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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Airing of the Grievances: the Worst of 2011

From the City Opera to the Battle of Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be a better way... a Festivus, for the rest of us!!!"
Festivus prophet Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller. with pole), acolyte Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards)
and his disciples Jerry and George. Image framegrabbed from Seinfeld "The Strike"  © 1997 NBC.
Today is December 23, the date some New Yorkers celebrate Festivus, the holiday invented at a toy store by one Frank Costanza while fighting over a Cabbage Patch™doll.* Originally observed every year in the Costanza household, Festivus is a simple holiday. It requires a large aluminum pole (instead of a tree.) At the Festivus table, there is a simple meal, followed by the Airing of the Grievances, and then something called the Feats of Strength.

In the spirit of the season, we here at Superconductor celebrate Festivus with our first ever Worst-of list for 2011. There are eleven items on the list, in deference to the year. So set up the aluminum pole, and let's get to the worst things that happened in the classical music industry--or at least the ones that we covered this year.

Ed. Note: The closing of Opera Boston happened the day after this piece went to press. We've added it to the bottom of the list.

Cancellation fever strikes.
The Metropolitan Opera's 2011-2012 season was marred by all manner of cancellations. Ben Heppner and Gary Lehman both pulled out of the title role in Siegfried, the latter one week before the prima. Angela Gheorghiu cancelled Faust for this year, citing "artistic differences" with director Dez McAnuff. (She was replaced by Marina Poplavskaya.) Just to be sure, the Romanian diva cancelled her 2012 contract as well. It's a matter of some conjecture if she sings at the Met anytime soon.

The decline and fall of the New York City Opera.
This one had been brewing for a while. With its labor contracts up, the decision of NYCO general manager George Steel to ditch his company's longtime digs and embark on a (sort of) odyssey across New York recalls the decision by fictional British rock group Spinal Tap to replace their songs with the blues-jazz (or is it jazz-blues?) noodling of bassist Derek Smalls. This ongoing story includes a protracted battle with the unions for both the orchestra and chorus, a bitter dispute that is currently before a federally appointed mediator.
(For more on the slow death-spiral of New York City Opera, read Fred Cohen's excellent (and educational piece in Opera News: The Ballad of NYCO.)

A number of singers passed away this year, but the most shocking death was the loss of the talented Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra. Following a motorcycle accident in his native Sicily, Mr. Licitra died of complications following a brain injury. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

Labor troubles between symphony boards and musicians have been a common thread this year, with industrial action taken in Louisville and Detroit. But the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra became the first major American ensemble to file Chapter 11 this year. This was either a loud cry for help or an attempt to play hardball with the union. Eventually, the union blinked, and the season started on time. The effects of this action are still reverberating in Philadelphia.

The Metropolitan Opera's new start times.
As long as we're airing grievances, the Met's new 7:30pm start times make the relaxing activity of going to the opera house a mad dash through New York's subway system. Citing a survey of opera-goers taken in 2011, the Met pushed back all of their start times by half an hour. That's so people driving in from the suburbs can get home a little earlier, but a little hard on us New Yorkers. Maybe it's a plan to close area restaurants around Lincoln Center and sell more little sandwiches at the Revlon Bar?

Peter Gelb vs. Bradley Wilber
The most shameful act by the Metropolitan Opera this year. The company sent a "cease and desist" letter to Brad Wilber, an upstate librarian and author of the 'Metropolitan Opera Futures' page, a website that offered uncannily accurate predictions of forthcoming seasons at the Met.  (The Met claimed that the site was making it harder to negotiate advance contracts with artists.) We miss Mr. Wilber's cybernetic crystal ball, which had a knack for telling you what was coming up on the Met schedule and what direction the company was heading in. 

James Levine's Labor Day slip.
The ailing conductor was placed on the disabled list in May, stepping down from his Boston and Tanglewood obligations to rest and recover. On Labor Day weekend, Mr. Levine fell while walking in New England. Emergency surgery was required. As a result, Mr. Levine hasn't conducted anything since Wozzeck and Die Walküre in the spring. He is not scheduled to conduct at the Met until at least the 2013 season, but retains the post of Music Director.

The Music Director's (literal) fall from grace led Met general manager Peter Gelb to elevate Fabio Luisi to the post of Principal Conductor at the Met. Mr. Luisi agreed to salvage the new productions of Don Giovanni, Siegfried, and next year: Götterdämmerung. But the schedule-shuffling required Mr. Luisi to cancel a number of European and North American  commitments: concerts with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Symphony. He also bailed out of a Rome production of Richard Strauss' Elektra, three weeks before the premiere.

The proud record label, which made the first major recordings of Herbert von Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic and helped set the tone for the development of the modern classical recording industry is being folded into Vivendi, owners of Decca and Deutsche Grammophon. Will the EMI brand (which has been home to artists like Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Plácido Domingo and Jacqueline du Pré) survive into the next decade, or will it suffer the same fate as Philips Classics?

The "Machine" Malfunctions.
Miscues and malfunctions marred the 2011 premieres of Die Walküre and Siegfried, the second and third installments in the Met's new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle. Deborah Voigt fell off the set on opening night of Walküre. (She was OK.) The first two Siegfrieds had clunks, thunks, and one outright dead stop (in Act III) on the second night. The action was hastily moved to the apron of the stage. 

On Dec. 1, the night Metropolitan Opera's final performance of Satyagraha, Lincoln Center was closed off. Hearing that Occupy Wall Street was planning a demonstration, the NYPD and Lincoln Center security barricaded the entire plaza against the arrival of peaceful demonstrators. This shameful behavior led to the Occupiers having their say on the sidewalk. Speakers included songwriter Lou Reed, his wife Laurie Anderson, and Satyagraha composer Philip Glass, who read from the Bhagavad-Gita.

Opera Boston goes under.
A late addition to this list--because it happened after this post went to press. On Dec. 23, two days Christmas, Opera Boston announced that it was ceasing operations, effective immediately. The company reported that it could not continue due to a $500,000 operating deficit and insufficient fund-raising. According to a report in the Boston Globe, six members of the 17-member board were against folding. So they weren't invited to the meeting when the company was folded. So much for democracy.

Visit the rest of the 2011 Year in Reviews, our account of the year that went to "'11".

*According to Wikipedia, the "Festivus" holiday was actually invented in 1966 by Dan O'Keefe, whose son Daniel wrote the 1997 Seinfeld episode "The Strike."

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