as it was thirty or forty years ago.

At Seattle Opera I can testify that our audiences are marginally younger than they were a decade ago, and our Education division is infinitely more involved and active than it has ever been, working constantly to bring a love of opera to the young and mature alike. Our Development department works around the clock to find new donors and to encourage the donors we have to give more. Fund raising has become a much more important part of the opera than it was even fifteen years ago. Everyone is working for fiscal health and continued high quality in performance, which is why we exist. So what does one do? It’s a delicate balance. Keep the art exciting, attract younger subscribers, and discover new donors. Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner demand as much.

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San Diego

The news that San Diego Opera is closing its doors has come as a horrible shock to everyone in opera. The New York City Opera’s demise was predicted for so many months that although it was sad when it happened, it was not exactly a surprise. The news from Southern California came as a bolt out of the blue even to those most knowledgable in opera.

First of all there is enormous sympathy and empathy for the huge number of employees suddenly out of work. San Diego Opera for years has had an active shop where a lot of productions for other opera companies, as well as their own, have been built. Add those artisans to the normal complement of a large company’s staff and one has a huge number of people who thought they were working for a stable company suddenly out of a job. When Opera Pacific, which was located a few miles north of Long Beach, in Orange County collapsed, again it had been long predicted. Another failure in the same geographic area is astonishing.

I know nothing about the real causes of the collapse; reasons given are not unique to any of us in opera today. Since the Recession began, we have all dropped subscribers, belts have had to be tightened, and a lot of operas that we wanted to present have been cancelled. At Seattle Opera I have had to withdraw ten operas that I wanted very much to present because they were simply too expensive. At Seattle Opera we all took either freezes or reduction in pay and our unions were more than generous. But we are coming out of the worst times now and can look ahead to what we believe will be much more normal sales and donations.

I make no judgment on what happened in San Diego; it causes me, however, to speak positively about one particular company that I think works in a far more difficult environment than any I can imagine: the Michigan Opera. With the whole city of Detroit in terrible financial trouble, with a local economy that is one of the most awful in the United States, General Director David DiChiera has somehow, some way kept functioning and has presented five performances of each of four operas in each of the last five difficult seasons. I cannot imagine from my position in a city that was hard hit but has been basically resilient how hard that has been. I know that several times he has been facing bankruptcy without the infusion of sudden cash. He has always pulled the magician’s trick of bringing in the money and has recently handed a great portion of the company to the talented and well respected Wayne Brown, who for some years has been the Music and Opera Director at the NEA.

With the sadness of what has happened in New York and San Diego, plus several smaller companies, everyone who loves opera can look to what has happened in Detroit as proof of the strength and viability of opera in America. Ever since 1600 opera has been totally impractical. we have far too many elements, too many expenses, too many people working, and we cannot exist on our ticket sales. We really do depend of the kindness of strangers. Yet we keep going and thriving because we give something important to our audiences that causes them to keep us alive. They are our strength, and it is our job always never to disappoint them and to be grateful for their largesse.

Education

I went to San Francisco last Thursday, March 14, for Grandparents’ Day at my three grand daughters’ school, Hamlin. They are in the first, second, and sixth grade, and I was able to see a lot of their work and talk to their teachers. All the grandparents or special friends were treated to a talk by the head of the school, a very well-spoken woman originally from New York and a graduate of Chapin. Afterwards I went to each of the girls’ classrooms and saw their work.

It’s very strange how textbooks seem not to exist; everything is on computers, but there was a lot of work that they had done to see–writing, drawing, and even object building. The school had created a rain forest with every student making animals or insects that could be found there. It was in the basement and had many different butterflies, mushrooms, bushes and other flora or fauna to be found there.

What struck me was the emphasis in all the classes on studies of Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Europe did not seem to exist. Being very Eurocentric myself, I found this peculiar, although it is appropriate in many ways. Americans for much too long have never paid attention to any foreign countries except those in Europe. The new generation will be very different. I still hope that the classics of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia will play a vital part in the curriculum. I find it very upsetting when college graduates never seem to have heard of Anna Karenina, Becky Sharp, or Emma Bovary, and the only way they know that Jean Valjean exists is through the musical Les Miserables. I also cannot help but note the number of college graduates who in writing seem to need lessons in basic grammar.

We also had an experience from another era. My daughter took her daughters, her husband and me for lunch to a club on Union Square that must not have changed since the early 1900s. Looking out at the square and being served wonderful food in a very traditional way reminded me both of some clubs in New York and one or two in Dallas in my youth. Men are allowed in the club only for lunch, and certain areas like the library can only be seen by women members. Present was a kind of understated elegance so different from the conspicuous consumption on display at the poshest clubs and restaurants of New York, San Francisco, or Seattle. It allows my granddaughters to experience a kind of America that can very rarely be found anywhere today.

It was a good trip. Grandparents’ Day is something every grandparent should make time to experience.

Gerard Mortier

The death of Gerard Mortier was reported in Monday’s New York Times. In 1990 I came to Brussels to see a production of The Damnation of Faust. It turned out not to be in Brussels but to be a concert performance in Antwerp (I have no idea how I received the wrong information). At that time M. Mortier was the Intendant at the Monnaie, the major opera company in Brussels. He invited me to ride in his car to Antwerp. The trip turned out to be my only contact with him.

At the time he was very much in preparation to become Director of the Salzburg Festival, and the whole way to Antwerp he talked almost without stopping about his plans. He spoke about his dislike of the conservatism of the festival and how he was going to revolutionize it. When I could get in a word, I asked him what about the audience, which has always had many members of the former European nobility and many wealthy people who came to the Festival as a place to be seen. They were traditioinally very conservative in their tastes and  seemed to me more interested in the social aspects of the festival than its music.

He said that he intended to change the whole tenor of Salzburg. Those who came would learn that it was going to be different, and if they didn’t like it and didn’t come back, so what? He assumed that the Austrian government funding would remain constant whatever he did, and he seemed to relish taking on the audience and making opera a radical, theatrical experience. Only seven years into my own directorship in Seattle I was kind of astonished at his eagerness to provoke controversy.

At that time I had provoked a lot of controversy unwillingly at Seattle Opera when we gave the premiere of the Francois Rochaix-Robert Israel Ring in 1986.  I believed in the production and had been shocked when it drew so much negative reaction and some 150 really violent negative letters. Though there had been just as many positive ones, I still wanted everyone to like it. That Mr. Mortier didn’t care what the public thought surprised me; I have since experienced many times this point of view from different continental impressarios.

This pleasure in what the French call “to epater le bourgeoisie” or to produce art defiantly so as to provoke the audience has never appealed to me. I have done it almost always unintentionally.  If I have annoyed a large portion of the audience, I have carefully answered their protests and hoped that I could convince them that there was a reason for what we did. A polite letter responding to a vindictive or at least violent one usually has calmed rage.

I will always remember M. Mortier who not only challenged his audiences for his whole professional career but enjoyed doing it. His career was impressive, culminating in his most recent Brokeback Mountain in Madrid. He was a man to be respected even if I disagree with his point of view.