The Status Quo

Mistletoe: a highly romanticized vampire plant

Mistletoe: a highly romanticized vampire plant

/ˌstādəs ˈkwō/ noun

the existing state of affairs

The number of singers that come to me confused out of their minds about what repertoire they should sing is mind-boggling. Most of the time, it’s not that they don’t know what feels good, what they love singing. Our bodies tell us a lot, and if we know how to listen (which, innately, I believe we do), we can learn a lot. A lot of the time, when it comes to audition repertoire, they genuinely don’t know what highlights them and their uniqueness as an autonomous, living, breathing, daring artist; but that is beside the point, for now – though definitely fodder for a future blog post.

The most common statement I hear, by far, is something along these lines:

“I love how [Donna Anna] feels, and I also adore singing [Amina]. But I can’t offer them together… right? I mean, isn’t that confusing?”

Confusing. Maybe the most frequently occurring word in young (and not-so-young) singers’ minds when trying to figure out an audition package. The act of worrying about confusing those they’re singing for actually confuses the singer to a crippling degree.

I always thought that was startling. I’ve always been comfortable playing and doing whatever the hell I feel inspired to play or do. But I also have the luxury of being, first and foremost, a pianist; and if there’s any “breed” of musician in our current industry environment that has the license to do its own thing and create its own opportunities, it’s the pianist.

This issue has bothered me to such a degree that people have truly thought I was crazy to be obsessing over it. And occasionally I might have thought I was crazy, were I sane enough to be able to entertain the thought that I might be crazy. But, as it stands, I trust my gut; and so I’ve been on a mission to figure out what, exactly, it is about this issue that irks me so much.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking, and interrogating, and I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it out.

What has come to my attention is that this confusion – the result of the incredibly specialized world that opera singers are supposed to fit into – is one flower of a multi-headed systemic, parasitic weed that started to grow, say, 70 years ago. For a while – maybe 55 years – it grew in the background and didn’t make its presence known. It is remarkably camouflaged; so much so, that despite the host tree (that is the opera industry, in case that was unclear) starting to visibly wither as many as 20 years ago, we didn’t notice the cause or even think that there was reason for alarm. And now we find ourselves in a position where the tree is continuing to die – rapidly – and this parasitic weed has taken on the tree’s appearance to such a degree that despite our constant staring at the tree and trying to decipher what the hell is wrong, we don’t get the fact that what we’re looking at is actually the weed. It’s like some horrific fairy tale. And the weed, of course, is the status quo that the title of this blog series refers to.

So what is this weed? Take a look at some history with me. If you don’t have the patience, I won’t hold it against you. But I promise it will be an interesting journey.

———-

Imagine for a minute that it’s a little over a century ago, and you’re the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. You’re casting for the 1904-’05 season. There isn’t a whole lot of vocal pedagogy happening in the United States (the institution now known as The Juilliard School would be founded in 1905 as the Institute of Musical Art), but the Italian style of operatic training is still going strong in Europe, which is consequentially the home of the greatest singers of the time. So, you hire European singers.

It’s not that difficult, presumably, to convince these singers to make the 5ish-day trip across the Atlantic by passenger liner. Various industries in the United States have boomed over the preceding decades, creating figures like John D. Rockefeller (widely considered the richest American in history, to this day). To give an example of the kind of wealth at play in this picture: in 1901, Andrew Carnegie sold the Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million (in 2011, $209 billion, according to this article). Philanthropy has reached incredible heights. Mr. Carnegie famously published an essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth” in 1889, encouraging the wealthy to not hoard their millions, but rather donate their fortunes for the betterment of society. (You can read it here.) Mr. Rockefeller has just donated a total of $80 million (not inflated) towards the end of the 19th century to found and develop the University of Chicago. Companies like the Metropolitan Opera, that rely on philanthropy, are thriving, and the prestige of performing on its stage is immense.

Anyway, you’re running the Met, and your artists come from Europe. Of course, it needs to be worth their while to come across the Atlantic. And back. And also, even though you have a decent budget to work with, you have to be smart about the number of trans-Atlantic passenger fares you need to purchase.

It makes sense, then, to get your principal singers to come for several months at a time and sing as many principal roles as they’ll agree to.

Marcella Sembrich, from Poland, is one of your most popular, tried-and-true sopranos. You engage her to perform nine principal roles: Gilda (Rigoletto), Mimì (La bohème), Nedda (I pagliacci), Violetta (La traviata), Rosina (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor), Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte), Adina (L’elisir d’amore) and Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro).

You’ve heard amazing things about a hot Italian tenor by the name of Enrico Caruso. He hasn’t sung at the Met before, but you engage him to perform six principal roles: the Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Radamès (Aida), Cavaradossi (Tosca), Canio (I pagliacci), Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor) and Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore).

Giuseppe Campanari is a solid Italian baritone, and you engage him to perform seven principal roles: Marcello (La bohème), Alfio (Cavalleria rusticana), Germont (La traviata), Figaro (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Enrico (Lucia di Lammermoor), Papageno (Die Zauberflöte) and Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro).

There are, of course, many overlaps in principal casting. For instance, Ms. Sembrich and Mr. Campanari feature in 6 productions together: La bohème, La traviata, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Lucia di Lammermoor, Die Zauberflöte and Le nozze di Figaro. All of these shows, with the exception of Die Zauberflöte, are directed by Karl Schroeder.

Speaking of Mr. Schroeder, you hire him to direct no fewer than 13 shows that season: Rigoletto, La bohème, Aida, Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana/I pagliacci, La traviata, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Lucia di Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore, Carmen, Faust, Roméo et Juliette and Le nozze di Figaro.

Arturo Vigna is on the podium for nine productions: Rigoletto, La bohème, Aida, Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana/I pagliacci, La traviata, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore.

OK, you can break character now. You’re back to being a reader in 2015.

This is just a sample, but you get the picture. Other singers sang equivalent numbers of roles; the French baritone Eugène Dufriche, for example, sang 10 roles there that same season. The total number of productions at the Met in the 1904-’05 season was 24, of which eight were Wagner operas (including the four Ring installments). This wasn’t an exceptional season – in fact, it was pretty normal. I just picked this one to examine because it was the year of Caruso’s debut, which makes it of particular interest – especially considering that nowadays you’d barely see a debut artist in a principal role at the Met, let alone six in a single season. You can browse the archives for yourself at http://archives.metoperafamily.org. (And, by the way, all the casting details I’ve written above are taken from the actual 1904-’05 records.)

Before we move on, take one more look at Ms. Sembrich’s roles that season. Mimì, Queen of the Night and Rosina in a single season? ALL PERFORMED BY A SINGLE SOPRANO? You’ve got to be kidding, yeah?

Nope.

To look at the same era from a different perspective, check out the casts of Le nozze di Figaro presented on the Met Opera stage between 1898-1904. A quick glance through these will show you the pattern.

NB: I have no idea why Barbarina isn’t listed in the cast details.

1898:
Figaro………………Giuseppe Campanari
Susanna……………..Marcella Sembrich
Count Almaviva……….Edouard de Reszke
Countess Almaviva…….Emma Eames
Cherubino……………Marie Engle
Dr. Bartolo………….Agostino Carbone
Marcellina…………..Mathilde Bauermeister
Don Basilio………….Roberto Vanni
Antonio……………..Eugène Dufriche
Don Curzio…………..Catullo Maestri

1899:
Figaro………………Giuseppe Campanari
Susanna……………..Marcella Sembrich
Count Almaviva……….Edouard de Reszke
Countess Almaviva…….Emma Eames
Cherubino……………Zélie de Lussan
Dr. Bartolo………….Antonio Pini-Corsi
Marcellina…………..Mathilde Bauermeister
Don Basilio………….Roberto Vanni
Antonio……………..Eugène Dufriche
Don Curzio…………..Catullo Maestri

1901:
Figaro………………Giuseppe Campanari
Susanna……………..Marcella Sembrich
Count Almaviva……….Edouard de Reszke
Countess Almaviva…….Emma Eames
Cherubino……………Fritzi Scheff
Dr. Bartolo………….Luigi Tavecchia
Marcellina…………..Mathilde Bauermeister
Don Basilio………….Albert Reiss
Antonio……………..Eugène Dufriche
Don Curzio…………..Catullo Maestri

1902:
Figaro………………Giuseppe Campanari
Susanna……………..Marcella Sembrich
Count Almaviva……….Antonio Scotti
Countess Almaviva…….Emma Eames
Cherubino……………Fritzi Scheff
Dr. Bartolo………….Charles Gilibert
Marcellina…………..Mathilde Bauermeister
Don Basilio………….Albert Reiss
Antonio……………..Eugène Dufriche
Don Curzio…………..Catullo Maestri

1904:
Figaro………………Giuseppe Campanari
Susanna……………..Marcella Sembrich
Count Almaviva……….Antonio Scotti
Countess Almaviva…….Johanna Gadski
Cherubino……………Camille Seygard
Dr. Bartolo………….Arcangelo Rossi
Marcellina…………..Mathilde Bauermeister
Don Basilio………….Albert Reiss
Antonio……………..Eugène Dufriche
Don Curzio…………..Catullo Maestri (his last performance at the Met)

OK, so now imagine those who lived in New York City during this period. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to surmise that the patrons of the Met Opera really knew what they were getting, in terms of artistic product. Sure, a big part of opera attendance was about fashion and social status. There was a reason for the famously deep horseshoe-shaped auditorium at the Old Met – the patrons wanted to observe others in their social circle while they were enjoying the opera. Maybe they took for granted the fact that they saw the same principal artists performing together season after season. I mean, there wasn’t exactly much to compare it to. But the fact stands that, even if they didn’t consciously recognize it, it was essentially a company that featured an artistic roster of singers who performed together time and time again, on the same stage, with the same directors and the same conductors. Yes, casts changed. But there were strong through-lines. And as we can see in evidence around us every day, something special happens when a group of artists work together on project after project over a period of time. Imagine if “The Beatles” was the title for a floating group of musicians who changed out after every album. Imagine if said group of musicians, known as The Beatles, started out at page one every time they started a new project, by necessity, because every time it was a different group of artists. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have anything as groundbreaking as Abbey Road. I don’t think they could have developed the fan base that The (actual) Beatles developed. I doubt they could have changed the world like they did. Maybe The Beatles aren’t the most accurate example of what I’m attempting to illustrate – there is, of course, the significant factor that they wrote their own original music, and the same can’t be said of opera companies today – but I think it’s applicable enough to get the general drift.

So, Met patrons at the beginning of the 20th century bought into a pretty solid product, and the Met Opera was able to sell a pretty unique product. Win-win. Success. Sustainability – especially considering the philanthropic situation.

All was pretty good for several decades. Sure, there were challenges around The Great Depression, and the World Wars. But it bounced back.

Then something happened. Actually, a lot of things happened. And the weed started to grow.

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