23 October 2013

Baden-Baden in 1927, Gotham in 2013

Maeve Höglund and the great Helen Donath
show us the way to Baden-Baden.
Photo by Richard Termine©

Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest production, Baden-Baden 1927, opens tonight at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College: it reunites the four one-act operas that made history at the Baden-Baden Festival in — you guessed it — 1927. Only one of those works, Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel, has been heard much since then. The chance to hear it again among its sisters — in context — is an opportunity to appreciate one of those lightning-flash moments of creative energy, in which a generation is illuminated.

The quadruple bill at Baden-Baden represents the work of some of the greatest lions of twentieth-century music and theater, from a time when they were scrappy young kids in a terrible economy at a turbulent time. The old order had been smashed, and new technologies (radio!) and forms (jazz!) emerged in Europe, demanding that creative minds make deliberate decisions about the paths they would take forward.

And so it’s important to remember that, when Darius Milhaud composed L’Enlèvement d’Europe (The Rape of Europa), he wasn’t the grey eminence who attached himself like ivy to so many university campuses — that, when Bertolt Brecht wrote four of the six poems for the Mahagonny Songspiel, he wasn’t the hallowed institution of East Germany, or of any other state but that of his own mind — that, when Ernst Toch wrote Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse, there was still a chance that he’d wind up as famous as Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, the other composers on the bill.

No, they weren’t yet the Artistic Establishment. They were young people demanding attention, casting aside preconceptions, seeking new solutions because the old solutions — political, as well as artistic — had failed. They knew they had to find the answers within their own talents. In 1927, at the end of Mahagonny Songspiel, while the other cast members held up placards proclaiming various and contradictory politico-philosophical statements, Lenya held up a sign that said simply, “Für Weill.”

In the beginning: Brecht, Lenya, and Weill.

What strikes me is how exactly right the Baden-Baden bill is for Gotham Chamber Opera. The company taps into youthful energy most obviously in its imaginative, irreverent stagings and its casting, relying primarily on attractive young American singers. But over the years since the company’s founding, New York has crowded out its artists, who have moved farther and farther away from the center because (through the active and explicit policy of our billionaire mayor) housing is no longer affordable. The operatic institutions that might make a difference are facing their own challenges: Dicapo Opera is struggling, New York City Opera has filed for bankruptcy, and the Metropolitan, while embracing new technologies and paying more attention to theatrical values (and, on occasion, to more eclectic repertory), never has launched the hoped-for, dreamed-of Mini Met.

Gotham has stepped forward, in its small and (mostly) quiet way, to meet the needs of this city’s artistic community and its audiences. The company treats no score as a museum piece; it seeks new solutions, to reconsider the tried and to test the untried. It exults in the fun and the sexiness of music-theater that too often get lost on other stages. And significantly, Gotham consistently appeals to younger and older audiences, a feat that other companies can’t match.

I’ve long believed that among New York’s cultural entities, Gotham is best positioned to leap forward after the debacle of City Opera: there will be less competition for donors, and the company deserves to benefit and to grow. Yes, there are limits to what one can do within the chamber repertory. Gotham won’t and can’t replace NYCO — but already it has become very like what people mean when they talk about a Mini Met.

Since I started working at the Weill Foundation in 1984, I’ve waited for the opportunity to hear the Baden-Baden bill. And yet it’s not merely as a devoted disciple of Weill that I’m looking forward to the latest offering from Gotham Chamber Opera; it’s also as a New Yorker that I’m glad to hail a bright spot on our too-cloudy cultural landscape.

Gotham Chamber Opera, Baden-Baden 1927:
Mahagonny Songspiel, Weill
Hin und zurück, Hindemith
L’Enlèvement d’Europe, Milhaud
Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse, Toch

Conducted by Neal Goren
Directed by Paul Curran
Designed by Georg Baselitz, Court Watson, Driscoll Otto, and Paul Hackenmueller.
With Helen Donath, Maeve Höglund, Jennifer Rivera, Daniel Montenegro, Matthew Tuell, Michael Mayes, and John Cheek
Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
Oct. 23 at 7:30, Oct. 25, 26, 29 at 8:00.
For more information and tickets, click here.

Set design for Milhaud’s Enlèvement.

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