The weekend wasn’t normal – new normal or some other kind of normal. It was remarkable, however. Opera has proven particularly problematic during the pandemic. The prospect of witnessing the Los Angeles Opera’s first opera since spring on Saturday evening and the Moncton Opera hosting a spectacular UnGala on Sunday gave hope that a corner could be turned.
The obstacles posed by the pandemic made LA Opera and LBO sensible and energetic to think about what the art form might look like for the next generation. Diversity is of course a silver lining for any institution at this wrong moment in history.
This enabled the LA Opera’s music director to indulge in one of his favorite passions: restoring neglected operas and harnessing the resources of the young artist training program in partnership with the Colburn School. For the occasion, James Conlon selected Joseph Bologne’s The Anonymous Lover, an opera from the late 18th century that is as dark as you might come across. The production was filmed at Zipper Hall and will be streamed for free on the LA Opera website through November 29th.
Bologne (or possibly Boulogne) was also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and for a long time as Mozart Noir, the Black Mozart. Bologne was born in Guadeloupe to a French plantation owner and an African woman whom the owner probably enslaved. In Paris he became a celebrity. He was a handsome, famous swordsman, a virtuoso violinist, a stunning composer and the leader of one of the most successful orchestras in Europe. He commissioned and premiered Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies, and Conlon suspects that this may have influenced Mozart, who was 11 years younger than Bologne. One of Bologne’s biggest fans was Marie Antoinette.
Although many details in Bologne’s life are sketchy, history has hardly forgotten him – simply ignored him, or at least his music. It is difficult to assess the role racism played. The breed appears to have contributed to Bologne’s appeal to some point, namely opera. He should have been the head of Paris’s leading opera company – a position he was reportedly highly qualified to hold – but he was turned down after certain star singers said they would not take orders from anyone of mixed race. So we have one of the great what-ifs in classical music. Only “The Anonymous Lover” has survived from Bologne’s several operas.
The main obstacle to a revival of the Bolognese opera is that Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven dominated the classical era in such a way that hardly anything else matters to a modern audience. Nevertheless, the composer clearly fascinates the young cast and the young Watts director Bruce A. Lemon Jr., who was trained by Juilliard, and directs his first opera – a comedy in which the secret lover of his newly widowed closest friend becomes something with whom you have fun with respect.
In the production itself, the COVID-19 restrictions were bypassed. Conlon recorded a chamber orchestra in Colburn’s largest rehearsal room, masked, distant and otherwise protected. The singers operated with two opera hands tied behind their backs, heard the orchestra only through small ear monitors and kept their distance from one another. Still, they seemed excited. Everyone wins, especially leads Tiffany Townsend and Robert Stahley.
French opera means dance that Bologne had a special talent for, and a little sexy ballet doesn’t hurt the show. A lively production team plays around with costumes and digital special effects while filming. But in the end, Bologne’s chances of resuscitation in the concert hall with its superb violin concertos and string quartets remain a better choice. In fact, the Bolognese opera that fascinates most is the multifaceted composer himself.
LBO showed 20 potential young composers who could write just that on Sunday evening. For its UnGala “2020 Songbook”, a fundraising campaign archived until Sunday, the company commissioned the up-and-coming composers to write something short and operational about life this year. The composers were selected by five mentors – Anthony Davis, David Lang, George Lewis, Annie Gosfield and Du Yun. And like these veterans, this planned future of opera represents different genders, races and ethnicities.
Every work, be it a song, an aria, a short scene or something outside of the categories, had a video about it. The host of the evening was the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who broadcast from his kitchen and conjured up a wonderful chocolate soufflé as a break.
Perhaps the main reason is that the coronavirus has tended to increase the company’s moxie. LBO has pledged to pay all of its artists in full for the work commissioned in the coming season (which will be overseen by Yuval Sharon and realized in any way the pandemic allows). What could be nicer than a flood of new Mercury talents who want to examine our current state from countless musical, visual, ecological, sensual, geographical, personal, physiological, ecological, philosophical, cultural and historical perspectives.
For many of them this was a time to breathe deeply, to let the silence penetrate, to meditate, but also to let everything out, whether in a passionate song or an electroacoustic ether. This was just a taste of it, the equivalent of Costanzo taking an delighted spoonful of his soufflé. I’d love to hear which main course any of them come up with next.