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Critic's Notebook

London opera companies' 'crisis' is others' envy

The Royal Opera and English National Opera may be in flux, but what they're putting on stage is instructive for American companies.

March 30, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Rodrick Williams and Katherine Manley, center, in the English National Opera production of "Medea."
Rodrick Williams and Katherine Manley, center, in the English National… (Clive Barda, English National…)

LONDON — The editor of Opera is worried.

The March editorial of Britain's leading opera monthly describes this city's opera scene as being in crisis. The city's major companies — Royal Opera and English National Opera — are in a state of flux, administratively, artistically, musically and, in the case of ENO, financially.

Opera everywhere should suffer such crises.

On a recent Saturday in the British capital, I couldn't imagine a better place for opera, crises or no crises. At Covent Garden, Royal Opera was presenting George Benjamin's "Written on Skin." The much-admired British composer's first full-length opera was premiered last summer in the south of France at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. A co-commission with several opera companies, "Skin" is wending its way around Europe. It is as great as everyone has been saying.

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The same evening, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in town for a five-day residency at the Barbican Centre, happened to be offering the European premiere of John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," with Peter Sellars' staging. The choice, then for Londoners, was one of the most meaningful recent American works of music theater or one of Britain's.

As if that wasn't enough, before attending "Skin," I was able to wile away 31/2 hours that afternoon at the last performance of ENO's new production of Charpentier's "Medea." A horrifyingly credible investigation into how a mind can be poisoned to kill children, the rarely produced French Baroque opera deserves profound attention in an age where mass slaying in schools has become a bane upon our existence.

Just so that Londoners can keep up, the first important opera of 2013, Philip Glass' "The Perfect American," arrives here in June. The opera about Walt Disney, which had its premiere in Madrid in January, is a co-production with ENO. Let us also not forget that company is the only one anywhere that has mounted all three of Adams' large-scale operas — "Nixon in China," "The Death of Klinghoffer" and "Doctor Atomic." With "The Other Mary" at the Barbican, London became on that mid-March Saturday night the first city to have seen all of Adams' staged works.

Together, London's "crisis-ridden" major opera companies are doing more of significance than all of the big-budget opera companies in America put together. There is much we can learn from them.

So what exactly are the crises? The Royal Opera and ENO are in transition, both about to get new executive directors. Tony Hall, a former BBC executive who transformed the Royal Opera House (which also included the Royal Ballet) from a dysfunctional operation into a well-run one, leaves next month to return to the BBC. His successor will be Alex Beard, the deputy director of the Tate. That doesn't sound too worrisome to me. Every trip I make to London, there is something at either Tate Britain or Tate Modern (or both) impossible to overlook, no matter how tight my schedule. This month was no exception, with illuminating Kurt Schwitters and Roy Lichtenstein exhibitions.

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What Beard inherits looks pretty impressive from this side of the pond. Antonio Pappano has been a strong music director the last decade. Rumors are that he may be eyeing other opportunities — I would hope that he would be a leading candidate for the Metropolitan Opera if James Levine doesn't prove well enough to soldier on. Were that to be so, he would leave behind a company in terrific musical shape.

It is also a company with a unique vision. The recently appointed Royal Opera House head of opera, Kasper Holten, has announced plans for premieres of more than a dozen new or recent operas to see the company through the end of the decade. The composers include such L.A. Phil favorites as Kaija Saariaho and Thomas Adès (who will adapt Luis Buñuel's film "The Exterminating Angel" for the lyric stage). The company also will mount the first staging of Gerald Barry's uproarious "The Importance of Being Earnest," which the L.A. Phil commissioned and premiered in concert version two seasons ago at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

If there is a crisis it is that the depressed state of Britain's economy has unsettled everyone in the arts here. Government support, while still seeming generous by U.S. standards, keeps diminishing. All London arts institutions are scrambling to find new sources of income, and many are looking to American models of private-sector fundraising.

ENO is in a particular pickle. It has a nearly $4-million deficit, which is causing more tightwad hand-wringing than may be necessary (the Met is $50 million in the hole, after all). ENO's chairman, Peter Bazalgette, lasted not even a year before resigning to take over the Arts Council England and has not been replaced.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

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