Operatic alchemy

Alchemist at work

Alchemy: science or art? or a bit of both

The Canadian Opera Company announced its 2012-2013 season today, January 18th, a combination of works old and new.  I don’t pretend to understand how an opera company chooses their repertoire, although I think I understand some of the issues involved.  There are operas that are known to be popular, others that are considered risky.  Somehow one attempts to reconcile the desire to sell tickets and make money on the one hand, with the riskier agenda of fulfilling artistic aspirations on the other.  One can picture both a financial and creative bottom line, even if there are no actual formulas to turn base metals into gold.  Genuine quality costs money, particularly in opera, a medium known to be the most expensive of all art-forms.

The upcoming season?  We’ll get seven operas (in order of the date of premiere):

  • Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito
  • Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
  • Verdi’s Il Trovatore
  • Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
  • Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus
  • Richard Strauss’s Salome
  • Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites

I believe this is a safer season than the one the COC is currently presenting, and I say that meaning no disrespect.  I feel confident that the company will improve on their box office returns with this lineup, whereas their current choices feel riskier to me.  As someone who admires and welcomes risky programming I am eagerly looking forward to Saariaho’s Love from Afar that premieres very soon, and hope that the COC audience embrace it, one of the first operas of the new millennium to gain some popularity.  In addition I am hopeful about the success of the double bill of Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and look forward to Handel’s Semele, all of which are riskier choices than the other two operas still to come, namely Tosca and Tales of Hoffmann.

You may wonder what I mean when I claim that there’s nothing as risky as the Saariaho, the Zemlinsky or the little-known Handel in the 2012-2013 season.  I refer first, to Opera America’s “Cornerstones”, a list of the 20 most popular operas that the organization compiled from box office statistics.

In 2010-2011 the COC chose three operas from that top 20 listing (namely Aida, The Magic Flute and La Cenerentola).  The current season only boasts two operas from that list (Tosca and Rigoletto), but 2012-2013 goes back to three cornerstone operas (Lucia di Lammermoor, Il trovatore, and Die Fledermaus).

And next let’s consider the operas that aren’t “cornerstones”. In 2010-2011 that meant

  • Orfeo ed Euridice (Robert Carsen’s breathtaking Toronto debut, the COC’s first Gluck opera),
  • Ariadne auf Naxos (Andrew Davis’s return to Toronto, phenomenal cast, Christopher Alden’s production),
  • Death in Venice and
  • Nixon in China (one of the best things the COC has ever done)

For 2011-2012 (this season) the previous season’s excellence was a difficult act to follow, especially given the inevitable comparisons:

  • Robert Carsen’s second Gluck opera Iphigenia in Tauris
  • Christopher Alden’s second Toronto production, an edgy Rigoletto (which I liked very much, but that was risky if the cornerstone operas are expected to be money-makers)
  • the new Love From Afar (hoping people embrace it… it’s a beautiful score and a romantic story)
  • Handel’s Semele
  • the tuneful Tales of Hoffmann and
  • an intriguing double-bill of an unknown opera (the Zemlinsky Florentine Tragedy) paired with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.  I hope the popularity of Puccini encourages people to take the plunge with Zemlinsky.

That’s the context for saying next year feels safer, namely in comparison to the current—brave—season underway.  The cornerstone operas are once again up to three.  But the other four are all safe choices as well, without anything that one could call risky.

  • While La Clemenza di Tito isn’t well-known Mozart, he is nonetheless one of three composers (with Verdi & Puccini) who has four operas in the top 20, and therefore should be a sure thing.
  • The production of Tristan und Isolde is also a safe bet even if Ben Heppner is forced to cancel, and likely to attract a sell-out crowd of Wagnerites from far and near.  I am eagerly hoping to hear him, and confident that this small house with its sweet acoustic will feel safe enough for him to undertake all the performances, notwithstanding his recent vocal vicissitudes.
  • Atom Egoyan

    Director Atom Egoyan (Canadian Press photograph)

    The chance to once again see Atom Egoyan’s Salome is another special treat, with some promised upgrades to the technology.   My only request –tongue-in-cheek–is that Egoyan take the logical step with this voyeuristic production, namely to please put a hand-held camera (or a convincing prop imitation thereof) in one of the characters’ hands.  Perhaps Herod? or Narraboth as he stalks the Judean Princess?  But in this production we are all implicated, all  voyeurs.

  • Finally, a Robert Carsen production of Dialogues des Carmelites would also be a sure thing, even if it didn’t also star Bayrakdarian, Pieczonka, Forst and Mishura.
  • And while we’re on the subject of star power, I am looking forward to hearing Stephen Costello and Anna Christy as the lovers in Lucia di Lammermoor, and Ramon Vargas as Manrico in Il trovatore. 

Next year?  Pure gold.

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4 Responses to Operatic alchemy

  1. Is it just me or does Atom Egoyan look exacyly like Darren Nicholls in Slings and Arrows? Is this a coincidence?

  2. barczablog says:

    Don McKellar? It’s a flattering comparison from the pictures I’ve seen eg http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/photos/uncategorized/2008/02/05/slings2.jpg

  3. barczablog says:

    In other words “Darren Nicholls” is McKellar doing Egoyan…? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You know you’ve made it when you’re being sent up this way.

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