SHOW NOTES: Beth Morrison- Making Opera Matter, AUO Episode 2

The impact Beth Morrison is having on the opera scene is palpable.  Run an online search for her name, or her company Beth Morrison Projects, and you’ll see what I mean.  Here is the company’s website, to save you a few finger clicks:  www.bethmorrisonprojects.org.

She has worked for several years to position this company to its current state of utter success, and to position them for an even brighter future.  Her company has been so successful on the east coast, that they recently opened an office in LA to be closer to productions on the west coast, including projects she’s producing for LA Opera.

I’ve worked with Beth on one project.  Through a very intense, and multi-year process, Beth taught me several things about her:  1)  She will work hard if she feels a project has merit; 2)  She has a keen business sense, but her empathy for other humans leads her actions; 3) I know that the artistry I offer her project will be respected and nourished- from the concept stage to post-performance.  Knowing these three factors of her character I’m not surprised she is successful.

In this interview, she references an Oscar Hammerstein, II quote about being a producer.  Hammerstein, you may know, was a world-class librettist, whose works were primarily broadway bound.  He collaborated with composers Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern, amongst others, and launched the career of Stephen Sondheim- a librettist’s pedigree doesn't get much better than that. Here is the quote Beth references:

I think only people in the theater know what a producer is. The public does not know. It knows a writer writes, and an actor acts, and a director tells them what to do.  A producer raises money. Well, he does, and in some cases thats all he does. But the workers in the theater know that this is not the real thing. A producer is a rare, paradoxical genius –hard-headed, soft-hearted, cautious, reckless, a hopeful innocent in fair weather, a stern pilot in stormy weather, a mathematician who prefers to ignore the laws of mathematics and trust intuition, an idealist, a realist, a practical dreamer, a sophisticated gambler, a stage-struck child.That’s a producer.”– Oscar Hammerstein II

In this episode, Beth and I have a discussion about a topic you’ll hear often on Amped Up Opera.  Opera is theater.  It is a story told with music, period.  The music should dramatize and enhance the text paired with it.  And singers who sing opera should be keen to make BOTH the music and the text pop in a theatrical way.  Beth points out, as several of my colleagues do, that often traditional opera forgets that last step- that merely singing the words attached to a musical line is good opera.  Beth and I COMPLETELY disagree. 

To me this one-dimensional approach is an afront to the great composers of what we now call ‘traditional’ opera, and entirely unacceptable in new opera productions.  Puccini wrote with an intention he called the ‘evidence of the situation’; he wanted you to sit down in the theater to experience an opera, and know exactly what the story was, and what each character was feeling by the sheer sound of the music and its performers. The great Verdi was called a composer by a fan, and he corrected the speaker by telling him he wasn’t a composer, he was a “man of the theater”.  In fact one of the most famous biographies of Verdi bears that title.  And don’t get me started on the specificity of EVERY textual and musical nuance in Mozart.

If the goal is to present an opera from the composer’s intent, then you cannot limit the theatrical bent of its production, whether in concert or in a fully-staged production.  WHEW!  Lecture concluded.  In all honesty, this topic came up very naturally in our discussion, and I think you’ll find very interesting Beth’s take on it, and how that observation focusses her programming.

Beth is having the kind of box office success (attendance and dollars) with ‘new opera’ that most regional opera companies would kill for.  It seems new opera is not for everyone, but it seems we should be asking ourselves why Beth’s performances are striking a chord with the public and the press.

Beth’s sincerity is a joy.  She continues to work hard to provide artists with a wonderful environment to practice their craft, and give audiences a true visceral experience in each of her productions.  If you have the chance to see a Beth Morrison Project live, I highly recommend the experience.  Her company and its projects are also very visible online.

MUSIC FROM THIS EPISODE:

1) I start and end every Amped Up Opera podcast with the Overture to CARMEN.  It’s energy amps me up.

2)    There are several excerpts on this episode from the recording I made through Beth’s company with composer David Lang.  It is a very provocative work of musical theater called the difficulty of crossing a field.  David writes in such a compelling way, and the text by Marc Wellmanis the perfect marriage with David’s music.  The recording was released in June of 2015, and has received wonderful reviews from the New York Times, Opera News, Wall Street Journal, and many others smart reviewers…. It was a pleasure to be a part of this Beth Morrison Projects and David Lang adventure.  You can buy your copy by clicking here…. https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/david-lang-difficulty-crossing/id991892456.

3)  Just as I’m saying good-bye in this episode, I play a snip-it from Piazzola’s great ‘operita’ MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES.  This is the world’s only tango opera, and it is a very compelling experience.  Piazzolla playing his own work can be found on this two-part, 1968 recording- https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/maria-de-buenos-aires-vol.-1/id73584984.