April, 2007

Swell Epoque

Filed under: Opera — Christian
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The Belle Epoque was a “lovely period in human civilization,” says Lotfi Mansouri. In contrast, our own humble times are “the age of ugly.”

Twenty-first-century din will be temporarily transformed into a glittering era of pulchritude Saturday night when Los Angeles Opera debuts “The Merry Widow.” Director Mansouri created the grand production in 2001 as his farewell to the San Francisco Opera, and now unveils it for Los Angeles.

FineArtsLA spoke with Mansouri about his frothy production of the “Dom Pérignon of champagne operettas.”

FALA: How did this production originate? Is it the same production you did with San Francisco Opera?

LM: It is. I had been the general director of San Francisco Opera for 14 years, and had done over 70 productions with them. I was thinking of an appropriate way to exit in the 2001-2002 season, and decided to exit waltzing.

It was the right kind of production: Light with no sentimentality, none of the schmaltz you get with farewells, so I picked it and gave myself my favorite designers, including Michael Yeargan, who designed absolutely stunning sets. That’s how it generated. It was invited to Houston, and then LA Opera.

FALA: Why not create a new production?

LM: With the sets and costumes, it’s so expensive. “Merry Widow” is not an easy piece. It’s a classic operetta with many artists in primary and secondary roles, ballet and so much in it. It’s quite an outlay of finance in order to renew in this style and opulence. So it’s nice for San Francisco and Los Angeles to share. It’s also rather interesting for me because I started here in LA, and was actually the director of the very first Los Angeles Opera in 1959.

FALA: Does this particular opera demand a lavish treatment? It doesn’t seem like a piece that would translate well into a modern setting. Does it require a grand approach?

LM: Absolutely, and period specific. If you try to update it, you lose the whole premise. you lose the charm and style of the period. You know the film “Gigi”? It would be like trying to update “Gigi” by putting it into some kind of modern disco. It just wouldn’t work because the charm and beauty of “Gigi” is the period and the marvelous sets like Maxim’s, which is also in “Merry Widow.” There are certain pieces that are period specific, and when you take them out of it they lose their very essence.

FALA: How do you characterize this opera? What’s special about it, and what are the themes you take from it?

LM: The whole message is something all humans can relate to: There’s only one thingmansouri.jpg that makes life worth living, that’s more important than things like money, and it’s love. Who doesn’t want that? To me that’s the message.

FALA: Not to suggest that opera must incorporate heavy themes or have a contemporary relevance, but is this piece a particularly guilty pleasure?

LM: I compare opera to a very rich banquet. It has opulence, but at the other end can be rock opera. There’s such incredible variety. I wouldn’t consider “Merry Widow” a guilty pleasure. If you want the most wonderful bottle of champagne, do you consider it a guilty pleasure? You aspire to it.

FALA: You’ve mentioned that this English version of “The Merry Widow” has an almost Noel Coward quality to the dialogue. Why the decision to do it in English?

LM: You want the audience to participate in all the intrigues. I’m actually the one who started supertitles. I did it first in Canada because I wanted to prove that opera stories are fantastic, they’re based on Shakespeare and fantastic librettos. For this one you have the titles when they’re singing, but for the dialogue you don’t need them. You want to involve people, have them catch the nuances, the relationships, the humor.

FALA: How does your direction seek to bring out what’s in the libretto?

LM: The best comedy is based on truth, so you don’t try to gag it up. It’s all about human emotions, intrigues, hypocrisy and politics. In my direction I try to bring everything out without underlining. My greatest joy is for the audience to not notice my work because they are so involved in the piece. If they think about the director while they’re watching it, then I’ve failed.

FALA: The Belle Époque is a fascinating period — on the brink of Modernism and World War I. What charm does this period have for you?

LM: People then aspired to style and beauty. Nowadays we live in the age of ugly.

FALA: No argument there.

LM: Look at the way teenagers dress: It’s so sad. Very attractive young people, but to me they just look terrible with their pants falling off. I admire the Belle Époque because they strove for beauty and appreciated beauty in everything. It’s a very lovely period in human civilization.

FALA: Tell me about the cast and how your direction sought to bring out their particular styles and strengths.

LM: As a stage director you always have a kind of basic concept and you go after a certain style. But of course the details change depending on who your stars are, because they have certain qualities you want to underline. Susan Graham is a magnificent singer, and she has her own natural charm. She has an American freshness and honesty, and you try to let her feel that, not force her into a characterization she’s not comfortable with.

FALA: Anything else you’d like to tell us about this production?

LM: Have a nice glass of champagne before the show.

FALA: Or several.



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Let There Be Light

Filed under: Museums — Christian
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neerThis week the Getty debuts a new exhibit entitled “Radiant Darkness,” which is devoted to   various artists’ renderings of light. Master bringer-of-light Johannes Vermeer is notably absent, no doubt because the Getty does not own one of the only 34 pictures attributed to him.

Saith the Getty: “For centuries artists have displayed their technical virtuosity by composing scenes in which light penetrates darkness. Beginning this month, the J. Paul Getty Museum presents ‘Radiant Darkness: The Art of Nocturnal Light,’ exploring the representation of light in darkness by artists from the 1400s to the 1600s, including Rembrandt van Rijn, Aert van der Neer, Hendrik Goudt and Giovanni Battista Gaulli called Baciccio. Radiant Darkness features 21 works of various media, divided into four thematic sections: divine light, candlelight, firelight, and moonlight.”

Pictured is Aert van der Neer’s “Moonlit Landscape” from 1647.

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Coltrane Does Lehar

Either because Tin Pan Alley was running out of original melodies, or because songwriters secretly envied composers of serious music, it briefly became fashionable to turn well known classical themes into three-minute ballads.

Hence Rach 2 becomes “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto morphs into “Tonight We Love,” and Chopin’s Polonaise is miniaturized in “Till the End of Time.”

But even a progressive jazz musician like John Coltrane was not above raiding the classical canon for material, especially when a wistful tune like “Vilia” from Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” could serve as the perfect springboard for the saxophonist’s flights of fancy.

Here’s Coltrane’s take on Lehar, from 1963:


Of course with a melody like that you can’t go wrong — even in the hands of Lawrence Welk:


OK, maybe you can go wrong.

So let’s move on to Leo Reisman and this jaunty foxtrot rendition.

Perhaps Lehar’s best tenor aria, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” from “The Land of Smiles,” here inspires another jazz great, Oscar Petersen.

Lastly we return to “Vilia” and how the song was originally envisioned by that swirling-melody master, sung by the superlative Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

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The Light Stuff

In anticipation of LA Opera’s production of Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” which opens April 28, I’ll be running several Lehar-themed stories.

First off, I find a lazy Sunday is rarely complete without a few tunes from Lehar, and I keep recordings handly not just of “The Merry Widow” (the Cheryl Studer version), but also “The Land of Smiles,” “Giuditta” and “Der Zarewitsch.” They go well with a champagne breakfast.

Though “The Merry Widow” (1905) remains his most lasting work, it was composed quite early in Lehar’s career. Much of his oeuvre dates from after WW I, following a long dry period.

In 1922 Lehar discovered the young tenor Richard Tauber, who became his male muse. Lehar wrote six operettas for him between 1925 and 1934.

Also of note:

Lehar brought a greater depth of expression to light opera than previous composers. “I stumbled blindly into writing operetta,” he said later in life, “without any idea of what I was doing, but this helped me to find my own style.”

Lehár’s work was enjoyed by Hitler, who awarded him the Goethe Medal. Lehár himself had a Jewish wife and his friend and sometime-librettist Fritz Lohner was killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. (From Wikipedia’s entry on Lehar.)

In 1935 he founded his own publishing company, Glocken Verlag, which still controls the rights to his work.

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Energy Conductor

Edward Gardner’s baton is a ligtening rod seeking to draw “as much color and drama as possible” from the orchestra.

His energy-extracting wizardry will be on display April 14 and 15 when the conductor takes the reins of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in performances of Adams’ “Chamber Symphony,” Mozart’s “Oboe Concerto in C Major,” Britten’s “Sinfonietta” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 8 in F Major.”

The concerts will mark the West Coast debut of the 32-year-old Brit, who was recently named music director of the English National Opera.

FineArtsLA spoke with the conductor about the craft of conducting and the weekend’s challenging program.

FALA: How is your youth reflected in your approach to music? In other words, how do you differ from your predecessors?

EG: I certainly don’t approach my music-making reactively just to be different. I suppose my relative youth gives me a certain kind of energy which I try to use to bring what I want out of the music, which for me is as much color and drama as possible.

FALA: What are the differences in performing in the US and UK, as far as programming, type of audience, etc.?

EG: I find working with orchestras here similar to the UK: lots of energy and very quick work. Wherever I am, I try to combine well known works (like the Beethoven in this program) with lesser-known pieces. The Adams and Britten will, I’m expecting, only be known to few. So the audience goes away with a new take on a classic, or more pieces and composers to cherish.

FALA: How did you approach the pieces on this weekend’s program? Which one was most intriguing?

EG: The Adams was most intriguing. I’ve conducted other pieces by this wonderful
composer, including the opera “Death of Klinghoffer,” but the language of this piece is very individual and appealing. It’s incredibly technically demanding for the players, and the energy level is heightened — I found myself trying to hold my breath for the entire first movement! I like the lightness of touch in it, and it’s going to be fun
finding that with the players. You get the impression everything in this piece is done with a wink.

FALA: What makes a good conductor?

EG: Being able to convince an orchestra and audience of your interpretations, persuading them to come along for the ride. Also getting the maximum out of the orchestra: It’s them facing the audience in the concert.

FALA: What do you like to do when not making music?

EG: I watch a bit of soccer and see my friends, and maybe catch a play.

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Critical Condition

alan-rich“Music critics are not only a dying breed,” says LA Weekly music critic Alan Rich, “we’re an endangered species.”

Though his role may be moribund, according to Rich the music scene in Los Angeles is vibrant and robust — enough so to keep the 82-year-old and his walking stick of Indiana pine out to concerts as many as five nights per week.

Rich’s resumé is nearly as extensive as Mozart’s Köchel index: He’s been a music scribe for the Newsweek, The New York Times, New York magazine, and a long list of failed publications from the days when you had to turn a vinyl record over to hear the rest of a symphony.

At the LA Weekly, Rich has free rein with his column “A Lot of Night Music” — free rein that’s well deserved at his stage of the game, the stage when he “owns the ballpark.” On March 23 the Los Angeles City Council awarded Rich a citation (”not the parking kind”) for his invaluable contributions to the cultural life of the city. Rich’s latest book is “So I’ve Heard: Notes of a Migratory Music Critic.”

FineArtsLA sat down with Rich and discussed the current state of music and opera in Los Angeles, the waning interest in high culture he’s witnessed over his long career, and the beauty of silence.

FALA: What are your strengths as a critic?

AR: I know how to evaluate performance values. I’ve always been able to. The most important influence on my own musical education was Joseph Kerman at UC Berkeley. In addition to being one of the most respected musicologists in the world, he was a performer. He created awareness of performance values at Berkeley by performing — putting on operas and concerts of music all the way from Monteverdi operas to lieder recitals and contemporary music — and he made people aware of the fact that they had not only minds to memorize the dates of composers, but they also had ears to listen.

FALA: What are you listening for when you go to a concert?

AR: When I go to a concert I have a pretty good idea of the music I’m about to hear.

FALA: From recordings?

AR: I listen to recordings, I read scores, I think about what I know of the composer from a long lifetime of hearing his music, and I measure what I hear against what I think I should hear, or what I’d like to hear.

FALA: And the actual qualities of the music you’re listening for? The dynamics of fortissimo and piano? How well the musicians are working together?

AR: Yes, how well they’re working together. I listen for musical shape, both in a piece I know and in one I don’t know. After 82 years I know where a piece of 18th-century or 21st-century music should go based on what it tells me at the beginning. And I watch for how smoothly, successfully and cleverly it goes there. I think I know when a piece of music has reached a satisfactory time of ending. I’m really good at that.

A couple of nights ago I was hearing a whole program of piano music that I didn’t know, and every good piece of music on that program followed a curve and came to an end where it was supposed to. That was good; it kept me awake.

FALA: What is the current state of music criticism in Los Angeles?

AR: Well there are just two of us, really, and there are just two outlets: The LA Times and LA Weekly. There’s also Timothy Mangan at the Orange County Register. But the Times‘ Mark Swed and I both have a passion for new music, and realize that the future of music in Los Angeles depends to a large extent on our support of forward motion. Together we can take a lot of credit for the fact that this is the liveliest music center in the country, both in terms of a very progressive attitude toward performances and toward new music. In terms of quantity we can’t match New York or even Boston, but in terms of quality and state of mind I think we’re right up there, and this is becoming more and more recognized by our colleagues on the East Coast.

There was a story in the New York Times not too long ago called “Continental Shift.” It has to do with Esa-Pekka and concerts of new music, the management of the Philharmonic and at CalArts and other schools, and it has a little bit to do with Mark and me.

FALA: Why is new music important?

AR: That’s pretty obvious: You can’t play Beethoven and Brahms all your life.

FALA: But aren’t many orchestras content to do that?

AR: They might be content today, but sooner or later people are going to notice.

FALA: Does the audience want to hear new music?

AR: The audience doesn’t want to hear new music exclusively any more than we do. And it doesn’t have to be a piece copyright 2007, but it has to have a sensibility of novelty and intelligent programming.

FALA: So “new music” can include a piece of 200-year-old music that’s underplayed?

AR: Yes, or a piece of 200-year-old music that is well known but that be presented in a different light. When Esa-Pekka did the nine symphonies of Beethoven in his programming last year, he accompanied every one with a new piece of music that in some way, because of the contrast, said something about the Beethoven symphony.

FALA: How much time do you spend each day listening to music?

AR: Almost none. I can’t take music as wallpaper. I only listen to music that I want to listen to for learning purposes. If I’m preparing dinner or something like that, I’ll have Gilbert & Sullivan on, or something for sheer pleasure.

FALA: You don’t listen to recordings for a couple of hours each day?

AR: Not for a couple of hours, unless it’s a new recording that I want to review. I can’t put a symphony on while I’m writing. I’m a great believer in silence.

FALA: Are you a musician?

AR: I studied piano; I play at it a little bit.

FALA: What do you like to play?

AR: Schubert.

FALA: How does Los Angeles stack up internationally as a culture capital?

AR: It’s just beginning to happen, this whole metamorphosis of LA, and there are just a few people who are responsible, but it is happening — it’s not just bullshit. It’s happening at the same time that New York is moving in the opposite direction. What do they expect to accomplish with 80-year-old music director Lorin Maazel, for God’s sake? And that terrible hall that nobody seems able to correct. Somebody’s got to tell them to stop putting band-aids on Avery Fisher Hall and tear the fucking thing down and build a new concert hall there, no matter how much time and money it takes. Then they have to hand the orchestra over to someone less than my age, and there are a few people out there.

And the same thing has to happen in Philadelphia where they made this terrible mistake of building a concert hall that was no better than their last one, and hiring the wrong conductor.

The LA Opera does need better leadership. It serves no purpose to celebrate Puccini, for Christ’s sake, with three operas next year.

FALA: Because they’re so overplayed?

AR: Yeah, they don’t need it. Maybe they could do it with better promotion. The Philharmonic filled the hall with four Brahms symphonies.

FALA: Up until the ’60s Time magazine had something like six writers covering classical music —

AR: I was one of them.

FALA: — And now it has zero. What does that tell you?

AR: I was the last classical writer for Newsweek. In 1987 I was in Houston covering the world premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” I filed my story, and got a phone call an hour later: They were killing it for a Bruce Springsteen feature.

FALA: What’s changed? Why did Time and Newsweek have so many writers devoted to classical music a few decades ago, and today have none?

AR: Probably a reader poll or something decided it.

FALA: Then why do readers not want to read about classical music?

AR: I’m afraid I can’t answer that.

FALA: In the early days when Johnny Carson hosted “The Tonight Show,” the last 30 minutes was always devoted to an author. Now there would never be a writer on a late-night talk show. Haven’t you noticed a cultural shift of serious art losing grip over the average citizen?

AR: How could I not notice? It’s my bread and butter.

FALA: Then characterize in your own words what has happened.

AR: I don’t know why it’s happening. It may have been replaced by another kind of access to high culture, it may be because people get their culture from Amazon.com or their iPod.

I have couple of friends who are in musicology at UCLA, and I’ve read some of their term papers and I’m distressed at what passes for studying musicology now because it’s not what I took under Joe Kerman. They’re reading aesthetics. It seems to be secondary whether they listen to music or not.

FALA: It’s theory driven.

AR: It’s totally theory driven.

FALA: You and the other arts critics for the LA Times all seem to be over 50. Where’s the next generation of music critics? You were a 30-year-old critic once.

AR: We’re not only a dying breed, we’re an endangered species. Nobody senses the need for us anymore. Nobody’s going to hire anyone to replace me at the Weekly. I’m there because of my age and credentials, and because I can write a neat column that requires minimal editing, and because they can sell a page or two of classical advertising.

FALA: What’s your role as a critic?

AR: I’ve sold a few tickets.

FALA: I mean what’s your role to your readers?

AR: My role is to create a curious audience, to tell people, “I went to this concert, I’m really enthusiastic about it, they’re doing it again next week, so let’s go.” That’s the best I can do.

FALA: Then how has your role changed as a critic? Have you almost had to become an advocate as the arts have become endangered?

AR: Certainly. If I’m an advocate, it’s because I own the ballpark.

FALA: What’s the future of classical music?

AR: I think it’s goiing to continue, though not indefinitely. It has a few good years left, and at the end of that, it’s going to be doing something different. I think there will always be, at least in your lifetime, a reason to go to Disney Hall to take advantage of what sounds so wonderful: the sound of an orchestra. I don’t think we’re going to lose that very soon.

Opera is going to need a shot in the arm. It’s going to have to get rid of the Domingos.

FALA: What do you mean?

AR: It needs a little bit of a contemporary attitude. It just needs to freshen up.

FALA: With a kind of novelty factor? When you think of the opera singers that become minor pop celebrities, like Charlotte Church —

AR: Yuck!

FALA: — or Andrea Bocelli….

AR: No, that’s not the way. There’s a huge repertory like Kurt Weill’s “Mahagonny” that is still legitimate. Singers can be legitimately musically trained and still come out of Julliard, not wherever Josh Groban came from.

FALA: You said “yuck” when I mentioned Charlotte Church.

AR: That’s a particular sore point since I didn’t know who she was and I made the mistake of going to the Hollywood Bowl to hear her.

FALA: You didn’t enjoy it?

AR: No, I was ill advised.

FALA: She was incapable of carrying a concert?

AR: She was certainly incapable of carrying me.

FALA: What about musical child prodigies?

AR: Well I’m particularly allergic to teenage Oriental violinists. People like Sarah Chang, they’re terrible. They play the instrument, but they don’t play the music. And unfortunately there is a repertory, consisting of the Bruch violin concerto, that makes the violinist sound good.

FALA: What’s it like writing for the LA Weekly?

AR: Nobody understands what it is I write about, so I have complete freedom.

FALA: Would your editor catch an error if you wrote Schubert instead of Schumann?

AR: No.

(Photo courtesy of Raymond Richards.)

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