Saturday, May 3, 2008

An Afterthought about THE DANGEROUS LIAISONS (the opera)

I have the good fortune to have a member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra as a neighbor in my condominium complex. I realized that, because my knowledge of Conrad Susa's opera, The Dangerous Liaisons, was so limited, I had the opportunity to talk to someone who had performed in its premiere. Unfortunately, her only memory was that every rehearsal involved working on changes to the score that had been used at the preceding rehearsal. This is not particularly new in the normative practices in preparing an opera production, particularly when the production is a premiere. Readers may recall that I made it a point to see Philip Glass' Appomattox a second time at its final performance, since I was not sure if the production had "converged" the first time I saw it. Bearing in mind that we were talking about memories close to fifteen years old, my neighbor could not recall if The Dangerous Liaisons had ever converged during its run in San Francisco. In this respect, however, that Wikipedia stub for Susa was helpful, since it indicated that he had worked on revising the opera between 1996 and 1997!

There are any number of stories about what happens when creative artists are subjected to the sorts of deadlines that are so essential to just about any other line of work. The best one is captured in The Internet Movie Database on the Memorable quotes page for The Agony and the Ecstasy:

[repeated exchange]
Pope Julius II: When will you make an end?
Michelangelo: When I am finished!

(It's no fun without that "repeated exchange" preface!) Closer to my own experience, Elliott Carter was teaching at MIT at the time when Jacob Lateiner was preparing the first performance of his piano concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The work had been commissioned by the Ford Foundation, and Carter reveled in telling us how aggravating it was to have the Ford Foundation keep calling him in exactly the same way that Julius pestered Michelangelo. For me it threw a whole new light on just how beneficent these "beneficent organizations" could be!

Then there was the world premiere of Robin Holloway's fourth Concerto for Orchestra, which the San Francisco Symphony had scheduled as the first half of a program whose second half consisted of Christian Tetzlaff performing Johannes Brahms' violin concerto. The Holloway concerto turned out to be based on Piers Plowman and ended up as a massive piece of work that came close to requiring a full evening for performance. Needless to say, the San Francisco Symphony staff was not going to "uninvite" Tetzlaff (who is extremely popular here); so Michael Tilson Thomas had to explain to us why we would be hearing an abridged version of Holloway's new work.

These are all stories about how "art as a calling" can knock heads with "art presentation as a business;" and, as we can learn from Pope Julius, those heads were knocking long before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism. My guess is that those heads will never stop knocking. If you want to be a creative artist, you have to accept that a sore head comes with the territory. Susa was fortunate to be able to work on revising his score. I am hoping that Holloway will be fortunate enough that we in San Francisco will hear his Concerto for Orchestra in its entirety sooner or later. It's not a perfect world, but it is the one in which we must live!

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