Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why we live in cities: Five exceptional musical performances


Cities are crowded, noisy, dirty, dangerous, expensive, and vulnerable to natural and human disasters. So why do we live in them?

Over the past month or so five exceptional live musical performances reminded me why it can be worth putting up with all the aggravations of life in a modern metropolis. This is why we live in cities:

1. Alcina at Exit Theatre, San Francisco, April 8, produced by Black Box Baroque

Alcina (1735) is perhaps Handel's finest and most affecting opera, and it was written for the greatest voices in the world. For a small company with limited means to take it on is a bold choice, but Black Box Baroque founder Sara Hagenbuch is nothing if not daring: the company had already produced Handel's Orlando and Ariodante, the other two operas in his Orlando Furioso trilogy. (For more on the background and story of Alcina, please see "Opera Guide 6.")

Stage director Sarah Young's minimalist production focussed attention on the interactions among the characters, who were performed with skill and conviction by the excellent ensemble. Especially notable were Danielle Sampson as the besotted knight Ruggiero, Ellen Presley as his cross-dressed fiancée Bradamante, Kelly Rubinsohn as the sorceress Alcina, and Hagenbuch herself as Alcina's lovestruck sister Morgana. In opera productions on this scale sometimes musical accompaniment is provided solely by piano or harpsichord; Black Box Baroque had the 11-member period instrument group Albany Consort in the pit. It made for a very vivid and immediate experience in the intimate Exit Theatre space.

Bay Area audiences will have a chance to see Black Box Baroque perform highlights from Alcina as part of the Berkeley Early Music Festival and Exhibition Fringe; see the BFX Fringe website for details. Below is a short video featuring excerpts from Black Box Baroque's first production, Orlando, and including brief interviews with Hagenbuch and Jonathan Smucker (Oronte in Alcina):



2. The Haydn Project at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, Berkeley, May 9

In 2013 four members of the SF Chamber Symphony began a survey of the 68 string quartets of Joseph Haydn, who created the string quartet as we know it. The Haydn Project now consists of Robin Sharp, violin; Julie Kim, violin; Ben Simon, viola; and Hannah Addario-Berry, cello. Once or twice a year they appear at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse to present a program of two quartets. The nonprofit Freight & Salvage, primarily a folk and bluegrass club, is a very informal setting; you can sip a beer or a glass of wine while you listen (it was also the venue for the West Edge Opera's performances of the other Barber of Seville and the other Bohème this past season).

It was the perfect setting for the Haydn Project's low-key, unpretentious approach to performing. Ben Simon (who doubles as the music director of the SF Chamber Symphony) gave a brief introduction to each quartet that pointed out some key musical details (he also served as the MC for the entertaining Haydn trivia contest at intermission). The quartets performed were No. 4 from Op. 9 (1769), perhaps the first set of quartets to begin to fix the structure of the form, and No. 1 from Op. 64 (1790), an example of Haydn's mature mastery.

The Haydn Project's musicians emphasized the works' lyricism. Addario-Berry is an especially eloquent musician, and her playing made the song-like qualities of the slow movements wonderfully apparent. Here is a sample of one of the pieces we heard: the third movement, Adagio cantabile, from Op. 9 No. 4, performed by the Festetics Quartet:



Beyond even the Haydn Project's high level of musicianship, though, what made the evening so enjoyable was that it felt like a gathering of friends. I'm looking forward to their return to the Freight & Salvage in the fall.

3. Philippe Jaroussky at the First Congregational Church, Berkeley, May 12, produced by Cal Performances

Jaroussky is a countertenor primarily known for re-creating for modern ears music that was written for the castrati; his albums devoted to arias written for Carestini and for Farinelli are both astonishing. But this concert was a departure from his usual Baroque repertory. It featured song settings of the poetry of Paul Verlaine by 19th- and 20th-century composers such as Ernest Chausson, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Reynaldo Hahn.

Jaroussky's pure voice and superb musicality are well suited to chansons. With sensitive support from pianist Jérôme Ducros, he presented a carefully thought-out program that offered contrasting settings of the same Verlaine poems by different composers. For Verlaine's "La lune blanche," for example, he performed Poldowski's "L'heure exquise" and Chausson's "Apaisement," saving the most famous setting, Hahn's "L'heure exquise," for his final encore. This was a concert we'll long remember.

For me the revelation of the evening was Léo Ferré, an older contemporary of Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel. Here is Jaroussky performing Ferré's setting of "Colloque sentimental":


This performance is taken from Jaroussky's recent double album of Verlaine songs, Green (Erato, 2015), on which he is accompanied by Ducros and Quatuor Ébène.

4. Anne Sofie von Otter and Andreas Scholl with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, conductor, Weill Hall/Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, May 14

For some reason this concert was not included as part of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's regular Bay Area season, but instead only presented on tour. Fortunately the second stop on the tour was only 50 miles from San Francisco. We were also fortunate that an excellent restaurant, Prelude, is located next door to Weill Hall. It made for a wonderful late afternoon and evening on the park-like Sonoma State campus, as new graduates wandered happily about.

We were mainly anticipating the first part of the program, which included arias and duets from some of Handel's more rarely performed stage works: the operas Giustino and Flavio (Scholl), the semi-opera Semele (von Otter), and the oratorio Solomon (both). And these performances were indeed highly enjoyable. But unexpectedly I found the second half of the concert, devoted to songs by the contemporary composers Arvo Pärt and Caroline Shaw, to be even more so. The transparency of texture of the period instruments of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra worked beautifully with the spare music of Pärt and Shaw.

Here is Andreas Scholl performing "Vater Unser," Pärt's setting of the Lord's Prayer, with the Morphing Chamber Orchestra (I've cut off the final minute or so of (well-deserved) applause):



Another Pärt piece performed during this program was "Es sang vor langen jahren." At Weill Hall it was sung by both Andreas Scholl and Anne Sofie von Otter; in the linked video it is sung by Susan Bickley. I will definitely be seeking out more of Pärt's haunting music for solo voice.

5. The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles at Marines Memorial Theater, San Francisco, May 22, produced by Ars Minerva

Molly Mahoney (Cillene), Kindra Scharich (Florinda), Aurélie Veruni (Pulcheria), Coral Martin (dancer), Tonia D'Amelio (Auralba), Casey Lee Thorne (dancer)—and I think hidden behind D'Amelio is Cara Gabrielson (Jocasta)
Ars Minerva's founder Céline Ricci's artistic mission is to uncover works that have lain forgotten in the archives for centuries, and bring them to life. Her latest project was Venetian composer Carlo Pallavicino's Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate, performed for the first time in 1679 and never since—until last weekend.

The original production was spectacular: according to Dr. Paul V. Miller's program notes, contemporary accounts report that it featured 200 supernumeraries portraying Amazon and Moorish warriors, and 50 men on horseback riding in formation at the finale. Ricci wisely did not attempt to overwhelm us with spectacle. Instead she mounted a semi-modern-dress production, with striking scene-setting projections by Patricia Nardi and witty supertitles by Joe McClinton, that focussed on the human relationships at the opera's core.

One of those relationships involves the love of the Amazon warrior Auralba (Tonia D'Amelio) for her comrade Florinda (Kindra Scharich). While this isn't the first lesbian relationship portrayed on the opera stage—the nymph Calisto is very willingly seduced by the goddess Diana in Cavalli's La Calisto (1651), she just doesn't realize that "Diana" is Jupiter in disguise—it is remarkable that Auralba's feelings are, if anything, taken more seriously than the often changeable emotions of the other characters.

As in many Baroque operas, the human relationships can be quite tangled: the Amazon princess Pulcheria (Aurélie Veruni) falls in love with the shipwrecked Moorish soldier Numidio (Ryan Matos), who professes feelings for both her and Florinda, who is torn between him and Auralba. Meanwhile, Pulcheria is facing the teenage rebellion of her daughter Jocasta (Cara Gabrielson) and trying to fight off the surprise attack of the Moorish army—unaware that Numidio is an agent of the Sultan (Spencer Dodd). Especially memorable were some bitter denunciations of love by Auralba, a lament by the wounded Jocasta, and a sleep scene for Florinda (sleep scenes are surprisingly common in Baroque opera).

This opera was very much worth remounting, especially in such a clever and well-performed production (the four central women were especially good, and Scharich's rich mezzo-soprano in particular is gorgeous*). It's astonishing that a company of Ars Minerva's size is producing modern world premieres of forgotten Baroque operas, and doing it so well. Ricci's sense of adventure puts to shame opera companies with budgets many orders of magnitude larger. I can't wait to see what her next discovery will be.



* I learned too late that the night before The Amazons opened (!) Scharich sang Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and Strauss' Four Last Songs in arrangements for the Alexander String Quartet; I also missed these artists performing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder last year. Here's hoping that a recording is in the works, and that the sponsoring organization, Lieder Alive!, will present these artists again soon.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers

...There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them....'And what are you reading. Miss ——?' 'Oh! it is only a novel!' replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.— 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;' or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
Northanger Abbey, Ch. V
In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen pays homage to the women writers who preceded her, and who created a literary marketplace in which women could publish, be read, and receive money for their efforts. Named in the passage quoted above are books by Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth; and the sensationalistic novels of Ann Radcliffe are avidly read by Northanger Abbey's highly impressionable heroine, Catherine Morland.

These writers, and others such as Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald, not only influenced Austen's novels but helped to create a largely female readership that made the publication of her novels possible. Over the course of the eighteenth century, as historian Alvin Kernan has argued, "an older system of polite or courtly letters—primarily oral, aristocratic, amateur, authoritarian, court-centered—was swept away...and gradually replaced by a new print-based, market-centered, democratic literary system." [1]

In this new market for literature, the number of books written by and chiefly aimed at women experienced rapid growth in the last decades of the eighteenth century. According to Julia Philips Stanton, the number of women writers increased by "around 50 percent every decade starting in the 1760s." [2] However, as Jan Fergus notes, "the older aristocratic attitudes that saw print and payment as vulgar were surprisingly persistent among elite women and some men." [3] Because public notice and monetary exchange were involved, writing for the market was seen as disreputable for respectable women (and this attitude persisted well into the nineteenth century). Burney's Evelina (1778), Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800), and Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790) were all first published anonymously.

"People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them"

And despite strong familial support for her writing, so were Austen's novels. None appeared under her name during her lifetime, even though the authorship of her second novel, Pride and Prejudice, became an open secret soon after its publication. When Henry Austen wrote a brief "Biographical Notice of the Author" for the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, finally acknowledging his sister's authorship, he was careful to portray Jane as shunning both public acclaim and money:
Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives...It was with extreme difficulty that her friends, whose partiality she suspected whilst she honoured their judgement, could prevail on her to publish her first work...She could scarcely believe what she termed her great good fortune when "Sense and Sensibility" produced a clear profit of about £150. Few so gifted were so truly unpretending. She regarded the above sum as a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing...[S]o much did she shrink from notoriety, that no accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen...[and] in public she turned away from any allusion to the character of an authoress. [4]
We may well be skeptical, if not of Jane Austen's desire to remain anonymous, then at least of her reluctance to publish. She was only 21 in late 1797 when her father George wrote to the publisher Thomas Cadell to offer the manuscript of First Impressions (the first version of Pride and Prejudice); by this time Jane had also probably written Lady Susan and Elinor and Marianne (the first version of Sense and Sensibility). George Austen's offer was "declined by return of post." [5]


In 1803 Henry Austen, acting on Jane's behalf, offered the publisher Richard Crosby the manuscript of Susan (the first version of Northanger Abbey) through an agent. Crosby purchased the manuscript for £10, and advertised the novel as forthcoming, but then did nothing further. In 1809 Jane Austen wrote Crosby under the pseudonym of "Mrs. Ashton Dennis," or MAD, "I can only account for such an extraordinary circumstance by supposing the MS by some carelessness to have been lost; & if that was the case, am willing to supply you with another copy if you are disposed to avail yourselves of it, & will engage for no farther delay when it comes into your hands." Crosby responded by reasserting his right not to publish, and offering to return the manuscript "for the same as we paid for it." In 1816 Henry Austen took Crosby up on his offer and bought back the manuscript for £10, thanks to Crosby's ignorance of the true identity of its author. Austen's anger at Crosby's inaction, though, hardly supports the view that she was reluctant to publish. [6]

And if profit was not a motive early in her literary career, Austen's letters suggest that by 1813 it had become one. Several months after the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813 she wrote to her brother Francis,
…the secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the shadow of a secret now—and that I believe whenever the third [novel, Mansfield Park] appears, I shall not even attempt to tell lies about it.— I shall rather try to make all the money than all the mystery I can of it.— People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them. [7]
But making them pay could be difficult, thanks to the modes of publication then available: on commission, by sale of copyright, and by subscription. (For more detail, see Jan Fergus's excellent essay "The professional woman writer" in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition, which I drew on extensively for the information that follows.)

Publishing on commission: Publishing on commission limited the financial risk to the publisher by shifting the responsibility for the costs of printing and advertising a work to the author. In practice, publishers often paid the production costs for a title up front, and repaid themselves from sales, plus a commission on every copy sold (typically 10 percent). If the edition did not sell enough copies to cover the production costs, the author wound up owing the publisher money. In a variation of publishing on commission called profit-sharing, publishers agreed to absorb any potential loss in exchange for a higher share of any potential profits (typically 50 percent after costs were covered).

Austen's first published work, Sense and Sensibility, was issued by Thomas Egerton on commission in 1811. Because of its unexpected success—the first edition sold out in about 18 months—Jane Austen made a handsome return. As she wrote to Francis Austen in July 1813, "You will be glad to hear that every copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the copyright, if that should ever be of any value.— I have now therefore written myself into £250.— which only makes me long for more." The additional £110 that makes up the £250 she reports to Francis came from the sale of the copyright of Pride and Prejudice. [8]

Sale of copyright: Outright sale of copyright was the least risky way for authors to see their books into print. Authors could be sure of their return on a book, and would generally receive the full amount within twelve months (rather than having to wait to receive payment if sales of the edition were slow, as they did on the commission system).

If sale of copyright limited authors' financial exposure, though, it also limited their potential gain. Once a publisher had purchased the copyright, the publisher, not the author, received all of the income from sales. (Of course, the publisher also bore all the risk if an edition didn't sell.) And if the first edition sold well, the publisher had the right to issue subsequent editions without paying the author any additional fee.

This is what happened with Pride and Prejudice. Austen sold the copyright to Egerton for £110 (she had wanted £150). In comparison to Sense and Sensibility, the first edition of Pride and Prejudice issued in January 1813 was larger (1,000 copies instead of 750), cost more (18 shillings instead of 15), and sold out in half the time (9 months instead of 18). Egerton issued a second edition in October 1813; on both editions, Fergus estimates that Egerton, after deducting production costs and Austen's copyright fee, may have realized a profit of more than £450. Austen herself never saw another pence from her most popular novel.

Subscription: This was a publishing model that could work very well for established authors, but was more logistically troublesome than either publishing on commission or sale of copyright. When publishing by this method the author solicited subscribers by advertisement or direct appeal, asked them for payment in advance, and sent them copies of the finished work once it was published; each copy was bound with a printed list of the subscribers. Fanny Burney provides an example: after the success of Evelina and Cecilia, Burney cleared £1,000 by selling subscriptions to her third novel, Camilla. (She later sold the copyright for another £1,000.) Among the list of subscribers to Camilla was "Miss J. Austen, Steventon." Although clearly familiar with subscription publishing, Austen did not attempt to publish any of her books by this method.


Circulating libraries
Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none in her father's house; but wealth is luxurious and daring—and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber—amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way; to be a renter, a chuser of books! [9]
Circulating libraries were a major market for novels, and over the course of Austen's life such libraries became increasingly popular. Circulating libraries charged a modest subscription fee in exchange for the right to borrow a small number of books at a time; they were a way for those with limited incomes—especially women—to have access to books, which were expensive luxuries.

For authors, not only did this limit their financial risk when publishing on commission (since some level of sales was virtually guaranteed), it magnified their readership. Fewer than 2,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice were published during Austen's lifetime, but because each copy in a circulating library had multiple readers, it was read by many thousands more.

Circulating libraries carried books on many subjects, but novels, romances, poetry and plays were among the most heavily represented genres in their catalogues. This dismayed moralists who felt that, if women were to read at all, it should be only uplifting, "improving" literature. Novel-reading was seen as frivolous at best, if not morally suspect. In Pride and Prejudice, when the priggish Mr. Collins visits the Bennets a book from a circulating library creates consternation:
Mr. Bennet was glad...to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it, (for every thing announced it to be from a circulating library,) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.— Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed.— Other books were produced and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce's Sermons. [10]
Austen herself subscribed to circulating libraries; on December 18, 1798, she wrote to her sister Cassandra: "I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library....As an inducement to subscribe Mrs. Martin tells me that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature, &c. &c— She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so;— but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers." [11]

In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney tells Catherine, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time." Henry is Austen's most sympathetic hero in large part because he shares Catherine's chief enjoyment—because he too is a "great novel-reader." [12]


Women as readers

Novel-reading was especially frowned on for women, who were seen as easily swayed and emotionally susceptible. In The Female Quixote (1752) Charlotte Lennox satirized this point of view, while also acknowledging the power of fiction to engage the imagination. Arabella, the heroine of The Female Quixote, reads French romances so addictively that she's come to see herself as one of her fictional heroines.

Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland seems modelled in part on Arabella. When Catherine arrives for an extended stay at the Tilney estate, which incorporates an ancient abbey, she imagines mysteries lurking in every corner. During her first night at the Abbey she discovers an old cabinet in her room, which contains, hidden deep in its recesses, a roll of paper. Catherine has no sooner grasped this secret missive than her candle goes out:
Darkness impenetrable and immovable filled the room. A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. Catherine trembled from head to foot. In the pause which succeeded, a sound like receding footsteps and the closing of a distant door struck on her affrighted ear. Human nature could support no more. A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand, and groping her way to the bed, she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of agony by creeping far underneath the clothes….The storm still raged, and various were the noises, more terrific even than the wind, which struck at intervals on her startled ear. The very curtains of her bed seemed at one moment in motion, and at another the lock of her door was agitated, as if by the attempt of somebody to enter. Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery, and more than once her blood was chilled by the sound of distant moans. Hour after hour passed away, and the wearied Catherine had heard three proclaimed by all the clocks in the house before the tempest subsided or she unknowingly fell fast asleep. [13]
Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine's disillusioning, her realization that sensationalistic novels do not reflect the mundane realities of everyday life. There is a mystery at Northanger Abbey, to which Catherine ultimately learns the solution. But the mystery relates to her sudden expulsion from the house by Henry's father, General Tilney, after his welcoming, and, indeed, over-solicitous behavior towards her earlier. That mystery, though, has its roots not in some lurid crime, as originally imagined by Catherine, but in ordinary human failings: greed, self-deception, anger. As Henry tells Catherine when he understands the way her thoughts have been tending,
Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live...Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. [14]
The supreme accomplishment Jane Austen, of course, is that her novels so perceptively describe her own observation of what was passing around her. As Walter Scott wrote in his review of Emma, her novels
proclaim a knowledge of the human heart...presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him....The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personæ conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances....All of [her characters'] entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations...in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humor and knowledge of human life. [15]

The publication of the last novels

As Jan Fergus details, after Egerton reaped large profits from the success of Pride and Prejudice, Austen decided to return to having her next book, Mansfield Park, published on commission. She was wise to do so. The first edition of 1,250 copies sold out in just six months, yielding her a profit of £310—the most she earned from any of her novels. She evidently wanted to risk a second edition, but Egerton may have advised against it.

This may have been one reason that Austen decided to switch publishers. She sought to sell the copyright of her fourth novel, Emma, together with those of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, to the prestigious house of John Murray (the publisher of Byron and Walter Scott). His offer of £450 fell far short of her expectations, however, and she once again published the new book on commission. Emma was issued at the end of 1815 in an edition of 2000 copies, and a second edition of Mansfield Park was issued by Murray about two months later. Although Emma made a substantial profit, the second edition of Mansfield Park did not sell well; after covering Murray's losses on Mansfield Park, Austen realized less than £40 from the sales of Emma.

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were issued together in four volumes in an edition of 1,750 copies by Murray at the end of 1817. The novels sold well and ultimately realized a profit of more than £500. Alas, Jane Austen did not live to see their success. It was Cassandra and Henry who saw these last works through publication. Jane passed away in July 1817, after months of debilitating illness. However, between September 1815 and August 1816 she marshalled her energies to produce what is, in my view, her greatest achievement: Persuasion.

Next in the series: Persuasion and war
Last time: Emma and the fate of unmarried women

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:



Picture credits:
  1. The Honorable Caroline Upton (detail), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, ca. 1800. From The Clark Museum, http://www.clarkart.edu/Art-Pieces/1448
  2. Letter from George Austen to Thomas Cadell, 1 November 1797. From St. John's College Library, Special Collections: Jane and George Austen, Letters (MS 279) https://stjohnscollegelibrary.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/jane-and-george-austen-letters-ms-279/
  3. Detail of the subscriber list of Fanny Burney's Camilla (1796) from the Chawton House Library blog, http://www.chawtonhouse.org/
  4. The reader (detail), by Marguerite Gerard. From the Fitzwilliam Museum, http://www.fitzwilliamprints.com/image/702970/gerard-marguerite-fragonard-jean-honore-the-reader-by-marguerite-gerard-fragonard

References:
  1. Alvin Kernan, Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson, Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 4. Quoted in Jan Fergus, "The professional writer," in Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 2-3.
  2. Judith Phillips Stanton: "Profile of Women Writing in English from 1660 to 1800," in Frederick M. Keener and Susan E. Lorsch, eds. Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 248. Quoted in Fergus, "The professional writer," p. 2. Emphasis in the original.
  3. Fergus, "The professional writer," p. 3. https://goo.gl/rLF5c4
  4. Henry Austen, "Biographical Notice of the Author," reprinted in Jane Austen, Persuasion with A Memoir of Jane Austen, Penguin Books, 1965, p.  32. https://archive.org/stream/persuasionwithme030504mbp#page/n37/mode/1up
  5. George Austen, letter to Thomas Cadell, Publishers, 1 November 1797. https://stjohnscollegelibrary.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/george-austen-letter.jpg 
  6. Jane Austen, letter to Richard Crosby, 5 April 1809. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number4/morris.htm
  7. Jane Austen, letter to Francis Austen, 25 September 1813. https://goo.gl/ZJ62gM
  8. Jane Austen, letter to Francis Austen, 3/6 July 1813. http://www.pemberley.com/images/Letters7/86.pdf 
  9. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Volume III, Chapter ix; Chapter 40.
  10. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, I. xiv.; 14.
  11. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, 18 December 1798. From R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others, Oxford University Press, 1932, pp. 38-39.
  12. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, I. xiv.; 14.
  13. Northanger Abbey, II. vi.; 21.
  14. Northanger Abbey, II. ix.; 24.
  15. [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201. http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-emma-in-the-quarterly-review-1815

Monday, May 2, 2016

Changing cultures: Alia Bhatt and Preity Zinta

Preity ZintaAlia Bhatt

Is it just me, or does the pace of cultural change seem to have accelerated of late?  Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples. And over the past few years in nineteen states plus the District of Columbia, criminal penalties for marijuana possession for personal use have been reduced or eliminated. Fifteen years ago both developments were, if not inconceivable, then at least wildly improbable.

Judging by some recent Bollywood films, the U.S. isn't the only country where old prejudices and mores are being overturned. Of course, movies cannot be taken as a simple or undistorted reflection of the values and practices of a society. As we know, those values and practices are not monolithic or universal, but instead are highly contested. But (as they used to say in cultural studies classes) commercial movies are a major site of that contestation. As I wrote in "Having it both ways: Bollywood contradictions," the culture industry tries to shape popular consciousness, but at the same time in order to be successful its products must mirror the longings, aspirations and anxieties of its audience.

Movies featuring two actresses, Preity Zinta and Alia Bhatt, seem to exemplify some of these recent cultural shifts. Both actresses have tended to play young single women experiencing their first serious romantic relationships. But the differences in how their characters, actions and situations are portrayed are instructive, and say a lot about changes in attitudes over the past decade or so—at least among that segment of the Indian audience at home and abroad at which the films are aimed.

In Dil Hai Tumhaara (My heart is yours, 2002) Preity plays Shalu, who in a wrenching scene midway through the film discovers that she is not the biological daughter of Sarita (Rekha), the woman she thinks is her mother. Instead, she learns that her father was having a long-term affair, and that she was a part of his second family.

You are the illicit daughter born of that illicit relationship

When her husband and his mistress were fatally injured in a car accident, Sarita unwillingly promised to raise their child Shalu as her own daughter. But Shalu is the living symbol of Sarita's betrayal and hurt, and Sarita can never fully accept her. As Shalu grows older, her rejection by Sarita embitters her. Only the unstinting love shared by Shalu and her half-sister Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary) holds the family together.

Sarita is the mayor of the town, and is facing a re-election campaign against a corrupt and vicious rival, Mittal (Govind Namdeo). Mittal discovers the truth about Shalu's parentage, and uses the threat of exposure to try to blackmail Sarita into giving up power. Nimmi is engaged to be married to Dev Khanna (Arjun Rampal), the son of a wealthy industrialist, and Mittal threatens to tell the senior Khanna the "filthy truth" about Shalu's origins:

Would you have your daughter suffer for the sake of an illegitimate?

To preempt Mittal, Shalu bursts into the wedding celebrations for Dev, and, covered with mud from a slip on wet grass—literally and symbolically "filthy"—confesses her shameful origins in front of the assembled guests:

Am I so evil that my Mamma and my Di must suffer for my existence?

In Dil Hai Tumhaara, birth outside of sanctioned wedlock is a source of pain, trauma and disgrace.

Not so in Shaandaar (Fabulous, 2015). Alia (Alia Bhatt) has been raised believing that she is an orphan adopted by Bipin Arora (Pankaj Kapur) and his wife Geetu. Midway through the film she learns the truth of her parentage: she is really the child of Bipin and the love of his life, Prabha, and was conceived just before Bipin made his arranged marriage to Geetu for business reasons. Alia's reaction:

This is so cool.

I'm illegitimate.

This is so much better than being adopted.

Birth outside of marriage implies, of course, sex outside of marriage. In two of her films Preity Zinta portrays women who have sex with their boyfriends before marriage, or even engagement. The consequences in both cases are devastating.

In Kya Kehna (What is there to say? 1998/2000), Priya (Preity) is infatuated with self-involved and unreliable classmate Rahul (Saif Ali Khan). When Priya discovers that she is pregnant, she is brutally rejected by Rahul, urged to get an abortion by Rahul and his mother, and expelled from her family and home. Even after her father is convinced to bring her back into the family, she is ostracized by the community:



The music is by Rajesh Roshan with lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri; the playback singers are Kavita Krishnamurthy and Hariharan.

In Salaam Namaste (Muslim-Hindu greetings, 2005), Ambar (Preity), an NRI medical student and radio host, moves in with Nikhil/Nick (Saif Ali Khan again!), a self-involved and unreliable NRI architect and chef. In short order she's pregnant (wait—did she skip her classes on reproductive biology?). Nick urges her to get an abortion; when Ambar backs out, he breaks up with her. She is left alone to deal with her pregnancy and a child that may have a rare disease.

One would be forgiven for assuming that premarital sex results inevitably in pregnancy, rejection and suffering. Not so in 2 States (2014), made less than a decade after Salaam Namaste. Ananya (Alia) and Krish (Arjun Kapoor) meet at college, and despite their cultural differences—she is from Chennai, while he is Punjabi—fall in love and start sleeping together. Ananya, though, unlike Priya or Ambar, insists on using contraception: note the casual toss of the box of condoms just after the one-minute mark in "Offo":



The music is by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya; Bhattacharya and Aditi Singh Sharma are the playback singers.

2 States isn't the first Bollywood film where a young woman has premarital sex that doesn't result in pregnancy, ostracism or death. In Band Baaja Baaraat (Bands, horns, revelry, 2010), wedding planners Shruti (Anushka Sharma) and Bittoo (Ranveer Singh) cap the drunken celebration of the success of their first big job by falling into bed together. While mutual regrets follow in the morning and ultimately lead the couple to split up, it is because Shruti is wary of mixing emotions with business, and Bittoo isn't ready for romantic commitment. In Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) has the name of her gangster boyfriend Raja (Jimmy Shergill) tattooed on her breast, and it is strongly implied that they have had sex; this doesn't seem to dissuade NRI doctor Manu (R. Madhavan) from pursuing marriage with her. And in Shuddh Desi Romance (Pure Indian romance, 2013), Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) and Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) choose to live together. Although this isn't portrayed very positively—Gayatri has a fear of rejection, while Raghu has a fear of commitment—no one is punished. (Unless, that is, we consider Gayatri's relationship with the aimless and evasive Raghu as a punishment.)

One key difference between the earlier and later films is that the latter are almost entirely concerned with the dynamics of the couple and their families. Earlier films place much more emphasis on social context, and social stigma.

It makes you wonder what other taboos are about to become incidental, rather than traumatic (or entirely unacknowledged), in Indian cinema. Shaandaar may give a hint. Towards the end of the film, during the disastrous wedding ceremony for the arranged marriage of Alia's step-sister Eesha (Sanah Kapur) and her narcissistic groom Robin (Vikas Verma), a round of truth-telling ensues. Eesha defies Robin's fat-shaming, Alia reveals her parentage, and their favorite Uncle Vipul (Sagar Arya) decides that it's time he too revealed his deepest secret. He's not quite prepared, though, for the family's casual response:

Because of all of you I've been living a lie.

I'm gay! We know.

For more on some of the films discussed in this post, see:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Emma and the fate of unmarried women

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. [1]
Of all of Jane Austen's heroines, Emma is the one that most seems to be a kind of fantasy figure. All of Austen's other heroines come either from wealthy families in newly straitened circumstances (Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, Anne Elliot in Persuasion), or from families that inhabit the lower levels of the gentry or pseudo-gentry and thus are already in relatively straitened circumstances (Elizabeth and Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey).

But Emma is different. As we learn in the early stages of the novel, Emma is "the heiress of thirty thousand pounds," and this gives her a freedom unique among Austen heroines: in order to have a financially secure future, she does not have to marry. In fact, she "'declares she will never marry'":
'I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry...Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eyes as I am in my father's.' [2]
But if Emma Woodhouse has "'very little intention of ever marrying at all,'" there is another Emma in Austen's work who provides a more sobering picture of the possible fate awaiting an unmarried woman: Emma Watson, heroine of the fragment The Watsons (written around 1805). After the uncle who has raised her dies, and her widowed aunt makes an "imprudent" remarriage, Emma Watson returns to her birth family's home and, like Fanny Price when she makes a similar journey in Mansfield Park, discovers that
...she was become of importance to no one, a burden on those whose affections she could not expect, an addition in a house already overstocked, surrounded by inferior minds, with little chance of domestic comfort, and as little hope of future support. [3]
It is a bleak picture of superfluousness, poverty, and a lack of privacy and solitude combined with social, emotional and intellectual isolation. And in Emma, a similar future, or present, is faced by each of the single women who do not share Emma Woodhouse's happy state of financial independence.


The "parlour-boarder": Harriet Smith

Harriet is 17, and "the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard's school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder." [4] Although Harriet's unseen and unknown guardian—presumably her biological father—pays extra so that she can live as a part of the proprietor's household and have the use of their sitting room, she is without social connections or financial means of her own. She is utterly dependent on her mysterious benefactor, a situation that leaves her future highly uncertain.

Mr. Knightley tells Emma that Harriet "'may be a parlour-boarder at Mrs. Goddard's all the rest of her life,'" but he is wrong: Harriet is only likely to be a parlour-border for the rest of her father's life. When he dies, Harriet's "'very liberal'" allowance is likely to be abruptly cut off. As Mr. Knightley notes, she has "'probably no settled provision at all'"—that is, she has been given no money of her own and cannot expect any legacy from her father. Wills were and are public documents, and a father who cannot acknowledge Harriet while he lives is unlikely to expose his family to scandal when he dies. [5]

Jane Austen was herself a parlour-boarder. When she was nine, she and her sister Cassandra (then twelve) were sent as parlour-boarders to Abbey House School in Reading. So Jane was intimately familiar with the odd in-between status of parlour-boarders, who lived in the proprietor's household, but were not a part of it. Jane also knew what it meant to be dependent: after her father died in 1805, she had to rely almost entirely on her brothers for financial support (at least until she began to receive a modest income from her writing).

Harriet, of course, has no relatives she can call on. After her father's death, if she remains unmarried it's likely that she will be forced to earn her means of livelihood; she will be "'left in Mrs. Goddard's hands to shift as she can.'" [6] Without useful accomplishments, knowledge or skills, she will face a future in which her circumstances are drastically reduced—an existence much like that of another character in the novel, Miss Bates.


The "old maid": Miss Bates

Miss Bates is the daughter of Highbury's former vicar. She lives with her elderly mother and one servant above a Highbury shop in a "very moderate-sized apartment, which was every thing to them." Miss Bates must live "in a very small way...She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible." We are told that they have "'barely enough to live on,'" and indeed, Mr. Knightley regularly sends them food from his estate. [7]

Miss Bates' situation is not unlike that of Jane Austen herself: she never married, of course, and at the time that Emma was written she lived with Cassandra and their widowed mother in Chawton Cottage, a house on the grounds of an estate owned by her brother Edward. While the Austen women were not as poor as Mrs. and Miss Bates, they too had to live within limited means.

Miss Bates' status as a poor old maid is viewed with horror by Harriet Smith and disdain by Emma:
'But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!'

'That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet;...[but] I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid!' [8]
It is Mr. Knightley, of course, who reminds Emma that Miss Bates "'is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.'" [9]



The governess: Jane Fairfax

Another potential future for unmarried women without incomes is exemplified by Jane Fairfax, the niece of Miss Bates. Orphaned as a young girl, Jane Fairfax was taken to live with the family of Colonel Campbell, the commanding officer of her father's regiment:
The plan was that she should be brought up for educating others; the very few hundred pounds which she inherited from her father making independence impossible...By giving her an education, [Colonel Campbell] hoped to be supplying the means of respectable subsistence hereafter. [10]
Jane Fairfax is intended to earn her living as a governess, one of the few "means of respectable subsistence" available to women of the pseudo-gentry. This is no enviable position, as Jane makes clear to Mrs. Elton, the former Miss Hawkins, whose father, "a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called," is undoubtedly involved in the slave trade:
'I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.'

'Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling [Mrs. Elton's brother-in-law] was always rather a friend to the abolition.'

'I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,' replied Jane; 'governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.' [11]
Given Jane Austen's feelings about the slave-trade, clearly implied in Mansfield Park, the parallel Jane Fairfax suggests with the exploitative "governess-trade" is highly suggestive. And the hyperbolic effusions of Mrs. Elton about the position she ultimately arranges for Jane do not allay our suspicions of the circumstances that await her:
'...there are not such elegant sweet children anywhere. Jane will be treated with such regard and kindness!—It will be nothing but pleasure, a life of pleasure.—And her salary!—I really cannot venture to name her salary to you, Miss Woodhouse. Even you, used as you are to great sums, would hardly believe that so much could be given to a young person like Jane.'

'Ah! madam,' cried Emma, 'if other children are at all like what I remember to have been myself, I should think five times the amount of what I have ever yet heard named as a salary on such occasions, dearly earned.' [12]
Even in those rare instances when governesses were decently paid, theirs was hardly "a life of pleasure." They were frequently isolated within the household. As David Selwyn writes, "The isolation experienced by a governess was often very demoralizing: treated by her employer, to whose class she naturally belonged, as a social inferior, and yet distrusted by the servants, she often found her position in the household to be very lonely." [13]

While Emma's governess, Anne Taylor, becomes her friend and confidante and is treated like a member of the Woodhouse family, such an outcome was highly unusual. Far more typical were the experiences that Anne Brontë drew on three decades later for her novel Agnes Grey. As Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of a conversation she held with Anne's sister Charlotte,
She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. [14]
Each of these three characters offers a bleak portrait of "the immovable plight of the single woman without money." [15]

Fortunately in her fictional world Austen can arrange matters more happily than they generally turned out in real life. And Emma is her sunniest novel. At its conclusion—skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know how it all turns out—Harriet's future is assured by her marriage to a "'respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer,'" Miss Bates will be more firmly integrated into Highbury's social world through Emma's "regular, equal, kindly intercourse" and solicitude, and Jane Fairfax is rescued from the need to become a governess by her marriage to the man to whom she has long been secretly engaged. Even Emma discovers that despite her lack of financial need, her intention to remain unmarried has been subverted by the discovery that she is in love. [16]

Of course, for those facing "the immovable plight of the single woman without money" there was another possible way to earn an independent income. But it lay on the fringes of respectability, involved a substantial degree of financial risk, and offered only a modest promise of return: publish a novel.

Next time: Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers
Last time: Mansfield Park and slavery III: An estate built on "the ruin and labour of others"

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:



Portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence, top to bottom:
  1. Duchesse de Berry (detail), 1825
  2. Lady Wallscourt Playing Music (detail), 1825
  3. Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller in 'The Stranger' (detail), c. 1796-1798
  4. Mary, Countess Plymouth (detail), 1817
Quotations taken from:
  1. Jane Austen, Emma, Volume I Chapter i; Chapter 1.
  2. "thirty thousand pounds": Emma, I. xvi.; 16. "'declares she will never marry'": Emma, I. v.; 5. "none of the usual inducements": Emma, I. x.; 10. 
  3. "very little intention": Emma, I. x.; 10. "of importance to no one": Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Oxford World's Classics, 1990, pp. 317-318.
  4. Emma, I. iii.; 3.
  5. "a parlour-boarder," "very liberal," "no settled provision": Emma, I. viii.; 8.
  6. Emma, I. viii.; 8.
  7. "moderate-sized apartment": Emma II. i.; 19. "very small way": Emma, I. iii.; 3. "barely enough": Emma, II. v.; 23.
  8. Emma, I. x.; 10.
  9. Emma, III. vii.; 43.
  10. Emma, II. ii.; 20.
  11. "Bristol—merchant": Emma, II. iv.; 22. "not at all afraid": Emma, II. xvii.; 35.
  12. Emma, III. viii.; 44.
  13. David Selwyn, "Making a living," in Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp.153-154. 
  14. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII
  15. Edward Copeland, "Money," in Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 129.
  16. "respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer": Emma, I. viii.; 8. "regular, equal, kindly intercourse": Emma, III. viii.; 44.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Pounding us over the head with Tosca


There's a remarkably revealing interview with the outgoing general director of San Francisco Opera, David Gockley, in the May 2016 issue of Opera News. He paints a grim picture of the future of the company:
I don't envy my successors. Unless they can find a way to engage a very distractible, multi-interest, transient-minded public to attend opera more frequently, to go from attenders to donors to bequeathers, and engage these generations who have not had musical training in schools...we won't survive.
According to Gockley, opera companies face three key problems:

1. Attracting younger audiences: There are too many other claims on their attention, and the musical form, subject matter, and staging conventions of opera are unfamiliar to them. Gockley has had some excellent ideas about bringing opera into people's lives, with education programs in the schools and initiating free live simulcasts from the opera house to the Giants' ballpark; it will be imperative for his successor to continue and expand these programs.

But has opera ever appealed primarily to people under 35? I didn't start listening to opera regularly until my mid-30s, and didn't become a subscriber right away. Perhaps SF Opera should worry a bit less about getting 20-year-olds into the opera house for the first time, and worry more about retaining its existing audience.

2. The decline in subscriptions: If younger audiences do go to the opera they tend to buy single tickets instead of subscribing:
The young single-ticket buyer, or the older single-ticket buyer, likes the twelve major chestnuts. If you want to have full houses with subscribers now occupying only forty-five percent of the theater—and you've got fifty-five percent of your capacity left to sell—you are looking at reviving Carmen every three years, rather than every five years.
So in Gockley's view, the decline in subscriptions leads to conservative scheduling.

But what if Gockley's got it backwards, and conservative scheduling leads to a decline in subscriptions? Next season at SF Opera features Verdi's Aida and Rigoletto, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, and Mozart's Don Giovanni. Aida was last seen as recently as 2010, Rigoletto in 2012, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème in 2014 (!), and Don Giovanni in 2011.

Including next year, in the past sixteen seasons SF Opera has produced Madama Butterfly an astonishing seven times—almost every other season. Not far behind are Puccini's Tosca (six times), La Boheme and Mozart's Magic Flute (five times), Bizet's Carmen, Rossini's Barber of Seville, and Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto (four times).

This is not to say that these are not great operas, or that they don't deserve their popularity. And they are works that may well entice first-time audiences into the opera house. But for subscribers who are contemplating renewal, such repetitive programming offers few rewards.

Gockley would say, no doubt, that the full houses for Madama Butterfly and Tosca make possible productions of less familiar and/or more costly repertory, such as Berlioz's epic Les Troyens and the delightful Surrealist-themed production of Handel's Partenope from the 2014/15 season. (SF Opera had last produced Les Troyens in 1968, and had never before staged Partenope.) But when the opera schedule relies too heavily on Gockley's "chestnuts," it diminishes the sense of excitement that is a major reason we started subscribing in the first place.

After the financial and artistic disasters of Pamela Rosenberg's tenure as general director (2001-2005), Gockley has brought financial stability to the company. But by programming a handful of opera's greatest hits over and over, the company may have reached the point of diminishing returns.

When I look back on the most memorable productions we experienced during Gockley's tenure at SF Opera, I see that most of them were not often-revived operas. In chronological order, they are:
SeasonOperaWhat made it so memorable
2006-2007Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck)A great, rarely produced Mozart-era opera with a searing performance by its Iphigénie, Susan Graham
2009-2010Die Walküre (Wagner)Nina Stemme's Brunhilde and some visually arresting moments conjured by director Francesca Zambello, set designer Michael Yeargan, and Projection Designer Jan Hartley in the most involving opera in the Ring Cycle
2009-2010Il Tabarro (Puccini)Conductor Patrick Summers brought out all of the richness of Puccini's darkest and most cinematic score, and Patricia Racette was utterly compelling as the doomed Giorgetta
2012-2013Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Offenbach)A staging that evoked nightmares, an amazing cast, and the use of the new integral edition of the score which gave this fragmented opera narrative and dramatic coherence
2014-2015Partenope (Handel)An excellent young cast and a playful and dramatically apt updating to the milieu of the Surrealists
2014-2015Les Troyens (Berlioz)This production featured the world's leading exponents of the roles of Didon (Susan Graham), Énée (Bryan Hymel), and Cassandre (Anna Caterina Antonacci)
2010-2011 & 2014-2015 (toss-up)Le Nozze di Figaro (Mozart)Brilliant young casts in SF Opera's handsome staging of Mozart's greatest opera

What these productions have in common is creative programming (with the possible exception of Figaro, most of these operas are not among the "twelve chestnuts"), excellent casting (the singers were not always famous, but they were always superb and dramatically committed), and insightful, engaging, and visually striking productions.
3. Union contracts: In the Opera News interview Gockley laments that in San Francisco, unlike at the Houston Grand Opera, he couldn't cut productions and so slash the salaries of orchestra, chorus, and crew. Thankfully—arbitrarily cutting the salaries of the people who are responsible for realizing your productions onstage seems like the worst possible way to balance your budget. (If you're in any doubt about the level of craft involved in staging opera, I recommend the documentaries In the Shadow of the Stars and Sing Faster! The Stagehands' Ring Cycle.)

Gockley also complains that touring is not financially feasible. In these days of live streaming, there would seem to be other possible ways to reach audiences outside of the Bay Area.

These complaints also ignore that these contracts were negotiated and approved by SF Opera management, including Gockley. And weren't Gockley's predecessors operating within the terms of similar contracts? The tenure of Lotfi Mansouri as general director (1988-2001) seems like a golden age of programming diversity in comparison to the last ten years, but surely he had to meet contractual obligations as well.

A larger problem, literally, is that SF Opera is trapped in a dynamic that is the result of opera's 19th-century success. Along with other large companies such as Chicago's Lyric Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera, SF Opera has to fill a vast house for show after show. So it must program works that will sell 3,000 tickets per performance. If five performances is the minimum number that would justify the expense of producing a work, that means that SF Opera has to count on selling at least 15,000 tickets per production. That's a lot of tickets.

On the scale of things, opera tickets are not that expensive. I've spent more on certain meals and rock concerts than I have on decent seats at the opera, and have gone standing room for less than the cost of a movie ticket. But it's clear that the need to sell at least 15,000 tickets per production places constraints on the company. Even given these constraints, though, exciting programming is still possible—as Gockley himself has proved.

Meanwhile, many smaller opera companies in the Bay Area and beyond have not only embraced artistic risk and challenge, but see it as part of their mission. They are providing audiences with anything but routine experiences.


New SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, a Gockley protégé who takes over in August, faces a crucial choice. Will he give us more of the same "pound them over the head with Butterfly and Tosca until they submit" scheduling, or will he try to find a better balance between the well-known and the less-familiar-but-worthy? In my view, if the company doesn't do some serious reconsideration of its current programming choices, it risks becoming artistically irrelevant. And as I said above, I think such unimaginative programming may be a significant factor in the decline of the company's subscriber base.

So I offer a dozen or so operas for Shilvock's consideration for future seasons. None has been produced during Gockley's time at SF Opera, and some have never been produced there at all:
OperaLast performed at SF Opera
Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (Monteverdi, 1640)1990
La Calisto (Cavalli, 1651)Never
Dido & Aeneas with Venus & Adonis (Purcell and Blow, 1680s)Never
Hippolyte et Aricie (Rameau, 1733) or Medée (Charpentier, 1693)Never
Semele or Hercules (Handel, 1740s)Semele, 2000; Hercules, never
Alceste (Gluck, 1767)Never
Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Paisiello, 1782—this would make a great pairing with their next Marriage of Figaro in 2020) or Il Matrimonio Segreto (Cimarosa, 1792) or Il Mondo della Luna (Haydn, 1777)Never
Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky, 1879)2004
Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy, 1902)1997
Arabella (Strauss, 1933)1998
Dialogues des Carmélites (Poulenc, 1956)1982
Follies or A Little Night Music or Passion (Sondheim)Never