December 23, 2014

The Top 10 opera-related stories of 2014

To close out a year in which news stories both in the world at large and in the opera world were turbulent indeed, here's my list of the top 10 news stories involving my profession, in no particular order

San Diego, scene of a resurrection
10:  Financial woes at the Metropolitan Opera. Heavy indebtedness resulted in near-disastrous labor negotiations, a flirtation with bankruptcy and (as of this week) the lowering of the company's credit rating.

9.  The "Death of Klinghoffer" protests. John Adams' opera about Palestinian terrorists aboard an Israeli cruise ship has been staged without incident around the world for decades, but this was to be its first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera. Less-than-informed protesters caused CEO Peter Gelb to cancel plans to air the piece in movie theaters and over the radio. Much teeth-gnashing and Monday-morning-quarterbacking ensued. You are free to make your own comparisons to the Sony movie studio's cancellation of their comedy about North Korea, The Interview.

8.  The death and re-birth of the San Diego Opera. Small-market performing arts organizations have been succombing to deficits ever since 2008, but when an opera company's Board of Directors voted to shut down in a city of the size of San Diego, it caused international headlines. This was a company which had lure headline divas and stars. A flurry of hastily-raised cash donations and a Greek chorus of protesters around the country as well as the community have, temporarily, produced a trial season at a fraction of the budget. It remains to be seen if the public will pony up to see "rising young artists" instead of Voight, Netrebko, Furlanetto and their like.

7.  The return of Maestro James Levine. All careers come to an end, though orchestral conductors seem especially long-lived, with most luminaries remaining active into their 80's and beyond. Credit the cardiovascular benefits of arm-waving. But many suspected that the Met's Chief Musical Guru might have seen a premature retirement coming with his multitude of physical woes in recent seasons. Thus it's somewhat surprising to see him return to a full schedule of late, waltzing through behemoths like Die Meistersinger from his wheelchair. More power to him.

6  Joyce DiDonato retires the role of Cenerentola. The pre-eminent coloratura mezzo currently before the public, her iconic performances as Rossini's Cinderella have come to an end with the recent Met production.

5.  Anna Netrebko's triumph as Lady Macbeth. I, Your Humble Blogger, missed the Met's HD transmission, but critics fairly swooned at the diva's star-turn in Verdi's first Shakespearean opera. After a career dallying with roles like Lucia, Adina and other bel canto parts, she seems to have demonstrated that she's ready for the leap into dramatic soprano territory.

4.  The ascent of tenor Javier Camarena to stardom. Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Flórez have some serious competition in the bel canto tenor arena. Mr. Camarena's performances in Rossini and Bellini at the Met have made him a rock star. Here's a gushy review from the NY Times  "It is not every singer who can steal the spotlight from the radiant Diana Damrau, who played Bellini’s gentle Amina. His high notes secure and his phrases long and arching, Mr. Camarena managed it again and again, singing Elvino’s downcast soliloquy, “Tutto è sciolto,” with perfect poise while aching with emotion."

3.  The death of Lorin Maazel. The maestro's sudden passing happened in the midst of the Castleton Opera Festival, his most recent project at his estate in Virginia. His was a storied career, with many notable achievements and posts in the opera world.

2.  Turmoil in European Houses. Riccardo Muti left Rome Opera; the Vienna State Opera had to find last-minute replacements to conduct 34 performances when its Music Director bolted, and there were other feuds, resignations and kerfuffles. Google it.

1. A soprano saves the day. File under "it pays to be prepared": When soprano Anita Hartig became too ill to sing Mimi in an HD-transmitted performance of La bohème at the Met, Kristine Opolais took her place on short notice. What makes one sit up and take notice is that Ms. Opolais had just sung the taxing role of Cio-Cio-san in Madama Butterfly THE PREVIOUS DAY, and had virtually no sleep. She gets the "Purple 5-hour Energy Award of Valor" for the year!


  1. You can lay the "demise" part of the San Diego Opera story fully at the feet of former General Director and Artistic Director, Ian Campbell....and those among the opera board members who were his cronies. Campbell pushed through the closing of the opera company at a board meeting attended only by a portion of the board. The closing of the opera company was not mentioned as part of the meeting agenda. The other board members and the opera goers of San Diego were outraged at what Campbell had done. Many felt that he pushed through the closure because if the company closed at this particular time, by the conditions of his contract, he would be paid anyway. The opera company was not bankrupt. At the final performance of the year, Campbell was resoundingly booed...and deservedly so. A new opera board was formed, and it was decided to try to raise money to keep the opera company going. The opera goers of San Diego raised the needed amount of money, and the company will continue. Campbell may have been moderately good at PR, but he was terrible a many other aspects of running an opera company. He continually talked down to the San Diego Opera audiences, committing such atrocities as having Wozzeck sung in English and without an intermission. Campbell obviously thought that an opera that was not a perennial "war horse" such as Aida or La Boheme, wouldn't be accessible to the San Diego audiences, whom he regarded as "opera illiterates", unless it was performed in English. Having no intermission would help to ensure that the "musically uneducated" people in the audience would not be as likely to get up and leave in the middle of the performance. Believe me, the only thing that made me want to get up and leave was the constant creaking of the malfunctioning revolving set upon which the opera was performed. I thoroughly resented the idea that Campbell regarded me as knowing so little about opera that I needed to have a non-war horse opera sung in English so that I would be able to understand it. For your information, Mr. Campbell, I not only was already familiar with Wozzeck, but had heard the entire opera on recording (in German) while I was in college and had written a college term paper on Wozzeck. Incidentally, the finances of San Diego Opera, while under the direction of Ian Campbell, are currently being investigated by the State of California.

    Perhaps in following seasons San Diego Opera may be engaging young, upcoming singers, but this season features Ildebrando d'Archangelo as Don Giovanni...hardly an opera lightweight. Even if the company does turn to young singers to fill its roster, I, for one, will be happy to attend and hear these singers at the beginning of their careers.

  2. Addendum to previous comment. Campbell has been removed as both General Director and Artistic Director of San Diego Opera.