|Christine Goerke with Sir Andrew Davis|
Happily, at least for today, though it's a subject that, even after years, I'm still in the early stages of understanding. When someone accuses me of being an opera expert, I instantly correct them: No, I'm an enthusiast. An expert commands a body of knowledge and an acuity of perception that I can't touch. Andrew Patner, may he rest in peace, was an opera expert. Alex Ross is an opera expert.
I'm just a fan. I find that opera gives my life unique pleasure, scope and meaning. Opera is my version of following pro sports, only, you know, interesting. Though I'm open to the idea of eventually developing a better grasp of opera. Having dabbled, I've begun to notice certain glimmerings of a more subtle understanding, a few green shoots of insight. When the Lyric announced they'd be doing "The Merry Widow," next year, my first thought was, "What, again?" and then I smiled, realizing, "Ah, Renee Fleming wants to star in it. That's why it's back so soon. Now I see."
Or reading Alex Ross's "Musical Events" column in the May 11 New Yorker. I was on familiar ground from the get-go, since it begins talking about one of my favorite operas, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," currently on-stage at the Met, paired, as is typical, with Pietro Masagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."
Of course, knowing of Cav/Pag isn't much—they're two of everybody's favorite operas, among the most familiar operas of all time. Pagliacci's "Vesti la Giubba" is the soaring aria evoked when popular culture wants to convey "Opera." Cavalleria is only a little less famous.
Then Ross pivots from those pair of one-hit wonder composers to the workhorse of all opera, Richard Wagner. First Houston, an unexpected oasis of culture in the Texan intellectual desert, where "Die Walkure" is starring Christine Goerke. He moves to Eric Owens, singing "The Flying Dutchman" at the Washington National Opera.
Hey, wait a second, I thought. Goerke. Owens. I KNOW those guys. I MET them. Goerke at a press conference announcing Lyric's ambitious presentation of Wagner's full four opera Ring of the Nibelung cycle, which will be performed at the Lyric Opera beginning in the fall of 2016 with "Das Rheingold." And Owens, an excellent Porgy in last season's "Porgy and Bess," participating via Skype, will be the Ring's Wotan.
Not that Ross mentions any of this. I was tempted to wave the oversight as a bloody shirt, more evidence of the unfortunate invisibility of Chicago to the Gotham elite. But Ross once commented on this blog—thank you Andrew—so I decided his heart is pure, and he probably just didn't have the space, and since I hate it when local media fusspots zing me without gathering the courage to ask for my perspective, I checked with Ross: slight to Chicago or not enough room? He replied:
Thanks for the note, and for giving me a chance to respond! Comments about New York ignoring Chicago are seldom unjustified — Andrew Patner might well have chided me on this very point — but in this case I don't feel guilty as charged. I had very little space to discuss the performances, and so I chose to focus entirely on what I heard in DC and Houston. Not only did I omit Goerke and Owens's future engagements in Chicago, but I also made no mention of Goerke's appointment to sing Brünnhilde at the Met in 2018-19. In other words, it was a rare case of New York ignoring both New York and Chicago. Needless to say, I am very eager to hear Owens's Wotan — I've been anticipating the occasion on my blog for several years — and plan to attend the Rheingold in Oct. 2016.Fair enough. So to bring this lengthy overture to an end, and get to the point of this: Ross's scouting report from the Grapefruit League in Texas and the swamplands of DC. (New York isn't the only city that gets to snap open the lorgnette and squint at smaller places). How did Goerke and Owens do, Wagner-wise?
"Both singers fell short of technical perfection," Ross writes, "at a few moments of high pressure, they issued tremulous, imprecise sounds. Yet they delivered portrayals of acute, pulsing emotion, belying the stereotype of the well-trained American singers who is expert in various styles and native to none."
Good news, in the main (you should read his entire piece by clicking here). Ross calls Owens "the most overtly human, openly wounded Dutchman I have heard live" and Goerke's entrance "ricocheted through the house and radiated joyous strength."
Joyous strength is good. That's what I go to Wagner to hear. Falling short of technical perfection won't even register on my score card. When I mention Wagner to people and they make a face and talk about his operas, which they haven't heard, taking a long time, I think, So does being alive. Ross said he paired these two singers because they are both "new" to Wagner—Owens first sang Wagner five years ago. It would have been nice if he had the room to tuck in that this duo will share a stage here for years. But his not mentioning it meant that I had to, sort of a gift, which mirrors how I came to writing about opera in the first place. Wynne Delacoma had retired, yet the opera world somehow carried on, and I said to myself Someone has to pay attention to this.