24 September 2011

Let There Be Opera!

Nico Muhly

“Friends and family” (as the composer described us in a pre-curtain speech) got a preview of Nico Muhly’s new opera, Dark Sisters, in New York last night, and I’m delighted. It’s not my business to critique the performance or the score — and I wouldn’t have done so even had Muhly not pleaded with us “snarky bloggers” to restrain ourselves. What strikes me as most urgent, at the moment, is the need to celebrate the evening’s event.

Any way you look at it, it’s exciting. An entirely new opera is being performed. A gifted young composer gets to test-run his new work before a savvy, benevolent audience.* A young company, Gotham Chamber Opera, celebrates its tenth anniversary by commissioning a new score (in partnership with Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Music-Theatre Group). A terrific cast of singers gets the opportunity to perform. And yet again, art is created.

Artwork designed to promote the Gotham Chamber Opera world premiere of Dark Sisters

Indeed, the fact that this was a preview — and not an opening night — was something to celebrate. So often, world premieres are baptisms by fire. The composer and librettist don’t get the opportunity that they’d get in any other kind of theater to test their work before audiences prior to the Judgment Day that is opening night.

The stakes for new opera are so incredibly high, not least because so few are produced. We don’t live in 19th-century Italy, when composers could learn the craft, study audiences’ tastes, and benefit from trial and error — then move on to the next project. You might write a dozen operas before you had a single hit, you might never have a hit, but you’d keep plugging away, recycling material that worked and discarding anything that didn’t. (Or anyway, that was the ideal.)

Nowadays, everything rides on opening night. The critics (and the snarky bloggers) are out in force. You’re seeing the piece for the first time, too. Maybe you’d like to change something — but it’s too late now, and who knows whether you’ll ever have the opportunity?

This is not a review, just a statement of fact: Soprano Caitlin Lynch was superlative last night in the central role of Eliza.
The other singers are wonderful, too: Eve Gigliotti, Jennifer Check, Margaret Lattimore, Jennifer Zetlan, Kristina Bachrach, and the reliably redoubtable Kevin Burdette.

Nico Muhly, who is younger than some socks I own, isn’t Giuseppe Verdi — or Kurt Weill. He doesn’t have the luxury of apprenticeship or a season in the minor leagues: he’s already a star. But that doesn’t mean that his opera must spring from his brow fully formed and ready to face the world. Neal Goren and his partners have given Dark Sisters time to mature in an environment that is (I presume) nurturing and safe.

Even if Muhly’s score was note-perfect from the start, it didn’t have to be. He was given the possibility to tinker with it, to refine it, to bring it ever closer to what pleased him and closer to what will please the audience. That’s good for Muhly, and it’s good for the people who’ll hear the premiere in November, as well as subsequent performances in Philadelphia, and — with luck — far beyond, for years to come.

The creative team: Muhly, stage director Rebecca Taichman, librettist Stephen Karam, and Neal Goren (in his conductor’s hat).

It’s good for opera overall, too. The art form can’t truly thrive unless it continues to grow. That means developing new material, both in interpretation of older works and in the creation of new works. We need new blood.

Watching Neal Goren conduct last night, knowing how much the project means to him and to Gotham (the company he founded), and sitting next to Darren Keith Woods of Fort Worth Opera (who’s produced a few world premieres himself), I began to entertain the mental image of the impresario as Creator, with a capital C.

For he looks out upon the void and says, “Let there be opera!” And there is opera. And I see it, and it is good.

(I’m sorry if that sounds snarky, Nico, but I just gotta say what I feel.)

Dark Sisters
Gotham Chamber Opera,
at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, New York.

November 11, 12, 15, 17, 19
Online ticketing via Ticket Central
Phone: 212-279-4200

Opera Philadelphia
at the Perelman Theater

June 8, 10 (matinée), 13.
Kimmel Center Box Office open daily, 10am – 6pm.
Phone: 215-893-1999

*NOTE: That audience included the actor Alan Rickman. A movie star! In person! How exciting! For a while, we felt like the coolest kids in school — and that doesn’t often happen to opera fans.

“By Grabthar’s hammer... by the Sons of Warvan... you shall be... avenged.”

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