I saw two operas last week, and the experiences couldn’t have been more different.
Amidst a sea of empty seats, I attended an extremely well-sung and competently staged but otherwise traditional and entirely predictable 3.5 hour matinee of Bizet’s Carmen at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. I’ve lost count of how many productions I’ve seen of this warhorse, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen.
Two days later, I watched Florentine Opera’s spirited, repeatedly surprising and wildly entertaining opening performance of Così fan tutte: REMIX, a 90-minute romp through Mozart’s late great masterpiece that gave me a new and deeper appreciation for the opera’s characters while underscoring what Mozart’s contemporaries would have understood: Così is a comedy.
With musical arrangements by Nicolás Lell Benavides and a redo of the Da Ponte libretto by Kelley Rourke, it’s being performed in English as Florentine’s entry in the World Premiere Wisconsin festival by rising stars, all but one of whom is currently or was recently enrolled in Florentine’s studio artist program for developing young opera talent.
With Laurann Gilley at piano and conducting a six-piece ensemble featuring two keyboards, a clarinet, a trumpet, a guitar, and a double bass, it’s being staged by the incomparable – I don’t use that word lightly – Jill Anna Ponasik, who has been reinventing opera one production at a time during her fourteen thrilling years at the helm of Milwaukee Opera Theatre.
And just why, Mike, does opera need to be “reinvented,” by Ponasik or anyone else? Given how glorious Mozart’s music is in Così, isn’t any redo like Florentine’s Remix tantamount to putting lipstick on the Mona Lisa? Just what was so special about this production, anyway?
I’ll answer those questions momentarily. First, some vital context.
Those empty seats I saw at Lyric last week weren’t an aberration. Well before the pandemic, this storied company’s robust subscription base was declining; by 2018, the corresponding decline in the number of performances prompted Lyric’s justly acclaimed orchestra to go on strike.
It was a wake-up call, for a company that had already begun to pivot by programming more contemporary work. “We’ve realized that, actually, the status quo is not an option if we want to survive, let alone thrive,” Lyric general director Anthony Freud said in a 2018 interview.
Following its groundbreaking world premiere of Jimmy López’s Bel Canto in 2015, Lyric launched a new initiative to stage at least one contemporary opera sung in English each season with an outstanding production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000), staged just before the pandemic.
Lyric then came roaring back from the pandemic with a 2022 production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2019), an opera in jazz adapting Charles M. Blow’s memoir of growing up poor and Black.
This year has brought us Lyric’s world premiere production of Factotum, a soul opera covering the waterfront from gospel to funk, in a riff on The Barber of Seville set in a barbershop on Chicago’s Southside; it sold out its entire run before opening night. Two weeks from today, I’ll be watching Lyric’s world premiere production of Proximity, featuring a trio of operas addressing gun violence, climate change, and the role of technology in our lives.
New York’s Metropolitan Opera is undergoing a similar sea change. Its own 2021 production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones drew sell-out crowds; ditto its recent production of The Hours (2022), which had already enjoyed success as a novel and as a film. Meanwhile, the Met’s production this season of Verdi’s Don Carlo ended with just 40 percent attendance.
Shortly thereafter, Met General Manager Peter Gelb announced that the Met would begin each ensuing season with a production of a contemporary work.
The Met’s 2023-24 season will include first-ever Met productions of Dead Man Walking, Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1985) and Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas (1996); Fire Shut Up in My Bones and The Hours are also coming back for encores.
“The only path forward is reinvention,” Gelb insisted as he announced these changes. “Opera should reflect the times we’re in,” added Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director. “It’s our responsibility to generate new works so that people can recognize themselves and their realities on our stage.”
Making It New in Milwaukee
Ponasik has been singing this song for a long time, through MOT productions – some of them now legendary – making clear that opera can be both glorious and fun, combining theater, dance, and music in a way that no other art form can quite match (yeah, I say this as a longtime theater critic who loves musicals).
I’ll never forget MOT’s send-up (and simultaneous rescue of) The Mikado. Its brilliant, ravishingly beautiful redo of The Magic Flute. The zany and wonderful home-brewed magic of its Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom!. Its steampunk version of The Tales of Hoffmann. And don’t even get me started on MOT’s innovative rethink of musicals from A Chorus Line to 1776.
Little wonder that Florentine’s recently announced 2023-24 season confirms Ponasik will be back at Florentine next year for the fourth time, to stage direct a New Orleans-inflected adaptation of Offenbach’s La Périchole, in a season also featuring a Milwaukee riff on Puccini (Bronzeville Bohème) and a production of Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires – a rarely performed tango operetta that MOT staged in 2011, after Ponasik somehow brought together four Milwaukee performing organizations to make it happen.
Ponasik and the many creatives involved in remixing Così made it happen Friday night by taking Rourke’s dramatically rethought storyline and exuberantly running with it.
Sung without intermission, this rendition of Così nevertheless features two distinct halves.
The first is set in 1984, as the opera’s six characters are on the cusp of graduation from Da Ponte College. The second takes place during their college reunion 20 years later, as they look back with nostalgia on their younger and braver selves while wrestling with life’s intervening disappointments.
While one need not know squat about either Mozart or opera to enjoy this piece – a huge plus, given that it makes the sometimes stodgy world of opera accessible to all – there’s also plenty here for the purists, including a sampling of the original’s dazzling arpeggios, long Mozartian lines, and sparkling recitatives, all of it well sung by a cast that is clearly having a great time.
Rourke’s time gap makes for a melancholic double vision of a sort that often gets lost in productions of Così, in which Da Ponte’s broadly comic, sometimes clumsy libretto is in frequent tension with the occasional panic and emptiness in the sublime music, composed by a man just two years from death and anxious about the state of his own marriage.
Having offered us partner-swapping antics galore in her 1984 scenes, Rourke gets darker as she moves forward to 2004 – much as Mozart’s opera changes hue when its lovers realize that fidelity and commitment aren’t always the walk in the park they’d once blithely imagined.
Hence even though this remixed Così is just half the length of the original, its characters can seem even more well-rounded, with only the pot-stirring, ever-plotting Despina (Nicole Heinen) as a relative constant.
Alfonso (David Guzmán) is both the grumpy cynic to which productions often reduce him (1984) and the warm, wryly wise friend he ultimately proves himself to be (2004).
Dorabella (Tzytle Steinman) is both the carefree and sometimes thoughtless young woman we first meet (1984) and the careworn mother in an increasingly loveless marriage (2004); her romantic husband Ferrando (Patrick Bessenbacher) offers a meditation on what happens to a man who’s so in love with the idea of being in love (1984) that he pays insufficient heed to the person he’s allegedly in love with (2004).
Guglielmo (Zachary Crowle) is every bit the narcissistic player the original opera gives us (1984). But in Rourke’s feminist-inflected version, we also see how lonely such men eventually become (2004).
Finally, the original opera’s most nearly tragic character, Fiordiligi (Laura McCauley), explores what happens when our youthful confidence in our imminent success (1984) founders on life’s shoals, shipwrecking our ambitions and leaving us adrift, lonely, and lost (2004).
No, Rourke’s Fiordiligi doesn’t get to sing that wrenching Mozart aria about the disconnect between her newly inflamed passion for a lover and her longstanding commitment to a fiancé.
But so what? McCauley embodies (and sings) that disconnect, in a form that lets both opera aficionados and newbies feel her pain. Isn’t that good enough? Why are we always pointlessly searching for some mythical original, when every production is a reinvention?
In his brilliant Subsequent Performances (1986) – one of the finest books on this topic ever written – the late, great theater and opera director Jonathan Miller speaks about the “afterlife” of a classic, through which it continues to be made new by each generation that encounters it.
Miller rightly points out that an original can’t ever fully provide “details of prosody, inflexion, stress, tempo and rhythm,” adding that “a script tells us nothing about the gestures, the stance, the facial expressions, the dress, the weight, or the grouping or the movements” on stage.
Even the most detailed stage directions necessarily leave a great deal out; it’s up to performing artists and the audiences for whom they create to imagine those scripts into life. No performance, Miller insists, is ever pure; no matter how old a play or opera is, every production is necessarily new.
Miller insisted that works of art are “open-ended, and that to pre-empt such open-endedness is perverse and would guarantee [a] work’s early death.”
“The afterlife” of a work of art, Miller continued, “is a process of emergent evolution, during which meaning and emphases develop that might not have been apparent at the time of writing, even to the author.”
What Miller is describing is an actual conversation (remember those?). Truly listening to others – the dead as well as the living – is how we change and grow. It is how we make sense of our collective story. It is how we make time our ally instead of our enemy. It is how we cheat death and enter immortality.
Perhaps that’s why the Florentine production, set in one of those familiarly generic college union common rooms, includes a huge portrait of Mozart looking down from the backstage wall. Even when he’s in the background, Mozart’s spirit is very much with us in this remix, underscoring that he remains alive and well, as long as productions like this one allow him to sing on.
He’ll do so through this production for one more weekend. Hear it while you can.
The final two performances of Così fan tutte: REMIX are this Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. For more information, visit https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/event/cosi-fan-tutte-remix-2/.