"An Everything Sandwich": Steel and Yim Discuss City Opera's Upcoming Season

Classic Arts Features   "An Everything Sandwich": Steel and Yim Discuss City Opera's Upcoming Season
George Steel, City Opera's general manager and artistic director, and his right-hand man, Edward Yim, Director of Artistic Planning, talk with Cori Ellison, NYCO's Dramaturg, about their plans for the 2010 _2011 season.


Cori Ellison: What aspects of our 2010 _11 season are you most excited about?

George Steel: I love the incredible range of compositional styles. Stephen Schwartz comes right out of American musical theater, and Bernstein lived in both the popular and classical worlds. Then there's the transparency of Donizetti and some opulent middle-period Richard Strauss, topped off by the delicious trio of Schoenberg, Feldman, and Zorn. It's an "everything sandwich!"

Ed Yim: In terms of dramatic content, the five productions cover a fascinating range of what opera is: from Schwartz's Séance on a Wet Afternoon based on a noir-ish 1960s film, to Bernstein's dark yet ultimately uplifting portrait of American Family Life, to the frothiness of The Elixir of Love and the wit of Intermezzo, to the gutsiness of the Monodramas, the balance is really beautiful.

GS: We have three new productions, a huge step forward in itself. We're presenting four premieres of works by American composers: all New Yorkers. We have the New York premieres of Séance and Bernstein's A Quiet Place. Then there's the world stage premiere of John Zorn's La Machine de l'être. And the U.S. stage premiere of Feldman's Neither, one of two works this season that have come out of VOX: Séance, created specifically for our amazing Lauren Flanigan, and the Zorn piece. That's an astonishing amount of American work, much of it rather new. And all but one of the operas we're doing : Elixir : are 20th or 21st century operas. That's a huge part of what City Opera is all about.

I'm especially happy to be doing A Quiet Place, since it grows from and actually incorporates Bernstein's earlier one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, which Bernstein actually conducted at City Opera in 1958. And I'm thrilled to have Christopher Alden back, after his triumphant Don Giovanni, to direct A Quiet Place. He'll bring a bold, clear vision to it.

EY: Our revival of Elixir will include an important debut, the young Mexican tenor David Lomeli, who won Domingo's Operalia competition a few years ago. And I can hardly wait to see Marco Nisticò, a NYCO favorite, cut loose as the quack doctor.

GS: Elixir is the kind of piece we can use as a vehicle for discovering new talent, casting it with fresh young singers who put in serious rehearsal time to build an ensemble. Stefania Dovhan, who debuted here last fall as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, is coming back to sing Adina.

EY: In Giovanni, she played a dark, disturbed character, so I'm delighted to see her do this personality shift in Elixir and show her versatility.

GS: Elixir adds a balance, a lightness to our season. Our production is a witty re-imagining of the old love-potion story, set in the American Southwest of the 1950s, the kind of production that NYCO does well, rediscovering a great mainstream opera and bringing a fresh take to it.

CE: For something completely different, we have the Monodramas, a triple bill comprising Schoenberg's "Erwartung," Feldman's "Neither," and Zorn's "La Machine de l'être," which may be the thing I'm most jazzed about. Let's talk about how that idea came about.

GS: I had actually imagined a triple bill like this for a long time. For one thing, the Monodramas give us a chance to collaborate with visual artists, to invite them to to design stage productions and show us the way forward. I'm interested in NYCO working with visual artists in that way, as well as in two other big ways: First, connecting contemporary visual images with our productions in our marketing materials. Then, showing major original artworks in our Promenade and other areas of the theater, as we did this past season with E.V. Day.

CE: Though the triple bill is very "out there" and progressive: very NYCO: musically, theatrically, and psychologically, I love that it also celebrates an essential old operatic tradition: the lone prima donna onstage, spilling her guts and pushing the limits of range, agility, and all-around vocal dare-devilism. The Monodramas tie together the most progressive and the most traditional elements of opera.

Next season we're also launching a new initiative: a series of concerts, most of which have a direct relationship to our staged productions.

GS: First, it's a chance for us to show off our hall, which is now one of the great concert halls at Lincoln Center. The renovations not only improved the acoustics, but also made the hall flexible, and made it into a wonderful concert space for our orchestra and chorus, so people can listen to music that informs operas we do.

EY: The Christine Brewer concert, which will be our opening gala concert, may not seem to have direct connection to our productions this season, other than the fact that she'll be singing some Strauss songs, along with Wagner and Puccini. But I think we can say it's a portent of things to come. We're discussing various projects with her, and this is a little teaser. You know, she actually sang Donna Anna at NYCO back in the early 1990s!

CE: The other concerts we're presenting next season have a more obvious relationship to what's onstage.

GS: The Bernstein concert spins off A Quiet Place, of course. It's always a joy to dip into Bernstein's enormous catalogue and seize the opportunity to look at some of his vocal music that doesn't get performed that often, and show it in the context of his whole output. A Quiet Place and Trouble in Tahiti are hybrid Broadway and opera, and Bernstein is America's greatest theater composer, so we'll present some of his theater music as well as his concert music. We'll do an incredibly moving lullaby from his Kaddish Symphony, excerpts from Songfest, On the Town, and maybe some West Side Story and Mass, which was the first stage show of Bernstein's I ever saw, back in 1981.

The John Zorn concert, linked to the Monodramas, will show the diversity of his output, which is astonishing. There's his classical music, traditionally notated works for standard instruments, but he's best known for his avant-garde music, which has incredible energy and pushes virtuosity to the absolute limit. We'll hear avatars of his project Masada, Dave Douglas, Mark Rebo, Uri Cane, playing tunes from the Masada catalogue: relatively swung, Klezmer-inflected, and standard jazz tunes, and much more hard-driving stuff, the ultimate hardcore sort of rock singing, screaming that becomes a kind of noise art. It's going to be an incredible evening!

CE: What about the Stephen Schwartz concert?

EY: Séance is his first opera, but he's already known and loved in New York for his theater work, and we wouldn't miss the opportunity to speak to that side of his music. And it allows us to welcome artists like Kristin Chenoweth and Raúl Esparza to the opera house.

CE: Let's not forget about Where the Wild Things Are, which we'll be performing in concert as our Family Matinee, as well as for school audiences.

GS: It's a fantastic, incredibly smart, brilliantly composed opera for young people. NYCO gave its New York stage premiere in 1987, and Maurice Sendak, the author of the book it's based on, is closely associated with NYCO, having designed our productions of Love for Three Oranges and Cunning Little Vixen.

I've wanted to do it for a long time, because it doesn't compromise musical values to appeal to kids. I believe that inventiveness is what will attract children.

EY: This seemed like the perfect thing to do as the centerpiece for our Education program next year. Not just because of the subject matter, the popularity of the story. We've found that young listeners can be more open to newer music than adult audiences, so why not introduce them to the music of our time early on? Wild Things is also a terrific opportunity to fulfill NYCO's mission of serving young American singers. The Tanglewood Music Center is doing Wild Things this summer, and we're planning to cast their singers and give them the opportunity to perform it here in New York.

CE: George, you recently celebrated your one-year anniversary at NYCO. Any reflections at this juncture?

GS: The time has just flown. And ultimately, the greatest highlights have been in the theater watching productions, and of course the renovations, being able to effect the changes I had for so many years wanted to see. Other highlights have been getting to know the staff, and helping everyone get back to putting opera onstage, and being the front man talking to people in New York who are so happy to see City Opera back up and running. And I feel that this coming season will be another big step on a really exciting journey for New York City Opera.


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