Friday, August 7, 2015

Modernism Not Welcomed at David Gockley's San Francisco Opera

On August 1, SFOpera presented Jennifer Higdon's "Cold Mountain" to acclaims. Even though juries are still out regarding this work, it has won most hearts of audience and critics. Here is an online review of "Cold Mountain":
Higdon’s is tonal music, with appropriate, occasional incorporations of Appalachian folk tunes. But it is a thoroughly modern score: Though often elegiac, the music is punctuated with violence and dissonance is almost an orchestral character itself, paralleling the opera’s unsettled, anxious mood. 
The opera company in question, SFO, alas, was not San Francisco Opera, which under the general director David Gockley, has commissioned impressive numbers of new operas but most of them were miserable affairs.  Rather, the glory belongs to Santa Fe Opera. Curiously, San Francisco Opera had announced this in an archived article:
SAN FRANCISCO, January 26, 2009—San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, joined by Music Director Designate Nicola Luisotti and Chairman of the Board of Directors John Gunn, today announced artistic details for the upcoming 2009–10 repertory season; plans to commission three operas by American composers Christopher Theofanidis, Mark Adamo and Jennifer Higdon.
While Higdon project apparently didn't pan out, Theofanidis's "Heart of a Soldier" and Adamo's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" did come into fruition, but both suffered severely from weak dramatic structures and insubstantial and turgid music.

This past June, instead of the healthy mixture of melodic and modern music by Higdon, San Francisco Opera presented a new opera, "La Ciociara" ("Two Women") by Marco Tutino, of an overly-melodramatic libretto coupling a maudlin score, which Gockley viewed as a strike back against the advance of modern development of classical music.

Here is what San Francisco Chronicle's review of the premiere:
... Tutino — along with General Director David Gockley, who commissioned the work from him on the recommendation of Music Director Nicola Luisotti — has also taken this opportunity to mount a rather forceful esthetic argument. In its strongest form, the claim is that the history of 20th century music has been a nightmare that we need to wake up from, and that the path to redemption lies in a wholesale return to the ancient traditions.

Committed to archaism
One doesn’t have to be a diehard modernist, or even much of a modernist at all, to appreciate the weakness of that position. Things have changed since 1900 — if nothing else, there have been two world wars — and plenty of musical ideas have been hatched in the interim. What possible purpose is served by turning one’s back on all of it?
 In a press announcement of "La Ciociara" before its premiere, David Gockley explained his philosophy behind pale aping of Puccini, claiming that "the failure of modernism has given opera a new start and a new potential." [see the embedded video below: 55'48']

In addition, Gockley stated in the video: 
I have a style to pursue, that is neo-verismo, and … one of the things both Nicola and I … we wanted an opera that will immediately speak to the audience, that they would take to heart immediately and walk out of the theater and would make a big impact on them. It’s a cliché you know walking out whistling the melodies and it’s not what you know we are supposed to do you know through out the 20th century with musical modernism being so chic. So we’ve decided we would turn our back on that, and forget that it existed. And we said to Marco: “You know, your fathers are Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni and let them rip.”

We have a co-commissioner and co-producer in the Teatro Regio Torino … of course they thought twice about this you know, "are people going to say this is too retro?" And I said: “Come on, you know, be … be heroic, you know, go against the grain and maybe we’ll re-ignite a tradition.

It was distressing to hear such sweeping denunciation of modernism from an impresario overseeing such an important theater. Gockley had expressed more than once that he wanted his composers to forget that modernism ever existed.  Could this be the reason that Higdon balked or dumped, despite the fact that her music was not even that edgy.

San Francisco Opera has also announced another commission - the seminal 18th Century Chinese novel by Xueqin CAO, "Dream of the Red Chamber", to be composed by Bright Sheng.
San Francisco Opera today announced two key artistic personnel for the Company’s world premiere commission, Dream of the Red Chamber by renowned Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng (Madame Mao, The Silver River). Premiering Fall 2016 at the War Memorial Opera House, Dream of the Red Chamber will be conducted by American maestro George Manahan and staged by celebrated Taiwanese director Stan Lai in his Company debut.
Initially, I was very excited by the idea but my excitement turned to suspicion when I learned that this might be a vanity project, as it was pushed forward by Chinese Heritage Foundation of Minnesota, which engaged San Francisco Opera to commission this opera.

Granted, that alone was not enough an alarm, then I encountered this report online, Opera on A Dream of Red Mansions:
When the project took off last year, Gockley asked Sheng for two things. First, the music - both vocal and instrumental - should relate to Chinese music, so use Chinese instruments. Second, it must be "beautiful" and avoid traces of European modernism in the score.  
Really, avoiding any trace of modern development in music history, in an opera set in English, commissioned for an English-speaking audience?

Haven't we heard something like that before. What was it called?

Degenerate Art!* Of course!

When artistic straightjacket becomes shackles, the stipulation degenerates from foolhardy to heinous.  Such regression is anything but heroic. If the artistic approach behind the "Dream of the Red Chamber" won't change, that project is doom as well, I am afraid.

* On Wikipedia: Degenerate art (German: Entartete Kunst) was a term adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany to describe virtually all modern art.

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