When a music critic writes "What went wrong?" after a performance, the question is probably most often rhetorical. But Los Angeles Opera's much-anticipated world premiere this month of Deborah Drattell's "Nicholas and Alexandra" -- the first work commissioned exclusively by the company -- left not only many critics baffled but numerous audience members asking that question.
And in the enormous chat room the opera world becomes in the wake of such a high-profile flameout, there turns out to be no shortage of outside opinions on where, why and how the project may have gone awry -- and on who to praise for courage or blame for bad judgment for failing to stop a runaway train.
The opera, which opened Sept. 14 and ended its run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday, seemed to have everything going for it: a tragic, familiar and historically important story; Mstislav Rostropovich, considered to be among the world's great cellists, conducting the orchestra; Placido Domingo, who is also general director of Los Angeles Opera, making his 120th role debut as Rasputin, a part written specifically for the superstar tenor; popular singers Rodney Gilfry and Nancy Gustafson in the title roles; noted theater director Anne Bogart at the helm, with her SITI company performers woven into the staging.
Before the opening, some critics and leaders of other opera companies did question L.A. Opera's choice of composer Drattell, a relative newcomer who had served as composer in residence at New York City Opera, where her opera "Lilith" premiered to mixed reviews. And librettist Nicholas von Hoffman, although a respected political journalist, author and commentator, had never written an opera libretto. Still, this premiere was front loaded with so many intriguing elements that all five performances sold out in advance.
Then came the reviews -- not mixed but negative across the board, dominated by variations of the words "flat" and "dull." "By intermission, [there was] the unmistakable feeling that a wake had settled in at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion," wrote Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun. "There are those who will want the head of Deborah Drattell in recompense for having to sit through her opera," offered Timothy Mangan of the Orange County Register. A similar lack of enthusiasm reigned at the New York Times, Daily Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, the San Diego Union-Tribune and this newspaper.
Twenty-five years ago, experts say, audiences avoided opera premieres, expecting a contemporary composition to be inaccessible and probably weird -- but now world premieres are trendy events, selling out faster than "Madame Butterfly." What's more, at a cost of a little over $3 million, "Nicholas and Alexandra" was well within the average range for an L.A. Opera production. So money is less the issue here than bruised egos as well as the future of this opera and new operas as a whole.
"I spoke to a successful composer who saw it and said, 'This is a blow to the whole movement of American opera,' " said David Gockley, general director of Houston Grand Opera.
Yet opera professionals agree: There are certain realities to opera production that make a train difficult to stop once it's moving. Commitments to composers, performers, venues and donors take place years before a production arrives onstage. There is no option to change an opening date the way a movie studio can postpone the release of a movie, or cut losses by deciding to shelve the thing altogether.
Plus, unlike theater, the opera world has no established system of out-of-town tryouts or preview performances before a production faces the critics. Even if the money existed to put on eight opera performances a week somewhere out of town or during weeks of previews, the demands on opera singers' vocal cords prevent them from performing major roles so often.
"Commissioning operas is a huge roll of the dice," observed Richard Gaddes, general director of Santa Fe Opera. That company has a long tradition of presenting world premieres, including this summer's "Madame Mao" by Chinese composer Bright Sheng. "As a producer, you almost put your future in the hands of the composer. You can't go to the composer and say, 'Don't make it an F sharp. Make it an A.'
"You have to take the risk and do it and deal with the consequences. And I would say it doesn't work as often as it does," Gaddes added. "I've been involved in unsuccessful premieres myself, and it's a horrible feeling."
Others, however, say that in the case of "Nicholas and Alexandra," choices on the part of L.A. Opera leadership, especially committing to this composer, may have raised the stakes unreasonably high.
"Wagner wrote three or four operas before the first one that anyone thinks has any worth, and the same with Verdi," said Gockley of Houston Grand Opera, another frequent presenter of world premieres, including 2003's "The Little Prince" and 1998's "Little Women" at Houston Grand Opera Studio.