For now, Gotham Chamber Opera is happy to remain small yet significant

Mon Feb 24, 2014 at 2:56 pm
Gotham Chamber Opera performed "Baden Baden" Wednesday night at John Jay College.

Gotham Chamber Opera presented “Baden-Baden 1927” last October.

The obvious question to ask of Gotham Chamber Opera is also the wrong one, or perhaps the superfluous one: Can the company fill the void left by the collapse of New York City Opera last fall?

Halfway through the 2013-14 season, they are the second most active company in the city, and they appear to have successfully weathered the worst of the global financial crisis. They consistently mount musically and dramatically successful productions of operas outside the grand romantic repertoire, especially modern and Baroque works. Even the New Yorker Magazine calls them “New York’s leading alternative to the Met.”

Still, the question is not quite right for the company; they are Gotham Chamber Opera, after all, and the modest sense of scope—in productions and finances—is the key to it all. GCO is a small, solid company that is dedicated to presenting excellent productions of operas that are meant to be small.

Artistically, they punch far above their weight, but the class they belong to is far different from not only the Metropolitan Opera but from where New York City Opera fought their good fight. Gotham Chamber Opera is small, and they like it that way.

“Certainly, [City Opera is on our mind].” says executive director David Bennet. “We had a [previously scheduled] board retreat virtually after their demise. We talked about it a great deal, should we embrace larger repertoire, standard repertoire, should we do anything different to fill the void? And the answer was no.

“We need to do what we do well, and perhaps do more eventually, but continue to do something very specific, to do this repertoire which is intended for small venues, which inherently means we’re doing repertoire the other companies are not doing. We find ourselves complementary to larger companies.”

That in itself is of no small importance. Opera began in rooms that, while perhaps grand for living, were small for performances. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo premiered in the apartment, inside the Ducal Palace of Mantua, of Margherita Gonzaga d’Este, sister of Duke Vincenzo. The repertoire of operas that were made small, or can be produced on a small scale, is so large and filled with so much quality that GCO might never run out of material: there is Monteverdi and the entire baroque era; Mozart, Gluck, Rossini; and most of the modern era, especially Britten’s chamber operas.

And the current proliferation of new operas is made up, almost entirely, of chamber-sized pieces. Getting out of the Metropolitan Opera House and seeing a different repertoire in a variety of small and even unusual venues reveals that the grand opera style of the romantic era, though it dominates the international stages and now even movie screens, is ahistorical.

“By definition, we’re a boutique organization, and we don’t mind that,” says founding artistic director and conductor Neal Goren. “We like that. There’s some repertoire that could have some crossover into more general public presentation, like some of the Mozart operas, some of the standard ones that we could explore if we could do them in some way that would add to the public’s interest.”

This current season, with four productions, is their most ambitious in several years. It began with “Baden-Baden 1927,” produced in the theater at Gerald W. Lynch Theater, a recreation of the historic premieres of four modern chamber operas; and continued with the New York premiere, 325 years late, of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s lyrical and grave Baroque gem, La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, staged in the nave at St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity Wall Street.

The next, and penultimate, production this season is a double-bill: a staged interpretation of Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and the world premiere of I Have No Stories to Tell You, from composer Lembit Beecher, playing this Wednesday and Thursday.

“We’ve steadily grown [from one season production] as the economy has gotten better,” Bennett said, “and this year, four productions. Four feels like the place we want to be for the short term. We’re trying to grow our board and our staff to support an increased number. If we find a title we think will really sell, we might do six performances, but if we have a title that’s a little more esoteric, we’ll do four.”

The venue for this week’s double-bill will be the Metropolitan Museum. The evening will begin in the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms and Armor Court Il combattimento, then audience and musicians will move to the museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall for Beecher’s opera.

“I can’t imagine a better space than the armored gallery, which is so evocative,” says Goren. “When you walk in, they’ve set it up so that you imagine battle is happening, so it’s a perfect space.”

If this seems already like the perfect match between dramatic works and performance spaces, then that connection with the museums will go deeper: the musicians will be playing instruments from the Met’s collection of musical instruments. “The second piece uses the Monteverdi as a jumping off point,” adds Bennett. “It uses the same instrumentation but with 20th century harmonic and rhythmic technique. The compositional style Lembit uses really references the Monteverdi, there is his version of recitative, they both involve battle, battle with a woman soldier.”

“They work very well as bedfellows, these two opera,” according to Goren. “They speak to each other across the centuries. Both of them use narrators, probably the most important character in the Monteverdi is Testo (“text” in English), the narrator, and Lembit uses a trio of women to narrate. It’s very beautiful, powerful, affecting music.”

Monteverdi’s piece, an operatic scena, tells the story of the knight Tancredi, who fights and kills a Muslim soldier, not knowing until the end that it is his lover Clorinda in disguise. Beecher’s thirty-minute piece translates the theme into a contemporary setting and shows a similar conflict from the other side: a photojournalist home from covering the battlefields of the Middle East finds herself haunted by her experiences and unable to communicate with her husband, who presses her on her experiences.

Beecher is GCO’s 2011-13 composer-in-residence. He was the first selected in a program of overlapping composers, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (he is be followed by Missy Mazzoli for 2012-14 and Andrew Norman for 2013-15, with the recipient of the fourth round of funding to be announced later this year). The existence of this program and its musical fruits indicate Gotham’s financial stability. The residency provides a two-year salary and benefits, as well as resources for their work and career development, direct support for a composer that in no way has to culminate in a piece for the company. Beecher’s opera is an entirely separate commission, as was Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters from GCO’s 2011-12 season.

About the company’s financial health, Bennet says they have a secure budget for the next few seasons. Small is in direct proportion to affordability, and means there are more opportunities for creative productions.

GCO doesn’t have their own house, and so they have to be nimble. Goren describes their decision to stage Haydn’s Il Mundo Della Luna in the dome of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History (in 2010) as coming out of sheer necessity. But it is fundamentally invigorating to see opera in such a surprising setting. And seeing opera in a space where the singers are close enough to brush passed is profoundly affecting, and musically makes for better music drama. Says Goren, “We think the chamber [size] distills the emotional power of the piece.”

The company’s season concludes in May, with three performances of Toshio Hosokawa’s monodrama The Raven, from Poe’s poem, in their U.S. premieres. The production will be staged at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater as part of the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural “NY PHIL BIENNIAL” festival of modern and contemporary music, and will star mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg and dancer Allessandra Ferri, former prima ballerina assoluta with the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and La Scala Theatre Ballet.

Future plans include stagings of the early Rossini comic operas, and working towards mounting productions of Monteverdi’s three main operas: L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, spread across three seasons.

All aspects of the Baroque repertoire are on the table for Gotham Chamber Opera. They plan on doing more Handel because, “audiences have a desire to see it,” says Goren. Small means “we’re open to anything” that can be adapted into staged drama. “Many years ago we did the Janacek Diary of One Who Disappeared and Dvorak’s Gyspy Songs as staged productions at the Morgan Library, which we felt was very successful dramatically.

“We try and do music of all periods, whatever is appropriate for our mission. We’re nimble.”

“Institutionally, we’re not encumbered by many things,” adds Bennett. “It means we have to operate very lean, but it’s a benefit as well. If we had a real, clear reason to stretch in a way that was different, Mozart standard stuff we would do.”

Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and I Have No Stories To Tell You will be performed 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Metropolitan Museum.

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