Terrorism, Tenors, and Concert Halls: A Look Back at Some Top Stories of 2006

Classic Arts Features   Terrorism, Tenors, and Concert Halls: A Look Back at Some Top Stories of 2006
 
Opera getting discussed on the evening news — who would have thought that would happen? It did in 2006, more than once. (Sometimes it was even good news.)

But the potential terrorist threat to opera houses and the bad behavior of a certain tenor weren't the only big classical music stories of the year. There were openings (a good half-dozen new or renovated performance venues) and closings (Tower Records), arrivals (Peter Gelb at the Metropolitan Opera, Kent Nagano in Montreal and Munich, James Conlon in Los Angeles) and departures announced (Eschenbach from Philadelphia, Gatti from Bologna).

And, of course, there was lots and lots of Mozart. Some pretty impressive Shostakovich and Steve Reich as well (but not enough Marin Marais).

Here are our picks — not necessarily in order of importance — for some of the top arts stories of 2006.


The Berlin Idomeneo. Journalists from all over the world came running to the German capital — for a revival, no less. Hans Neuenfels, one of the perpetual adolescents terribles of German opera staging, added a scene to Mozart's opera in which the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad (along with those of Poseidon, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha, which excited less concern) is displayed on a chair.

Though the production had been presented before, more or less without incident, Berlin police warned that they couldn't guarantee that outraged Muslim radicals wouldn't attack the house. (They said the potential for danger was "incalculable," though there had been no specific threat.) The production was cancelled, and a firestorm erupted within Germany over censorship (with an unspoken but clear subtext of not giving in to "those people").

With the issues of terrorism, Islam-versus-the-West and freedom of speech coming together, the kerfuffle made headlines worldwide; even German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out. Under pressure, the Deutsche Oper rescheduled the production for two performances this month. The first, last week, had airport-like security measures and swarms of reporters, but no offstage violence; the only protestors outside the theater were a couple of Christians.

Unfortunately, only a few observers (notably David Patrick Stearns in The Philadelphia Inquirer) pointed out that this gratuitously provocative staging and director don't make ideal standard bearers for freedom of artistic expression.


Scalagna. The general-interest press jumped all over this story too, but mostly because it was entertaining. The new staging of Aida that opened La Scala's season was supposed to be all about the return of Franco Zeffirelli and his lavish, traditional production style to this grandest of grand opera houses. Leave it to a tenor to call all the attention to himself.

At the second performance, Roberto Alagna shook his fist at the audience and stormed offstage and out of the house, in the middle of the music, after receiving a few boos for his first big aria. He then proceeded to regale the waiting paparazzi outside the theater with a tirade about how he sang like a god and La Scala is a Roman arena instead of an opera house and he would never perform there again.

Naturally the management fired him (and made him pay his own hotel bill); Decca, which had contracted to tape the run with Alagna for DVD release, made rumbling noises about suing. The divo then desperately backtracked, claiming that he had no idea people boo at La Scala, that his throat closed up and he couldn't sing, that he feared he was in danger and the management should have protected him ("They might have thrown things ... After all, John Lennon was shot"). He even claimed he would show up for his next scheduled performance and expect to go on (security was told not to let him into the theater); in the end, he merely sang a farewell to La Scala from outside. He's currently claiming that he has an actual doctor's note attributing his walkout to hypoglycemia.


The closing of Tower Records. For anyone who loves classical and opera recordings, this was probably the real important news story of 2006. The retail chain's bankruptcy and liquidation, though hardly unforeseen, is a particular disaster for the independent labels that now release most new classical discs: not only was Tower those companies' major avenue for getting their product to customers, but almost all of the labels lost the entire value of their inventory in Tower's possession (with no hope of getting the money back).


Shaking things up at the Met. Peter Gelb arrived in his new position as the Metropolitan Opera's General Manager determined to make the house, and the art form, accessible and even cool. He wasn't kidding — the company has been all over the news this fall, with one new initiative after another: simulcasting the season-opening Madama Butterfly in Times Square, cutting the lowest ticket prices to $15, making some weeknight $100 orchestra tickets available for $20, high-definition simulcasts of Saturday matinees into movie theaters, the Met's first-ever open house, hiring top film and Broadway directors to stage new productions, an all-Met channel on Sirius Satellite Radio, free live audio webcasts of one performance every week, a brief performance on David Letterman's show. Gelb was even on The CBS Evening News two nights ago — how often does opera get mainstream attention like that?


Mozart, Mozart, Mozart. Most everyone loves his music, and it sells lots of tickets. So naturally presenters all over the world made a big, big deal out of Wolfgang Amad_'s 250th birthday year. Not surprisingly, Austria went all out: the Salzburg Festival presented all 22 of Mozart's operas, and Vienna spent €30 million on a one-time blow-out, with €10 million going to Peter Sellars to custom-design a festival of new work called New Crowned Hope. (Two of the year's most notable premieres happened there, of John Adams's A Flowering Tree and Kaija Saariaho's La Passion de Simone.) Even festivals devoted to other composers hopped on the bandwagon: the G‹ttingen Handel Festival, for instance, featured Mozart's arrangements of Handel oratorios. The Austrian city of Graz, on the other hand, offered some relief: it declared itself a Mozart-free zone for the entire year.

It was also the centennial of Shostakovich's birth, and while presenters didn't make quite as much fuss, they certainly made note of it. A number of opera companies took the opportunity to stage Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; a few even offered his early opera The Nose or his operetta Moscow Cheryomushki. In July, Valery Gergiev brought the entire Mariinsky company to London for a 10-day Shostakovich marathon of opera and ballet. There were impressive cycles of the composer's symphonies in concert (most notably by Gergiev in New York and London) and on disc (by Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra). The Emerson String Quartet worked its usual wonders with Shostakovich's 15 quartets as well.

More or less overlooked, even within the early music world, was the 350th birthday of Marin Marais, the gifted composer and viola da gamba virtuoso who was depicted in the hit 1991 movie Tous les matins du monde. Gambist Jean-Louis Charbonnier did organize a festival of his chamber music in Paris, however, and several French cities enjoyed performances of his operas Alcyone and S_m_l_.

More attention went to a living composer — Steve Reich, who turned 70 in 2006. Dozens of cities, large and small, held concerts to celebrate; London's Barbican Centre had a full-fledged festival, and New York spent all of October honoring its local hero, with an unprecedented collaboration between Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music offering an impressive array of events.


Concert halls. If classical music is supposed to be dying out, why are communities spending so much money on places to perform it? New or newly renovated venues opened in Miami, Toronto, Orange County (California), Nashville, Paris, and St. Petersburg; star architect Santiago Calatrava's shiny new arts palace in Valencia began full operation, despite a few bumps. (Part of the stage machinery collapsed earlier this month, though, and performances have had to be reworked or rescheduled.)


Departing conductors. Daniel Barenboim finished up his tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony — only to have Lorin Maazel, out of the blue, nominate him to take the same job at the New York Philharmonic when Maazel retires. (Barenboim says he's flattered, but he's no longer interested in a US music director position.) Meanwhile, Daniele Gatti announced his departure from Bologna's big-league opera house, not long after the arrival of a new superintendent; both men insist there's no friction between them.

There's clearly some friction, alas, between the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians and Christoph Eschenbach: though many critics and colleagues think he's a marvelous musician, the players' dissatisfaction with him made it into the press, and he announced that he would not be renewing his contract there.

Serious tension seems to be brewing at the Seattle Symphony, which renewed Gerard Schwarz's contract despite the widely reported unhappiness of many musicians there with his work. (Two years ago he left the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic due to similar restlessness among the players.)


"You're fired." In June, Olga Borodina was supposed to make her Vienna State Opera debut; instead, she withdrew mysteriously; come curtain time, a management representative announced to the audience that the company had severed all relations with her. (Reports of what led to this situation vary, but nothing Borodina is rumored to have done seems anywhere near the level of, say, Roberto Alagna or Kathleen Battle.)

Pianist Stephen Kovacevich was dismissed from an engagement conducting Mozart's Cosê‘ fan tutte in Geneva because — well, it just wasn't working out. At least the firing was announced weeks, not minutes, before curtain time and was handled fairly graciously, given the state of affairs.

The Boston Symphony let go the Pops' principal guest conductor, Bruce Hangen, with no reason given at all. (It was Hangen who went public.)

Other figures lost their jobs in more awkward circumstances.

Conductor Matthias Bamert was fired from his job as chief conductor of the West Australian Symphony in Perth because the board of directors felt he was slighting them in favor of his other band, the well-funded Malaysian Philharmonic. As a replacement, Perth expected to land Edo de Waart, who in 2003 had finished a decade with the Sydney Symphony (leaving them in excellent shape) to take the podium at the Hong Kong Philharmonic. The WASO announced the succession and even sent out subscription brochures with de Waart's name all over them — but the contracts weren't signed yet, and the maestro pulled out. Oops.

Hungary's minister of culture fired the general director of the Hungarian State Opera, in a situation that's just too weird to get into here.

Speaking of weird: Colorado schoolteacher Tresa Waggoner had to leave her job in a Denver exurb after she showed her class the old video Who's Afraid of Opera?, featuring Joan Sutherland and a bunch of sock puppets. The program included an excerpt from Gounod's Faust, and some parents accused Waggoner of exposing their children to Satanism and even lesbianism (the opera includes a trouser role).


Orchestra for sale. When Beethoven Academie, a 40-member Belgian chamber orchestra, found its funding eliminated by the Flemish ministry of culture, it put itself up for auction on eBay. Within about 10 days, the bidding went past €100,000. That's real money — and eBay informed the orchestra that (a) bidding and sale on the popular website constitutes a binding contract, and (b) buying and selling human beings is against the law. So Beethoven Academie took itself off the market — and it appeared, in the end, that the price had been bid up by orchestra employees themselves to attract media attention. (The ensemble played its farewell concert on Halloween and vacated its offices just before Christmas, according to its website, though it will keep three scheduled commitments in January before disbanding entirely.)


Cancer. The modern-day plague, which robbed us of the sublime Lorraine Hunt Lieberson this summer, continued to strike: among those diagnosed with the disease this year were singers Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Dawn Upshaw, Ruth Ann Swenson, and Sylvia McNair. There was at least one note of hope within this bad news: soprano Montserrat Caball_ revealed that she has been living with a tumor in her head for more than 20 years.


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