My five nights at the opera in Santa Fe last week were some of the most engaging I’ve spent listening to music drama in a long time. I tried to analyze what the season means in the context of today’s larger opera terrain in a piece published last week, and I took a closer look at one of my favorite composers, Karol Szymanowski, in an extended review of his “King Roger” in the Sunday paper. “King Roger” is one of those perpetually more-obscure-than-it-should-be pieces, and I really don’t understand why. It is the work of a Polish composer and written in Polish, which partially marginalized it in a cultural climate focused on the German, French and Italian classics. And its eroticism is a bit a sticky point for some listeners, perhaps. The harmonic language is highly individual, a muscular impressionism that verges on expressionistic outbursts, and that may make it too volatile and unstable for some listeners. And then there is its rather quaint and dense symbolist atmosphere, ladden with anxiety and stark, almost manichean divisions of the world and the soul. But what gorgeous music, and with Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role, what an amazing vehicle for singing. I hope Santa Fe’s success with it, and recent productions at Bard and in Paris, give it a new lease.
Photo Credit: Ken Howard (Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera)
There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the future of opera, whether it’s trending to a diminished state, with major companies economizing and falling back on a limited repertory of war horses, or thriving in new formats, new venues and new companies, in a post-Grand Opera sort of way. I’m in Santa Fe right now for the opera season, which is spectacular in the way I remember opera could be spectacular when I first fell in love with the art form: great repertoire, great singing, smart direction and passionate audiences. But I do fear we are entering an age in which the serious opera lover finds less and less to delight him, unless he goes to places such as Santa Fe or a handful of other companies where commitment to serious opera is pursued without embarrassment. I tackled some of these issues in a piece for Opera News, which the magazine has kindly posted online. Here’s a nugget of my futurist musings:
Indeed, one can imagine both futures simultaneously, a two-tiered opera world in which the vast majority of the population knows the form only in its digital simulacrum, while an eccentric elite of antiquarians persists in the old ways.
Photo credit: Robert Reck (Courtesy Santa Fe Opera)
Join me at the mother ship, The Washington Post, as I live blog the Olympic broadcast tonight. Yes, yes, I know. I’m completely unqualified to say a thing about the Olympics. But I do occasionally pass judgment on spectacle, and what is the Olympics if not pure spectacle. I’ve asked composer Peter Breiner, who orchestrated all the national anthems for the 2004 Athens Olympics to join me, for musical perspective, and other insights. Beginning 7 ish EST.
At some point in the mid-90s I just stopped thinking about it, stopped watching what seemed at the time overly-sentimental, tear-jerking movies, stopped going to the plays and reading the poems and fiction that dealt with AIDS. I was lucky, born late enough to miss the brunt of the destruction, lucky to be old enough to know how to stay alive. But the New York City I joined in 1988 was a terribly sad and frightened place and by the time I left AIDS seemed too be big and awful to be comprehended. Friends died (Rob, Otis, Nolan, Ben, Jimmy, Carlos), even after 1995, when the new drugs became available, including one very good friend who succumbed to the echo-plague, the drug abuse that afflicted too many of the survivors, even after the disease became more chronic than fatal. David France’s excellent documentary, How to Survive a Plague, was the first time in ages that I sat through a survey of those years. I’m glad I did. In this Sunday’s Washington Post I write about that film, and United in Anger, as well as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (seen at Arena Stage in July) and a small but cogent show organized by Transformer and Visual AIDS at Fathom Gallery.
I used a column in Sunday’s paper to examine how the Corcoran’s curatorial history, its identity as an institution, and an all-too-frequent failure to capitalize on success has led it to its current financial woes. But there’s nothing there that can’t be fixed by passionate, enlightened, dedicated leadership. The Mapplethorpe controversy of 1989 played a role:
When case studies are written about how to blow up a nonprofit institution, the Mapplethorpe controversy is key among them, a classic map that prefigured controversies such as the implosion earlier this year at the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure (which suddenly appeared political after trying to deny funding to Planned Parenthood), the 2010 censorship of an exhibition of gay and lesbian portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the current power struggle at the University of Virginia. In all four cases, institutional leadership seemed unaware of the basic human capital invested in the organization, unaware that the people who keep the institution alive view it in essentially familial terms, not bureaucratic or organizational ones.
But the current leadership’s willingness to throw the entire museum into limbo while they pursue the horrible idea of selling the building could well be the death knell for the institution:
Yet at a critical moment, when the Corcoran desperately needs people to rally behind it, the board of directors has indicated that it is seriously considering a move that would further alienate supporters of the museum. Board Chairman Harry Hopper, in an interview with Washington Post reporters, said he and the board “weren’t out pounding the pavement on behalf of the institution” until they have “a plan that makes sense.”
Not “pounding the pavement on behalf of the institution” at the moment? I was gobsmacked by that when I first heard our reporters recount their interview with Hopper.
Last week, I spent two and a half very pleasant days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual meeting of intellectual leaders from around the planet, with a focus this year on China. I moderated two panels, one on telling stories through film, another on re-imagining public space. I wrote up a few thoughts I brought home from my time there at the Post’s The Style Blog.
We need to examine the parallels between what happened at the University of Virginia this past month, and what is happening at the Corcoran today. Is there perhaps an epidemic of short-sighted thinking running through the elite circles that control our academic and cultural organizations? Have two decades of fetishizing corporate-style leadership of non-profit organizations finally borne inevitable fruit: An environment in which the basic humanist purpose of academic and cultural organizations has been lost or supplanted? Is it time for some idealistic large foundation to create a program that educates potential board members of cultural organizations about the balance between fiscal responsibility and the real purpose of their institution (which will never make money, never pay for itself, never be anything but a torrent of red ink on the balance sheets)? It is astonishing to me that the Board of Visitors at UVA didn’t include one person who identified as a poet or artist or academic. Was there anyone in the room who could speak up for keeping the German program intact? For teaching the classics as the essential ground on which our society is built?
I’m on record as deeply opposed to the sale of the Corcoran’s building. I think a move would be disastrous for the organization, diminishing its stature and severing its relation to existing audiences and communities. The building is an essential part of the Corcoran’s collection, an inviolable property that may be in disrepair, yet is superbly suited to the Corcoran’s mission, which includes displaying art. I call it “cultural vandalism” in my review of the new Richard Diebenkorn exhibition—which looks so good in the Corcoran’s galleries I can’t imagine how the gallery’s leadership could ever contemplate leaving.
Of course, it’s easy for someone who isn’t on the board, who doesn’t have fiduciary responsibility for the organization, to cry foul on the proposed move. Organizations that rely on fund-raising have been suffering acutely for the past few years, and the fund-raising challenge has never been greater. But the Corcoran, though mismanaged and ill-tended for decades now, isn’t a small, fly-by-night non-profit. It has a major collection, it sits opposite the White House and it has been serving Washington and art for far longer than the National Gallery of Art. It’s too easy to think, Oh the Corcoran again, maybe we should just shut it down. But there’s too much at stake to be defeatist.
What it needs is new leadership and probably a new board, reconstructed with people passionately committed to keeping the Corcoran alive and vital in tough times. Donors will support a dynamic leader with an exciting vision for the museum. What’s on offer from the current leadership—institutional suicide—isn’t vision, it’s an unimaginative form of despair.
Filed under Culture, Museums