Early in its season, City Opera staged a new American opera—or rather, a very recent one: Margaret Garner, which first appeared in 2003. It was composed by Richard Danielpour to a libretto by Toni Morrison. Danielpour is a New York-born composer, about fifty, who has written a great variety of music. Morrison, as you know, is the Nobel laureate in literature from 1993. In 1987, she had a great success in the novel Beloved—a novel that told the story of Margaret Garner. And, from this, the opera sprang.
Who was Margaret Garner? She was a slave in Kentucky, then a runaway slave. Cornered, she killed her two-year-old daughter—slashing her throat—rather than see her returned to slavery. She was about to kill her three other children, and finally herself, before being subdued. This took place in 1856—and haunted America for some time thereafter. In its program, City Opera printed a painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble from 1867: The Modern Medea. Interviewed about Margaret, Morrison said, “The theme that struck me was that she was not crazy. They were stunned to find her a) articulate, b) sane, and c) interested in doing it again. She was just steady as a rock, and I thought that was extraordinary.”
In 1998, eleven years after the publication of Beloved, Oprah Winfrey made that novel into a movie. Then, not long after, Danielpour composed his opera. Undeniably, the Garner story is a fascinating and provocative one. Along with that painting, City Opera published several essays, and the flavor of them all can be tasted in this passage: “The Garner case … symbolizes Black women’s determination to resist their enslavement. In a single act of defiance, Margaret destroyed the master’s ‘property’ and likely, his progeny. The complex dynamics of slavery, in which race, gender, and class play a significant role, help to explain Margaret’s infanticide,” etc. Maybe, maybe not. But still, this is indeed a fascinating and provocative case.
Danielpour has written a good score, and a very American one. We hear many idioms and traditions in it: gospel, blues, jazz. In the opening pages, there are touches of Bernstein, touches of Gershwin. I thought West Side Story and An American in Paris were virtually quoted. And, though the setting is Kentucky, the score can sound awfully urban—specifically, awfully New York. Danielpour includes some fine choruses, and he moves his opera along at a good pace. He does not allow for applause, incidentally—no applause after arias and ensembles. He has the orchestra skip right ahead.
Some of the score is a little hokey, a little kitschy—Sandburgian, you might say. You could also say that it is human. Danielpour is simple without being simplistic, and eclectic without being a mess. Furthermore, he’s to be congratulated for having the courage to write tonally and lyrically—and popularly. He began life as a serialist, but found, apparently, that he had to write other music.
Note, too, that Margaret Garner includes genuine hits, or pieces that deserve to be hits: A few years ago, I heard an aria from this opera in a song recital, and it made an impression on me. It must have been Margaret’s aria from the end of Act I—touching, noble, even moral, in a way. Danielpour also includes a lovely lullaby, adding to America’s inventory of lullabies. There’s one in Porgy and Bess—I can’t quite remember its name.
A key question to ask is, Does the work hold one’s attention? And the answer is yes—certainly in the first of the two acts. The second act grows a little tedious, however, and it also suffers from some bombast, or blatancy: For example, I found the hooting of the white townspeople parodic, rather than real. But the ending of the opera is well crafted, which counts for a lot: A good beginning and a good ending are two of the best friends a composer can have.
Speaking of composing, Toni Morrison’s libretto contains some beautiful, beautiful sentences—also some excellent rhymes: rhymes that please or touch without being merely clever. Say what you will about Nobel Prize recipients—and I’ve said my share over the years—Morrison is hardly without talent.
City Opera had a new production, fashioned by Tazewell Thompson, a director and playwright. It is, in general, a smart and effective production—economical, too. Also, we are reminded that it is difficult—horribly difficult—to look at slavery. Its subjugation, degradation, humiliation, sadism, violence, and, maybe especially, rape are unbearable. At one point in the opera, a slave kills the overseer, and, on the night I attended, a portion of the audience applauded.
Singing the title role of Margaret was a mezzo-soprano with the pleasant, catchy name of Tracie Luck. She sang with poise and intelligence, and she handled her acting the same way. Previously, she had covered in this role for Denyce Graves, a star. It was good that Tracie Luck had a chance in the spotlight. Portraying Cilla, Margaret’s mother-in-law, was Lisa Daltirus, a soprano, who sang movingly, soulfully. Robert, Margaret’s husband, was the baritone Gregg Baker, whose singing was marked by lyrical power. City Opera’s chorus performed with engagement and heart. And, in the pit, the conductor George Manahan showed strong, supple leadership.
As you know, it is not enough for musicians to be musicians, and, for City Opera’s program, Richard Danielpour penned an essay—all about the “relevance” of Margaret Garner, which is to say, its relevance to national and world affairs today. Aren’t all good or rich stories enduring? Do they have to be “relevant,” in the modern, cheap sense? In this essay, Danielpour connected the Garner story to Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration’s “ethics,” the Iraq War (“exorbitantly expensive, never-ending”), and so on. Truly, this essay was little short of demented. Why does someone capable of writing that Act I aria of Margaret’s think he has to do this other? I would think that composing music people wanted to hear again—and hear repeatedly—would be enough.
Leave opera for the moment to consider some pianists—in particular, György Cziffra, one of the most formidable pianists of the twentieth century. He lived from 1921 to 1994, and should have enjoyed even greater fame than he had. He certainly deserves an international society in his honor. And he has one: the International Society of the Friends of György Cziffra, whose North American correspondent is Francis Romano. Mr. Romano organized an event—an “Hommage à Cziffra”—at Yamaha Artistic Services, on Fifth Avenue. This event included several young pianists, and Cziffra himself—playing for us via video and audio recordings. It was a virtuosic and enjoyable evening.
Mr. Romano spent twenty years in boxing, working as a trainer—and he finds many similarities between boxers and pianists. They are largely solitary figures, and they engage in intense preparation, physical and mental. Moreover, this preparation involves a lot of repetition. Romano describes himself as part of “a vast international underground of piano nuts”—people who trade recordings and information. Some people with their recordings are like kids with their baseball cards.
Even more than most musicians, György Cziffra has to be heard, rather than described. He had one of the most stupendous techniques we have ever known—and he was a real musician, to boot, not just a finger-wizard. He also lived a remarkable, often harrowing life, as Romano explained in a biographical essay. Cziffra was born outside Budapest, in bitter poverty. Both his father and one of his sisters died of starvation. By the time he was five, Cziffra was playing at the Budapest Grand Circus, improvising on themes suggested by the crowd. For years, I have described Cziffra and a few others as having a “circus technique”—and Cziffra actually got his start in a circus.
In the war, Cziffra was conscripted into the Hungarian army, and he was a POW of the Soviets until 1947. He then played the piano in nightclubs, bars—wherever he could. He also resorted to other employment. Romano writes that, “in addition to his playing, [Cziffra] worked as a bouncer at many of the seedier Budapest clubs, and he even dabbled in amateur boxing.” A few years ago, Cziffra’s widow told Romano that “György’s nose was broken many times.”
In 1950, Cziffra, with his wife and son, tried to escape to the West, but they did not quite make it. The pianist was sentenced to three years’ hard labor—and, writes Romano, “his captors, knowing he was a pianist, focused their tortures on his hands and wrists. Cziffra was sent to a number of punitive labor camps and was forced to work ten hours a day carrying heavy blocks to build the University of Miskolc.” Almost miraculously, Cziffra emerged from this experience to play again. And, when the revolution came—in those fleeting days of October 1956—the Cziffras made their escape. Within weeks, he was playing in the West and being lionized. Eventually, he became a French citizen, personally handed the relevant papers by De Gaulle.
Cziffra was not quite done with hardship—their son, a conductor, would burn to death in 1981. But Cziffra lived a fruitful life, bringing pleasure and amazement to millions. He died at seventy-two.
If you play in honor of Cziffra, you might as well play something Romantic and virtuosic—and that’s what happened at Francis Romano’s event. It was an evening largely of transcriptions. First to play was Di Wu, in her early twenties, part of the piano explosion from China. She opened with the Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff Lullaby—which should be “haunting,” to use a cliché, as well as lulling. And so it was. She continued with Chopin-Godowsky—the Seven Studies Based on the “Black Key” Etude, Op. 10, No. 5.
Leopold Godowsky (1870–1938) was not only one of the greatest pianists in history, he was also an inveterate composer and transcriber. He loved to play around with Chopin, making his études even more challenging. Until recently, Chopin-Godowsky was considered hopelessly old-fashioned and adulterous. But these pieces have made something of a comeback. I’ve heard them in recital halls in the last few years, and a young Russian virtuoso, Boris Berezovsky, made a recording (for Warner Classics). Godowsky himself made few recordings, and he very much disliked to record. Perhaps he would have been friendlier with better technology. People who heard him in the flesh—and there aren’t many remaining—say you simply had to be there. They say there was nothing like Godowsky’s sound, taste, and charisma.
In any case, Di Wu played those Seven Studies, and did so capably. She suffered from a certain stiffness, or lack of fluency, and she might have imparted more a sense of improvisation. These studies should not be played in a programmed way, should not be too earnest. But Di Wu also did some admirable things, and she is to be thanked for perpetuating this music.
Francis Romano presented Cziffra in Saint-Saëns and Liszt—and we forget. We forget what a stunning pianist Cziffra was. It’s not right to dwell on technique, on mere physical wizardry, but we have to say something. Nothing was too hard for Cziffra; nothing seemed even to pose effort. Cziffra added notes to Liszt, for the purpose of filling the music out—music that was overstuffed already. Beyond this, however, Cziffra had abundant charm, spirit, understanding. He was Old World, all the way (in the best sense).
We all know that when Backhaus plays, say, “Warum?” he is musical. But Cziffra is musical too—even in pieces that, in other hands, are vulgar.
After the Cziffra recordings, the man sitting next to me—a pianist himself—said, “I’d hate to follow that.” But the show had to go on. We heard from Koji Attwood—a two-t’d Atwood—a pianist from Kansas. He started with a transcription of his own: of Fauré’s song “Les berceaux.” Fauré is an eminently transcribable guy, with many of his songs finding their way into instruments. Attwood has added to this literature. And who can resist a Fauré song? I wish he had played “Les berceaux” straighter—with less liberty, the way Janet Baker sang it—but you could say he was entitled: It’s his transcription, after all.
Then, Attwood played a rarity, or rather, a group of rarities: études, preludes, and an elegy by Sergei Bortkiewicz. He was a Ukrainian-born Polish composer who lived from 1877 to 1952. Not unlike Cziffra’s, his life was harrowing: He ran from place to place, fighting off Communists, Nazis, cold, starvation. The pieces we heard manage to be flashy and dreamy at the same time —true-blue Romanticism. And Attwood played them in the desired flashy-dreamy fashion. Before leaving the keyboard, he, like Di Wu, gave us some Chopin-Godowsky: the Study No. 42, “Winter Wind.”
A third young pianist was Mei-ting Sun, who started out in Shanghai and moved to New York at nine. He, too, played a transcription of his own: a big transcription: from Salome. The pianist next to me said, “Is he going to strip, too?” But Sun had not transcribed the Dance of the Seven Veils. He had transcribed Salome’s Final Scene, which I have always called “the mad Liebestod.” This is not an obvious candidate for transcription—for pianofication. It cries out to be sung, and played by an orchestra. Indeed, when the music got to “In der ganzen Welt”—soaring—I just had to supply my own soprano, mentally. But Sun did his job manfully: both as transcriber and as pianist.
His Salome treatment is fantastically hard—I think Cziffra would have smiled over it.
The evening was dedicated to Nathaniel Yangco. He was a young doctor—early thirties—who died last summer in a scuba-diving accident. He was a brilliant, multitalented man. He was a member of the aforementioned “vast international underground of piano nuts.” And he was a pianist, too. We saw him in a video playing Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations. Nathaniel Yangco could play, and it was moving to see him.
You are reading a “New York chronicle”—no falsity in advertising—but would you come with me, for one night, to Atlanta? The Atlanta Opera has a new home, and it’s something new under the sun: It’s a home outside the city center. Opera houses are almost always downtown. But populations change, and so must artistic life. For many years, the Atlanta Opera bounced around, to places like the Fox Theatre—a movie palace—and the Civic Center. Now it is resident at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, a spanking new facility in, as the name might tell you, Cobb County.
It is a striking and beautiful structure, too: white, swirling, and glassy; modern yet elegant. Inside, there are red seats that fold up (and down). People associated with the Atlanta Opera have high hopes for the Cobb Centre, anticipating that it will make the company nationally and internationally known. Furthermore, they believe that the center will have a big effect on Atlanta—a city that is growing and rising in any case. Can opera be important to a city’s identity—not in Italy or Germany, but in America? Yes, actually. It is important to San Francisco’s identity, and to Houston’s. I would argue that it’s even important to New York’s—huge and multifarious city that it is.
All of Atlanta is behind the new operatic enterprise, spiritually and financially. Prime sponsors include Coca-Cola and Delta, of course—and also Zurich Insurance. In fact, the Atlanta Opera’s general director, Dennis Hanthorn, is officially the Zurich General Director. How’s that for branding? In the future, companies may feature the Acme Soprano, or Prima Donna.
On Opening Night, le tout Atlanta was in attendance, from corporate titans to intellectuals to politicians. Outside the Cobb Centre, they were doing dragon dances, and many ladies were in lovely, shining Asian outfits. What could this mean? That the opening opera was Turandot, Puccini’s immortal tale of China. The Atlanta Opera was using an old, sumptuous production owned by the Dallas Opera. It has a touch of Zeffirelli to it. Atlanta’s director was Bliss Hebert, and its choreographer, please know, was Lee Harper. Turn her names around and you have one of America’s favorite novelists.
In the title role of Turandot was the soprano Lori Phillips, who got through the role admirably. Turandot is known as a voice-killer, or a career-wrecker. Ms. Phillips seemed unkilled and unwrecked. The Calaf, tenor Philip Webb, sometimes sounded pinched, and he could have generated more sound. Many of Calaf’s notes must ring—as in “Turandot! Turandot! Turandot!” That is Calaf’s famous cry at the end of Act I. Then the character wallops a gong—three times—which Mr. Webb did but good. And, in general, he acquitted himself well.
Incidentally, the audience cheered like crazy after Calaf’s Act III aria, “Nessun dorma.” It is truly a worldwide anthem now (thanks to the World Cup and the Three Tenors). Frankly, it couldn’t have happened to a better piece. That thing is splendidly crafted, and you can’t hackney it.
The soprano Angela Fout was Liù, and, initially, she did some very good soft high singing—a must for Liù. Thereafter, she suffered from some stridency, but she still got her job done. And, that night, it occurred to me—maybe for the first time, after a lifetime with Turandot—that Liù may have the best music in the opera.
The Timur, bass Steven Humes, was dignified, noble, and, in brief, just right. Ping, Pang, and Pong, Puccini’s remarkable threesome, were all engaging. The chorus is a key performer in this opera, and Atlanta’s performed laudably. Its Italian was not the best, however, and, in fact, it was not a great night for Italian all around. The conductor, Arthur Fagen, was competent in the pit. And the Atlanta Opera Orchestra has some very good players in it—pretty much all of the principals.
It can be said in a sentence: The whole of this opening-night performance was greater than the sum of its parts—which is what we want, on any operatic evening. Besides which, this was not so much a night for criticism as for celebration. It was a big night for opera in Atlanta, and, you could argue, for opera in America. A lady at the first intermission was overheard to say, “This is so much better than the Civic Center.” No doubt true.
I have just one complaint—a complaint and a query: This new facility is called the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Why that British spelling for Center, in the heart of Georgia? What’s the matter with a good ol’ American Center?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 3, on page 63
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