Paul Kellogg: Life Beyond Bohème, Carmen, and Traviata

[Ed. note: This conversation between Paul Kellogg, then Artistic Director of both Glimmerglass Opera (now the Glimmerglass Festival) and New York City Opera, and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on October 1, 1998. It was the third in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. "In The First Person" served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as "Cover."]

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RICHARD KESSLER: What it is like to lead two very different opera companies?

PAUL KELLOGG: I’m often asked this question, and I always have to correct the question itself because actually I’m leading the City Opera as general and artistic director, but serving Glimmerglass as artistic director only. I’m not handling the day to day business, which is fortunate. Frankly, I couldn’t possibly do both. But it’s a situation that’s unique, as far as I know — it offers opportunities for both companies that are in themselves fairly unique. For Glimmerglass, in rural, undeveloped, upstate New York, the cooperation between City Opera and Glimmerglass provides secure, reliable funding every year because we share production costs. For City Opera it provides the opportunity to bring well-developed productions to the State Theater stage. It’s very expensive and very difficult to rehearse at City Opera — we simply can’t get the stage enough. But Glimmerglass has a different situation where the stage is available. It’s a house that’s controlled by the company itself, and not shared with anyone else. So we have time to develop productions there, look at them on stage, decide what works and what doesn’t work, and make changes, and this results in a much tighter, better, more physical production. It also gives the director and cast an opportunity to get a work solidly in their minds and bodies by the time the work opens. All in all, it’s a very good cooperation between the two companies.

RK: How do you view the role of opera in contemporary society?

PK: It’s odd. Five years ago I might have said that the role of opera is decreasing in importance; that other things are coming along to capture the imagination of young people; that television has had a nearly fatal influence on the performing arts generally and on opera in particular; that the audience was aging. Now I see things quite differently. It has something to do with a real explosion of interest in opera among young people. I’m not entirely sure why this is happening, but it is clearly there — certainly at these two houses. It may have something to do with the fact that opera here is perceived as being presented in a contemporary, relevant way. It may also have to do with repertory choices. I have to say that at City Opera it is not contemporary music that draws young people most enthusiastically, but Bohème, Carmen, and Butterfly — the standard, traditional dating operas. The effect of getting people into an opera house for the first time is that very often — I won’t say inevitably, but certainly very often-they decide to come back. And overall, through all our repertory, there are more young people in this house now than I’ve seen over the years. So what does this say about the role of opera in contemporary society? I think that these people are seeing that opera presents ideas and feelings in a way that isn’t just intellectual, and that isn’t just abstract and that it has access to our deepest beings through both the intellect and the feelings, which delivers a kind of double force. Perhaps for that reason we’re seeing a more open and more receptive audience than a few years ago.

RK: In every one of these interviews we are asking a few questions that remain constant from interview to interview. For instance: what music are you listening to today? It’s interesting: Thomas Hampson started talking about Reba McEntire (although that never comment never made it into the final interview). Steve Reich mentioned Arvo Pärt. We’ve asked a variation of this question to every interviewee so far.

This next question has to do with the repertoire. For the most part the core stand of the opera repertoire has not expanded significantly since the early part of this century. For the orchestra, (for the symphonic form it’s a little bit later), what strikes you most about this? Do you think that in the years to come we will see more new works fully embraced by artists, organizations, and, most importantly, audiences?

PK: Of course opera lost its preeminence as an entertainment form in this century. There are other art forms: films, television (if it can be called an art form these days, although it has the potential to be)…

RK: It is on occasion…

PK: Theater, the musical comedy: all of these things compete, in a sense, for people’s time. I suppose something more or less moribund can’t be expected to grow. However, there has frequently been a lag between the creation of a work and wide public acceptance. One can’t really expect a new piece to jump into the core repertory immediately. I haven’t fathomed just why opera audiences in this century, particularly in this country, became so conservative unless it has to do with the growing aura of elitism surrounding opera, and its vast expense to produce which bred timidity in producers. This timidity seems to exist less where government funding is secure and generous, but the opera audience remains in large part tradition-bound even there.

Then too new music for a long time was associated with something dry and academic and tonal and foreign to the experience of most operagoers, and a wide suspiciousness developed. Happily a great deal of good contemporary composition is moving in the direction of accessibility, which will help. We hope to make the public aware of this direction and much of the fine work that’s already been written and neglected.

RK: The diversity among the writing is remarkable at this point.

PK: Absolutely.

RK: Although a gap still remains. The whole reason we at the Center have decided to create an Internet magazine for new music is because we feel that there’s a tremendous lack of communication sources specifically geared for new music. There are many people out there with negative perceptions of new music that were forged in the 1950s/60s; they still have a perception of new music and of opera — and I think that’s part of what you were talking about — a narrow perception of opera.

PK: Part of the problem is that new music grew into an intellectual ghetto and lost its popular audience. Like everybody else and every other activity in our society, people are nervous about intellectualizing; they’re uncomfortable in an atmosphere that seems heavily intellectualized. To break down that barrier is one of our many responsibilities now in producing opera.

RK: What are your plans here at City Opera for the next few years? I know that you have some very interesting plans afoot — with artists like Terence McNally and Michael Torke.

PK: Absolutely. Well, we have commissioned new works, and are talking to other composers about works in all sorts of compositional and dramatic styles. The new work that’s already underway involves three young-ish American composers, Michael Torke, Deborah Drattel, and Robert Beaser, each writing one-act operas to libretti by established American playwrights: Terence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein and A.R. Gurney, all centering around incidents in Central Park. I think that’s really a lovely project — we’re all having great fun with it. We’ll be producing a new work being written in another vein by Charles Wuorinen to a libretto by James Fenton based on the Salmon Rushdie novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories that will be coming along toward the end of the year 2000. I’m talking to other composers about work as well. Tobias Picker‘s Emmeline this season had a great success in this very large theater. One of the things that we face at the State Theater, which has 2700 seats and is expensive to operate in, is that it’s a major financial undertaking for us to put on a new work that has no built-in audience. We do it, however, because we believe it’s our obligation to, and because we like the work, and because we want the public to know what it is, and to get to learn to like it. How are they going to get to know what a new work is like unless they get the chance to hear it? Frankly it is a little impractical to be doing something that is considered experimental (I suppose) in a theater like this one. I’m hoping, in this little race we’re on, that we can convert large numbers of the public to this kind of music before we lose our shirts financially.

Another thing we’re very interested in doing at City Opera is establishing a kind of core repertory of American works. We’ve begun this, in fact. This season, 1998-99, will bring both Lizzie Borden by Jack Beeson and Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd which I and many of us here consider core American repertory. It’s something that we should be doing in this house. I’m also glad to see the Met is also bringing Susannah into its season next year. Only if major companies take this kind of stand will a core repertory be introduced to this country.

RK: I went to see the premiere of The Rake’s Progress at the Met. It’s a fifty-year-old piece, at least. And it seemed that if someone had said: “This is brand-new,” or “This has just been written yesterday,” or “This is the premiere performance,” I would’ve believed it. I find this to be both positive and negative. Positive in regards to Stravinsky and his great work, and to the production itself, negative perhaps considering the repertory issue again — it hearkens back to the second question about the repertory slowing down its expansion. It makes one wonder about the state of a musical form when a work composed 50 years ago seems as if it was practically brand-new. Has this ever occurred to you?

PK: Well, it’s interesting. I had something of the same experience with Paul Bunyan when we first did it at Glimmerglass in 1995. I had the sense that this is a new work, that it’s something fresh, and surprising, and I think a lot of the audience did. Now Britten, for whatever reason, even the Britten of 1940 written in a kind of operetta vein, is hard for some people today to understand and grasp. I do not understand that, but it’s there. There’s a prejudice against works by Britten. I’m passionate about Britten — I think he’s one of the great opera composers of all time and we’re hoping to do an Albert Herring in the State Theater in two years. We’ve already done Turn of The Screw and I want to do one day A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, although the Met now has done it (and very well too, I must say). We have an obligation to a composer of our time who is one of the great composers of all time. We have to fulfill that obligation by presenting his work. But the audience has got to come along with us sooner or later!

RK: Again, it’s a perception/actuality question — there’s a game there. At any rate it’s clear that you’re trying to create a certain image for City Opera. And I might ask you later to address that more specifically. But first: what do you think about new technologies? How do you think that they will alter the way music is created, performed, and (perhaps most importantly) accessed?

PK: Well, there are technologies not yet dreamt of that will undoubtedly make enormous changes in the field itself — in composition, in performance, in public perception. Certainly the most important thing that’s happened to opera in the last 100 years, perhaps, (or that takes us back to the turn of the century, which was our start-off date here) has been surtitles. Surtitles have increased the audience’s understanding and involvement in a work not only dramatically, but also in what the music is doing at a given moment, because opera is, after all, words and music — and if you don’t understand the words, what the music is doing is irrelevant and pointless. So why should anyone come to the opera who doesn’t know what’s happening? That may be a radical thing to say.

RK: No, I think it makes perfect sense.

PK: But surtitles have certainly increased audiences, I think they’re responsible for the younger audiences we’re seeing, and responsible for the enthusiasm that people have about opera today, and a new sense of its relevance.

RK: When you get home, and you think to yourself, “Oh, I don’t want to spend time thinking about Glimmerglass, City Opera, or this baritone or that piece”, what music do you listen to?

PK: Well, it’s always business in the sense that what I listen to (except very rarely, when I have time to listen for pleasure) in the car when I have long stretches of time on the road driving back and forth between Cooperstown and New York is opera that we may want to do in years to come — I’m always scouting the repertory. I’m doing that at something of a disadvantage, because it does help to have the libretto in front of you when you’re planning work.

I do listen for pleasure, it’s frankly another kind of music altogether. It tends to be lieder — Tom Hampson, actually, quite a lot — artsong forms which create a very different atmosphere. They provide a kind of relief from opera’s rather large demands. I listen to some contemporary song composers. I think there are several of them now who are writing beautiful songs. Robert Beaser is one, John Musto, Ricky Ian Gordon. Composers are increasingly writing for the voice, and doing it with great understanding, in ways that are expanding the form.

RK: What other works have you been looking at that you’re interested in? You talked about Carlisle Floyd, and there are others. What other works do you think have not had their due?

PK: Well, we’re reviving Virgil Thomson‘s The Mother of Us All, which is a perfectly charming, very moving American work of intelligence and distinction. It hasn’t had its due. There are many people now writing operas that don’t get performed and won’t ever get known, and your heart breaks for them, because companies (even a company that’s as well-disposed to contemporary music as we are at City Opera) just don’t have time in schedules that need to be balanced and can’t afford to produce new works, much less commission and produce new works. So a lot of very, very good writing is not being heard today. I do think that once a work gets produced, it does at least exist out there somehow. And the chance of its being done again is much greater. Composers feel (increasingly, I think) that having a work performed once is not of much use to them because they’ve spent all this time and have worked to do something that, by its very nature, will disappear once the curtain comes down. But the work does exist, nevertheless, and other companies will come back to it in time, I believe, if it’s worth something. There are many people — I’m one of them — who do look at work that has been produced and for which there is no subsequent performance planned. Emmeline was an example this year, and Paul Bunyan was another example of a work that had very little life before we did it at Glimmerglass in 1995. Now it’s been produced at Covent Garden, and it’s being considered by other companies, not because we did it at Glimmerglass, but just because its time seems to have come.

RK: You obviously have come up with an image of what City Opera is. You are obviously shaping that, and heading in a certain direction. How would you describe it? How would you invite someone to come to the City Opera? What would you say?

PK: A question like this I think is almost best answered by people’s experience with the company once they’ve gotten here. They see what’s happening, they get a sense of the company. (Let me start this answer again, because I was just talking about this at lunch with someone today when we were talking about what City Opera really is…)

RK: Perfect!

PK: An opera company establishes its image in people’s minds through its repertory, through its artists, and also interestingly, through its audience, apart from the kind of PR spin that a publicity department puts on its press releases that describe the company. But quite apart from that, a repertory speaks most loudly about what a company is doing. If a company like City Opera produces five or six 20th-century works in a season of sixteen operas, there is an interest being expressed in the music of our time. Now, opera has been around for 400 years, so a well-balanced repertory is going to include other periods as well as the contemporary. When a third of a company’s works are contemporary, then it says something about the interest that a company has. Other veins that we explore here are unusual repertory pieces that haven’t been done in New York particularly often, if at all. Iphigénie en Tauride was an example of that. Next season we’re doing Intermezzo by Strauss, a 20th century work that’s seldom performed. It’s certainly not new — it’s almost seventy-five years old and has not been given a fully staged performance in New York, interestingly enough. It’s a great, wonderfully involving theatrical evening.

We want to show people that there is life beyond Bohème, Carmen, and Traviata, however wonderful those three operas are (and they certainly are extraordinary pieces). But there is an operatic world to be explored beyond that, and we’re going to do that exploration, and do it in ways that first of all, are first-quality musically and involving dramatically and theatrically. Does that answer your question?

RK: Yes, absolutely. That’s great. Is there anything else you’d like to say? Anything you’ve missed?

PK: I’d like to get back to an earlier question: The second element that people look at when they decide what an opera company really is, is who the artists are. In our case, our artists are for the most part young and American, and this in and of itself makes a statement about a company’s image. We hire stage directors, conductors, and designers who work together as a team before a production opens, and we try as much as possible to build an ensemble out of the cast, and give lots and lots of rehearsal time, so that what one hears and sees on stage is cohesive, and that’s something we want City Opera to be known for: a company whose productions have a kind of polish and finish, a cohesive and immediately recognizable dramatic style.

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