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  • Grant Harville

A Month of the #metoperachallenge

For reasons that are probably 45% enjoyment, 45% education, and 10% masochism, I decided to watch the Metropolitan Opera's free daily opera stream every day since it began on March 16. Not sure if they or I intend on stopping at some point, but it's been a month, so here are some stray thoughts:

1. Natalie Dessay was spectacular in Fille du Régiment. Hilarious with great physicality, and throwing around all sorts of vocal pyrotechnics amidst a bunch of Lucille Ball-ish slapstick like it was nothing.

2. Really effective staging to have the Onegin-Lensky duel along the upstage-downstage axis rather than left-right.

3. I tend to be wary of recasting operas and plays in times/places outside of their intended settings, not out of any philosophical objection, but rather because it rarely improves the effect. Whatever increased relevance I'm supposed to gain from the reimagined setting is generally neutralized by weird incongruities between the libretto and the staging. It's not that I can't handle people talking about swords while they're holding guns, but in Tristan (for example), bringing home a bride as a spoil of war (without any mention of it as bizarre or problematic) makes a lot more sense in a medieval story than a 20th-century one. That said, the giant metallic warship in Act I was one of my favorite sets of the month.

4. Tristan and Isolde aren't lovers, they're junkies.

5. "The machine" they used for The Ring was cool. (If you didn't see it, it's sort of like a row of giant fat suspended triangular coathangers lined up across the stage which could be rotated, projected onto, moved up and down, climbed on, etc., all independent of each other.) Using the water/bubble projections for the opening of Rheingold made particular sense, given that singing underwater remains difficult. And, yes, having them buck up and down during Ride of the Valkyries was neat. I think my favorite use was the simulated top-down view of Wotan and Loge's descent to Nibelheim.

6. If not for Natalie Dessay, I might say that Bryn Terfel as Wotan was my favorite performance. Arrogance plus world-weary resignation.

7. I'd be lying if I said Tannhäuser was my favorite Wagner opera, but Wolfram's act III aria is awesome.

8. As for what is my favorite Wagner opera, I've always said Götterdämmerung, but I wonder if it's not actually Meistersinger. Despite its length, the plot flows along nicely, all of Walther's songs are lovely, and there are tons of (for lack of a better word) Easter eggs for music nerds. (Unnecessarily beautiful: the night watchman's little tune in act II.) One of Wagner's many faults, maybe even the main one, was his complete lack of empathy for other human beings, which means any humor beyond mocking his enemies didn't come naturally to him. ("You know what this lighthearted comedy needs? An eight-minute long meditation on the Schopenhaueran notion of madness!") But it's nice to get at least a little levity in a Wagner work.

9. By (mostly) eschewing the standard 19th-century opera plot of "love triangle + exotic time/place," and by destroying any number of musical conventions, it's easy to see why Wagner would have blown so many minds when he came on the scene, and it helps explain why his hard-core disciples were so willing to put up with, or even try to justify, the garbage parts of his personality. There's a fine line between genius and insanity, and Wagner waltzed freely all over both sides of it. Given the various idiocies he expressed in prose, there's no reason to assume he was incapable of including imperfections in his music. At the same time, it'd be no surprise for scores so rich and revolutionary to go over someone's head, even were they executed perfectly. The factional division between the "you just don't get it, man" and the "there's no there there" camps was probably inevitable, and will probably never go away entirely.

9. I was at most mildly surprised that they elected to include so many Levine performances. They're clearly proud of them and probably figured they were still worth sharing. But I was definitely surprised that they also included the behind-the-scenes interviews. Would have been easy enough to cut them, and I'll be controversial enough to say that his commentary wasn't so insightful that we would have lost something essential without it. (Surely they won't show anything with David Daniels, right?)

9. That's some grade-A scenery chewing from Karina Mattila as Madame de Croissy.

10. I'm glad they decided to include the final tenor aria in Barber of Seville. There are good reasons for cutting it - "we're so close to the finish line, let's wrap it up" and "this aria will kill the tenor" being two of them - but it really gives Almaviva a nice arc. I know, no one ever said, "You know why I like Barber? The character development." But having the Count go from supremely insecure at the beginning, to pretending to be other people in the middle, to coming into his own at the end, gives a nice progression to his character that adds a bit more payoff to the ending then just getting two people together who were obviously going to get together from the start.

To the extent that Barber is an opera about opera - which is a very large extent - the Count's development gives more meaning to Figaro's arc too. Figaro - a stand-in for Rossini - shepherds the tenor through his development and ultimate success, in the face of the arrogant critic (Bartolo) and the scheming rival composer (Basilio). By including that final aria, Figaro steps back and lets the Count take the spotlight, in much the same way that Rossini would have yielded the stage to the singers once the composing and rehearsing were over and the performance begun.

11. Pearl Fishers has a reputation for being a really great duet surrounded by a lot of boring, but I actually really liked it. The tenor aria in act I is gorgeous, and all of act III is exciting. Act III also had another of my favorite sets: the wall of papers and file cabinets in Zurga's office. (It's cooler than it sounds.)

12. The overture to Norma is really nice. Surprised it doesn't show up on concerts more often.

13. Talking about music is hard. I know, because I have to do it a lot. So while I don't love how cliché-ridden the commentary tends to be, I also know that doing anything else is virtually impossible. That made Joyce DiDonato's insightful, concise, and comprehensible elucidation of the differences between Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini after Norma particularly impressive.

14. Aida was my favorite of the Verdi productions - Aida's act IV aria with the gorgeous oboe writing is a particular highlight. (The racial aspect of the casting was at best confusing, but casting Aida non-problematically may well be impossible.) But I also really liked Don Carlo, which surprised me a bit. It's one that I didn't know at all in advance, and the length and plot (the aforementioned love triangle + exotic time/place) didn't exactly get me excited for it. But the music is really good, there's more action than I expected, and it's refreshing to have an opera character (Rodrigo) who is motivated primarily by nobility and bravery.

15. The fact that La Fanciulla del West hasn't become a mainstay of American opera companies has always made me secretly suspect it was crappy. With a famous composer, American subject, and American premiere, it seems like it should have been to American operas what Dvorak's 9th is to American symphonies. But it's actually not bad: In fact, the entirety of act II is epically great. If it's not as popular as other Puccini, my guess is that it's because none of the arias are quite the showstoppers that "Un bel di" and "Che gelida manina" are, or perhaps because the whole-tone-y vibe of the score makes it sound more French than American. Or because most opera companies can't scrounge up the ungodly number of male principals that you need for it.

Honestly, what was most jarring for me (besides the gigantic squirming can of worms that is Native American representation) was hearing Italian come out of the mouths of a bunch of cowboys. Somebody's had to have made a singable English translation; if ever an opera deserved a go in a language other than the original, it's this one.

16. Ambrogio Maestri has to be the platonic ideal of "guy who should play Falstaff."

17. Must be nice to have the budget/infrastructure/staff to be able to have a giant lake of blood on stage for an hour without destroying the building, or getting the whole thing quashed by the technical director.

18. An extremely unfair generalization based on a small sample size: the French write catchier tunes than the Italians. Or at least Bizet and Gounod do.

19. The plot to Don Pasquale is paper-thin - sort of a Barber-lite - but it's such a glorious celebration of singing that I had a smile on my face the whole time. Part of that is that it has a special place in my heart: It was the first opera I learned in my student days. I kept having flashbacks to Caitlin Cisler, Matt Tintes, Sam Haddad, and Jim Kryshak. Also, "Com'e gentil" is one of the few opera arias I've sung in public.

20. What to say about Cosi? Well first, it's nice to get some Mozart - it's the earliest thing we've had by several decades. Second, the production was definitely eye-catching, but some of the set-spinning and sideshow acts seemed superfluous. And third, Cosi must be really hard to act, especially for the men. You have to seduce convincingly enough for Don Alfonso to think you're trying, but you have several reasons to want to fail: your friendship with the other guy, wanting to win the bet, and, of course, not actually being in love with the woman you're trying to seduce. And what is Ferrando thinking in his final seduction attempt with Fiordiligi? Is he blindly following Alfonso's script? Is he redoubling his efforts as revenge against Guglielmo? Could he actually be suicidal, knowing he's lost Dorabella? Or maybe, feeling abandoned and lonely, he's genuinely trying to seduce Fiordiligi? In any case, how do you get these internal conflicts to read to the audience?

And who is Don Alfonso, anyway? Satan?

21. The basic Music History 101 take on Dvorak is that he brought Czech-ness to traditional music forms (and convinced Americans to do something equivalent). But I wonder if his more interesting niche was his ability to be influenced by Wagner without completely drinking the Kool-Aid. The influence at the beginning of Rusalka is obvious, with the three Rhinemaiden-y Water Nymphs, but it also shows up in concert works, such as the second movement of the third symphony.

22. There may not be a prettier opera top to bottom than La Rondine, but it won't become a staple of the repertoire without somehow pulling more drama from it, or at least finding a way to make Prunier less of an ass.

23. Looking forward to Elektra and Tosca and Rosenkavalier. While I'm curious to compare it to the previous one, I'm surprised that they're showing another Traviata production so soon. I suppose if this goes on long enough, repeating rep will become a requirement, but they're still weeks away from that point.

24. Finally, this endeavor has been making me think a lot about curation. Why did the Met choose the operas that they did? Who is this for, and what is the goal? It's actually a three-times-curated series: first, which operas to produce; second, which subset to include on the HD broadcasts; third, which subset of the HD broadcasts to stream. So there's a lot of intent behind the selections.

An obvious thing to prioritize is popularization: You have a decent chance of getting a few people watching opera who've never seen it before. And there appears to have been some that: They started with Carmen and Boheme, and while few non-opera fans would likely seek out Fille du regiment, if they stumbled onto it, they likely would have had a good time. But if popularization were really the goal, I probably wouldn't have brought in Trovatore or Onegin so soon, or gone all-Wagner in week 2. I'm surprised we haven't seen Hansel and Gretel or Porgy and Bess yet.

It seems instead like the approach has been, for lack of a better word, to show off, and that makes a lot of sense. You have an audience you wouldn't otherwise get and a budget no one else can dream of, so you may as well flaunt it. "This is why we're the Met and you're not" - the biggest international stars, a huge orchestra and chorus, elaborate sets and costumes, children and horses that do as their told. I'm sure many will notice that all these productions have had white male conductors and composers. (There have only been a couple of the HD broadcasts that didn't.) And while it would be nice for them to throw their weight behind more obvious social responsibility, it's not what makes them unique. As One is great, but you don't need Met resources to make it happen. This list shows the Met leaning into their identity.

But even beyond the Met, it gets me thinking about the value of curation in general. Americans tend to get resistant when people tell them what to do, and that certainly applies to choosing what to listen to. By constructing this series (rather than, say, dumping them out all at once and letting us choose for ourselves), the Met is telling us that there is some sort of value to these selections in this order, that it's worth our time to check them out. Whatever their reasoning, I think there's real benefit to it. Not because they chose "perfectly" (whatever that means), or picked my favorites (they didn't), but because it provided a structure that guided me places I wouldn't have gone otherwise. (Could I have watched decent productions of most of these operas, in this order, for free on YouTube whenever I wanted? Yes. Would I have? No.) Even if I didn't love a given selection, I was glad to have it as part of the journey.

25. Not sure how long I'll keep it up - they have enough broadcasts to keep this up for four months, which seems like a bit much, and Community isn't going to binge itself. Good luck to you all. Looking forward to being back together soon.

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