Friday, November 15, 2013

Post-Mortem New York City Opera - What Now?

Back in September, just before the post-New York City Opera era dawned, I was in the midst of the maelstrom of mounting Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago's second annual Collaborative Works Festival.  One of the things I had programmed on the final concert of the festival was a set of Beethoven folk song arrangements for singers and piano trio, to be performed by myself, soprano Kiera Duffy, and some of the members of eighth blackbird, the highly-acclaimed ensemble that normally specializes in new music.

After a Beethoven rehearsal, the violinist and violist of the group, Yvonne Lam, and I were discussing the effect performing new music has had on our work with 'old' music - the music of what we classical musicians consider the 'standard' repertoire. Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc.  Yvonne echoed a sentiment that I have often thought of performing new music, something that I briefly discussed in an interview in Toronto recently: "...doing a lot of new music makes you look at the rest of music in general with fresh eyes, because you're so concerned with how to communicate what's written down on the page to an audience that you suspend all sense of expectation. You look for the reason and purpose behind everything, so that every gesture is intentional."

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the classical music world, in general, could benefit from this type of thinking.

For anyone who has been living under a rock lately, it's been a rough go for our industry as of late.  Two really sore and greatly discussed situations somehow seem emblematic of the struggles we have been experiencing.  Having just celebrated its 110th birthday, the future of the musically head-less Minnesota Orchestra remains extraordinarily unclear and seemingly hopeless after more than a year of a lock-out of the musicians by the orchestra management. Also, the New York City Opera has closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy.

The NYCO situation has been the fodder for much gnashing of teeth in the press, and rightly so.  The world have lost one of the most important platforms for the art form of Opera for the past 70 years.  Much has been written reminiscing about memories of the past, documenting its final moments, as well as analyses of what went wrong and who exactly is to blame.  It makes sense - we are grieving an epically tragic loss, and it is natural for us to go through these stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance.

I've had to go through my own grieving process with the collapse of the NYCO.  The most immediate sting is that I was slated to sing the title role in the company's next scheduled production, J.C. Bach's Endimione.  This is obviously not happening now, and I feel most of the feelings that I listed above quite acutely.  I'm sad that this fascinating project is not to be, and that I have lost this opportunity to perform this beautiful and largely unfamiliar music.  I read all of the accounts of what went wrong and think, "if only…". I'm angry that I signed, in good faith, a document that bound me to the company for that period, turning down numerous (and at times lucrative - both artistically and financially) offers for that period, only to be left with a two month hole in my normally (thankfully) over-full calendar.  I also have accepted that this is the way that the proverbial cookie has crumbled, and I am now trying to figure out what to do with myself with this unexpected period off, grateful that this is just a blip on the screen of my life and not a complete system-fail requiring a reboot, like it could be and has been for so many others.

My own history with the company is somewhat mixed.  While the company gave me my first operatic opportunity in Lincoln Center shortly after I left the Houston Grand Opera studio as Damon in their exquisitely beautiful production of Handel's Acis & Galatea, this NYCO cancellation is actually the second that I've had to grapple with - I was scheduled to perform Nemorino in a production of L'elisir d'amore that the company was planning to tour through Japan back in 2009.  The tour was cancelled because of the company's inability to raise or allocate the funds necessary to take the company to Asia.  Thankfully, those plans were abandoned in a timely and responsible fashion, long before being announced or production had begun.  Regardless, I've always been grateful to the company for offering me the exciting opportunity to make my operatic debut in New York City.  I learned valuable lessons during my short time there, and, perhaps most importantly, I had one of the most special and enjoyable operatic experiences of my career during that production.  When things were going right there, it was a great place to be.

So why did I start off this whole diatribe with that little vignette about a short, post-rehearsal conversation in Chicago?  Like performing new music (as well as the music of Benjamin Britten this past year) has shown me, I think it's time to start looking at our arts organizations in a different way - like new music, with fresh eyes. As our venerated institutions become older and more established, it is easy to begin taking their existence for granted.  The demise of the New York City Opera should be a lesson and warning to us all in this regard.

I firmly believe that the sole purpose of any artist and any arts institution is to serve the communities around them. This week, I am in Baltimore to perform Britten's War Requiem with the Baltimore Symphony.  The War Requiem, is the ideal example of this idea that our art form exists to serve the communities around us.  The piece, composed for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during World War II, was written as a piece of healing. It is a cry for reconciliation, and for peace.  Even though its poetry was written to decry World War I, and the music composed to grieve the losses of World War II, the piece remains just as relevant today as it ever has.  We still live in a world in which we send our youngest and brightest off to be killed in war - we still have fallen soldiers to mourn and violence to contemplate.

As part of my work with the Symphony, I have been asked to spend time talking with various classes of high school and middle school students about the piece.  In speaking about this piece with these young people, I am reminded of how unfamiliar all of the classical music repertoire is becoming to much of the American public.  This music is less and less frequently taught as part of a young person's general education.  The most exposure many people get to classical music is the occasional snippet of Carmina Burana in a car commercial or the talented young girl singing Puccini's 'O mio babbino caro' on Insert-Name-of-Country-Here's Got Talent.  It is shocking to me in my travels how often a city's residents are completely unaware that their home boasts its own Symphony or Opera, let alone a chamber music series.  If this is the case - why do we continue to operate with the assumption that everyone is as familiar with our art and its institutions as we are?  We've spent lifetimes training to achieve the level of musicianship and administrative expertise we need in order to bring this music to the people around us.  We've forgotten that we are specialists.  We've lost sight of the the fact that we exist to educate.

We must stop taking for granted that all people know this beautiful, rich repertoire that is 'Classical Music'.  We must even stop taking for granted that everyone is familiar with us as performers and institutions - many people don't know who we are, what we do, and why we do it.  Our media marketplace is too crowded for us to take that for granted anymore.  We must make sure that every gesture we make is intentional and not a motion that we simply take for granted because it's something we've always done or just a desperate act of survival.  We must engage the communities around us beyond begging for them to dig us out of our grave.  We must look at why and how we are relevant, and how we relate.

It is our responsibility as classical musicians to enable the communities around us to experience and discover this beautiful, potentially life-changing music.  In doing this, we will engage these communities in a dialogue - reminding both ourselves and everyone around us why we are relevant, why what we do is important, and perhaps in the process bring our increasingly divided communities together.

This is not just the job of us performing artists (who must examine our programming and artistic vision) but also of the boards and administrations of these organizations, as well.  Just as artists exist to serve the communities around them, it is the responsibility of those communities to support and protect them.  In this sense, we are all guardians of this music.  We are all artists, in this way.

No comments: