This afternoon at BAM, City Opera and Rufus Wainwright need a hit; will they get it?

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Rufus Wainwright and Melody Moore. (Richard Termine)
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George Steel and Rufus Wainwright both need a hit.

Steel, manager of New York City Opera, pulled off something of a coup with the opening of a shortened, scaled-back season of touring dates after, facing a $5 million shortfall and a grim future, the company announced it would leave its longtime Lincoln Center home to mount its productions at various stages around the city.

La Traviata opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last weekend for a run that ended yesterday and garnered positive reviews; but more than one reviewer or blogger has pointed to the fact that a much-awaited performance of the same opera at the much bigger and richer Metropolitan Opera arrives in April; sold-out houses were less an indicator as they might have been, since many of the seats were offered for just $25 after the intervention of a patron to help support ticket sales.

The City Opera's profile as a fresher, perhaps at times scrappier, more imaginative company than its staid and beloved senior sibling the Met is blurring, too, as the Met, under director Peter Gelb, experiments with its repertory and commissions new and avant-garde works itself in a bid to bring in younger audiences. With the institutional muscle the Met brings to the task, the seemingly homeless City Opera also seems to be missing a mission; that is something that a subsidized production of La Traviata produced with Steel's signature realism but in period garb could not have corrected.

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Enter pop star Rufus Wainwright, whose first opera, Prima Donna, has its New York debut this afternoon at Brooklyn Academy of Music under Steel's City Opera, the second of four productions the company is undertaking this season.

Wainwright has long professed impatience with the genre limitations of his pop and folk repertoire, and the expectations that come from being the scion of a well known musical family himself; he has busted out of those limitations with some success over the years. But this is Wainwright's first stab at an original opera.

The opera is not an entirely unknown commodity:

"As a longtime admirer of his music, I wish I could report that Prima Donna fulfilled his ambitions for writing a fresh and personal new opera. He certainly brings deep talents and potential to the challenge," wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini in a review of a performance of the opera during the the Manchester International Festival in July of 2009. "But Mr. Wainwright’s score and his attitude toward the drama often seem muddled, as if he were relying too much on his keen musical and theatrical instincts lest he overthink and impede his imagination," he wrote.

A year and a half later, the question is whether this opera will turn critics around, and help Steel in his mission to rebuild his company.

In an interview, Steel's signature cheerful resolve was on display.

He said he was “delighted to say that the company had concluded some difficult negotiations with one of the great orchestras of New York City," union negotiations that, coming after the announcement of the company's financial woes and decision to leave Lincoln Center had many wondering whether he would be able to mount a season at all.

"We have completed the third leg of our complete financial restructuring and we are on track to end the year with a balanced budget for the first time in a decade,” Steel said.

In Prima Donna there is also the potential for a transactional victory for Steel. The work was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, but those plans were scrapped in 2008 because of differences between the company and Wainwright, who said in an interview that he had insisted the libretto be in French (the opera as about an aging diva in 1970's Paris); also, the Met could not offer a production date before 2014, which was not soon enough for Wainwright.

Steel believes that Prima Donna is an opera that “absolutely needs a New York production.” Melody Moore, who will sing the leading role of Régine Saint Laurent tomorrow, said in an interview that Wainwright's production, and his personal style, are a confidence booster.

“His ability to make you feel that you’re the only person in the room, and yet, take in the entire room is uncanny,” Moore said. “He’s really good at dealing with us crazy singers and still adding the physical form to the piece. He’s democratic, I like him.”

And indeed it is likely tomorrow will be about Wainwright's talents and his ability to communicate to a New York audience.

This Wainwright has shown he can do.

Wainwright is the son of the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, a man who talks of his son like the Fool talks to King Lear. They have an interesting relationship, it can be venomous; but there is still a sense of a father advising a son. And Wainwright has always had his sister Martha and his late mother, Kate McGarrigle. The Wainwrights are a family of singers and seemingly big egos that have always been there for him.

But nor is his pop-folk repertoire completely alien to an opera project. Listen to Wainwright’s song “Rules and Regulations” and he seems to break those rules that have been boundaries to similar pop stars. It is in the horns, they soar in a way that reminds me of a rock concert going on in a smoky Italian opera house, circa 1896. The song is catchy in a way that still inspires a sense of high pop class.

Wainwright has been an opera fan forever. Steel makes a point of this.

“Rufus was there before I arrived; what he is, is a lifelong opera fanatic, he is deeply knowledgeable and a huge fan.”

This is where he diverges from his family’s folk past. He is a composer who Melody Moore, playing the lead in the opera, believes can invoke equal parts Strauss and Debussy.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal Wainwright made explicit that his project is about engaging a new audience for opera, and questioned Gelb's ability to do the same.

“I think he made a tremendous mistake," Wainwright said. "I think he kind of didn't comprehend my passion for the medium and how dedicated I am to it and to follow through on this. There are not a lot of people out there in my world that are wholly into opera.”

Fittingly, Prima Donna is an opera about the opera. What better way for Wainwright to address his feelings towards the genre, and for Steel to communicate his vision of the place of City Opera, than by staging a work set around the failings of an aging diva who is losing her voice?

St. Laurent, the central character, is a washed up opera singer living in Paris on the eve of Bastille Day, 1970. It’s like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway with a wealthy woman trying to exercise the demons of the past.

These fears have haunted her all night long and the Régine wakes up early to wonder as to what happened six years before when she sang in public in the opera about Aliénor d’Aquitaine, queen of England and France. But she is thrust into the present when her butler reminds her of the interview scheduled for that afternoon with a Parisian journalist. As the interview begins, the two fall for each other, both obsessed with that role St. Laurent once played, and as she begins to try to sing again her voice fails. She is rushed off; the journalist is shocked and hastens for an explanation.

The remainder of the opera is set in that same apartment with Régine talking amongst her servants who either make her feel better or make her feel even worse as the butler Philippe does when he reminds her of a love affair gone wrong. Régine begins to sing again but cannot reach the notes she is aiming for. As the journalist returns for one last interview she tells him that her career is over and as she signs her last signature she is left to watch the fireworks on Bastille Day.

The opera is romantic, it reeks of passion, and it is the passion of the New York City Opera for remaining an alternative to the old way of doing things. And so, Prima Donna is not just an important production for a short and crucial season, but a sort of mission statement.

“New York City Opera, as a company, has been focused on the future of opera from its founding," Steel said. "And so producing Rufus’ opera in its U.S. stage premier is right down the fairway for us… it’s a part of our essential mission to champion new American opera.”

George Steel has cemented his company for now but as to its future, he is going to stay optimistic.

And Moore said she feels that some of the early troubles of the opera are behind them.

“We’ve gotten up and moved on so … not worried,” she said.