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


  1. Dear Pessimisissimo,

    Your analysis of SF Opera digging its grave strikes me as solid. Your proposed alternative operas, reasonable.

    But I would like to suggest that even more adventurous programming is needed. Remember your first SF Opera, Stravinsky's Rake's Progress? Mine was Britten's Billy Budd. Last year, London's Royal Opera staged a revival of Brecht and Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Next year, the Paris National Opera is reviving Cavalli's Eliogabalo. And contemporary American composers John Adams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich have all written successful operas.

    My obvious point is that opera must become modern, at least 20th century, if it's going to survive. Old patrons are mouldy. The educated middle-class hits its peak earning years in their fifties, old enough to be wealthy but at least young enough to remember the experiential thrills of novelty. As long as fifty somethings are a renewable demographic, financially things could be fine for opera.

    But get beyond the 19th century, already. Those "twelve chestnuts" are going to be buried so deep, no one will care if they're dug out.

    M. Lapin

    1. Cher M. Lapin:

      I couldn't agree more that opera needs more adventurous programming to survive. But I don't think SF Opera can be tasked with neglecting modern and contemporary opera. In fact, David Gockley and his predecessor Pamela Rosenberg have actually been champions of contemporary opera. You mention John Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich as three successful contemporary composers. While Reich has not been produced at SF Opera, Adams' Doctor Atomic and Glass' Appomattox were commissioned by SF Opera and premiered there in 2005 and 2007, respectively; and Adams' Nixon in China (part of SF Opera's 2011/12 season) was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera when Gockley was general director there.

      During Gockley's ten seasons as general director of SF Opera, eight new works he commissioned received their premieres—a record unrivaled, as far as I'm aware, by any other US opera company. And every SF Opera season in this millennium has included at least one (and often more than one) post-1900 opera, including works by Carlisle Floyd, Gershwin, Janáček, Kern, Korngold, Messiaen, Tobias Picker, Rachel Portman, Shostakovich, Sondheim, and Richard Strauss. Incidentally, Britten's Billy Budd was produced in the 2004/05 season.

      I think the problem instead lies with an over-emphasis on a handful of operas from the core repertory. As I mention in the post, a majority of the operas scheduled for next season have been staged at SF Opera within the past six years. If the idea is that these are operas that will attract new operagoers, I agree with you that a more reliable way to do so is with exciting, engaging programming. Like yours, my conversion experience was with an opera outside of the group of "twelve chestnuts": in my case, Purcell's Dido & Aeneas.

      That said, I don't think that means that 19th-century opera should be banished or buried. While I haven't yet really come to consistently enjoy the operas of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi, as many do, I understand why they are popular. And I don't mean to be dismissive; there will always be audiences that want to see The Barber of Seville, L'Elisir d'Amore, La Sonnambula, or Aida.

      But there are a huge number of stageworthy operas that lie outside the standard repertory. On E & I I've written about operas by Claudio Monteverdi, Francesca Caccini, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Agostino Steffani, Joseph Haydn, Giovanni Paisiello, Felicien David, and Ruggero Leoncavallo that are rarely or never staged today by the major opera companies in the US. I think the a key part of the future of opera actually lies in rediscovering the rich but disregarded works of its history. After all, many of these works once held the stage for years, and sometimes decades, before falling into neglect. They are new to us, and their revival can help renew excitement in opera among audiences. Certainly it would for me.

      Many thanks for your comment!