London opera companies’ ‘crisis’ is others’ envy

Rodrick Williams and Katherine Manley, center, in the English National Opera production of "Medea."
(Clive Barda, English National Opera)

LONDON — The editor of Opera is worried.

The March editorial of Britain’s leading opera monthly describes this city’s opera scene as being in crisis. The city’s major companies — Royal Opera and English National Opera — are in a state of flux, administratively, artistically, musically and, in the case of ENO, financially.


Opera everywhere should suffer such crises.

On a recent Saturday in the British capital, I couldn’t imagine a better place for opera, crises or no crises. At Covent Garden, Royal Opera was presenting George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin.” The much-admired British composer’s first full-length opera was premiered last summer in the south of France at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. A co-commission with several opera companies, “Skin” is wending its way around Europe. It is as great as everyone has been saying.

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The same evening, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in town for a five-day residency at the Barbican Centre, happened to be offering the European premiere of John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” with Peter Sellars’ staging. The choice, then for Londoners, was one of the most meaningful recent American works of music theater or one of Britain’s.

As if that wasn’t enough, before attending “Skin,” I was able to wile away 31/2 hours that afternoon at the last performance of ENO’s new production of Charpentier’s “Medea.” A horrifyingly credible investigation into how a mind can be poisoned to kill children, the rarely produced French Baroque opera deserves profound attention in an age where mass slaying in schools has become a bane upon our existence.

Just so that Londoners can keep up, the first important opera of 2013, Philip Glass’ “The Perfect American,” arrives here in June. The opera about Walt Disney, which had its premiere in Madrid in January, is a co-production with ENO. Let us also not forget that company is the only one anywhere that has mounted all three of Adams’ large-scale operas — “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic.” With “The Other Mary” at the Barbican, London became on that mid-March Saturday night the first city to have seen all of Adams’ staged works.

Together, London’s “crisis-ridden” major opera companies are doing more of significance than all of the big-budget opera companies in America put together. There is much we can learn from them.

So what exactly are the crises? The Royal Opera and ENO are in transition, both about to get new executive directors. Tony Hall, a former BBC executive who transformed the Royal Opera House (which also included the Royal Ballet) from a dysfunctional operation into a well-run one, leaves next month to return to the BBC. His successor will be Alex Beard, the deputy director of the Tate. That doesn’t sound too worrisome to me. Every trip I make to London, there is something at either Tate Britain or Tate Modern (or both) impossible to overlook, no matter how tight my schedule. This month was no exception, with illuminating Kurt Schwitters and Roy Lichtenstein exhibitions.

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What Beard inherits looks pretty impressive from this side of the pond. Antonio Pappano has been a strong music director the last decade. Rumors are that he may be eyeing other opportunities — I would hope that he would be a leading candidate for the Metropolitan Opera if James Levine doesn’t prove well enough to soldier on. Were that to be so, he would leave behind a company in terrific musical shape.

It is also a company with a unique vision. The recently appointed Royal Opera House head of opera, Kasper Holten, has announced plans for premieres of more than a dozen new or recent operas to see the company through the end of the decade. The composers include such L.A. Phil favorites as Kaija Saariaho and Thomas Adès (who will adapt Luis Buñuel’s film “The Exterminating Angel” for the lyric stage). The company also will mount the first staging of Gerald Barry’s uproarious “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the L.A. Phil commissioned and premiered in concert version two seasons ago at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

If there is a crisis it is that the depressed state of Britain’s economy has unsettled everyone in the arts here. Government support, while still seeming generous by U.S. standards, keeps diminishing. All London arts institutions are scrambling to find new sources of income, and many are looking to American models of private-sector fundraising.

ENO is in a particular pickle. It has a nearly $4-million deficit, which is causing more tightwad hand-wringing than may be necessary (the Met is $50 million in the hole, after all). ENO’s chairman, Peter Bazalgette, lasted not even a year before resigning to take over the Arts Council England and has not been replaced.

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Some prominent board members have stepped down. There will be cutbacks next season. The rumor mill has ENO’s excellent young music director, Edward Gardner, decamping when he becomes music director of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway two years hence. That would be a loss, but outstanding young music directors are not as hard to find as you might imagine.

Even so, ENO remains an astonishingly vital company. On this season’s roster are operas by five living composers. Reduce that by a couple and ENO will still be a world leader. Like the Tate, ENO has been a must every trip I’ve made to London the last several years.

London thrives operatically by not playing it safe at the first sign of trouble, which is what cautious American companies are doing. Our solution has been to spend less on productions. Do less. Program crowd pleasers.

That has worked well at L.A. Opera even though the New York Times recently declared the company as “floundering.” Unlike the Met, the Music Center’s resident company has been successfully working through its debt. Apparently its books are looking good.

But what is good business is not necessarily good opera. An art form must continually be transformed and refreshed as the British are so impressively demonstrating. The London performances I attended of “Medea” and “Skin” were packed. The audiences appeared to be enthusiastic and sophisticated theatergoers, including many stylish young people. There was an atmosphere at both performances of something happening.

The Barbican’s “Other Mary” premiere, which I had to miss to see “Skin,” was said to be a similarly happening scene. Londoners have become quite keen of late on the L.A. Phil, which is now America’s most chance-taking and visionary musical institution. With commissions such as “Other Mary” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” it is developing America’s most imaginative opera program as well.

Of particular interest is the exchange rate between the U.S. and Britain. London is supplying New York with a good deal of its new opera. This season, the Met’s one contemporary work was Adès’ “The Tempest,” which Royal Opera premiered in 2004. Next season the Met’s contemporary opera will be the young New York composer Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” a co-commission with ENO that premiered in London. Also next season, New York City Opera will pick up Mark Anthony Turnage’s “Anna Nicole,” another Royal Opera commission. It has no plans, however, for Glass’ “Perfect American,” which City Opera had originally commissioned but dropped.

Thanks to the L.A. Phil and its close association with the likes of Adams and Adès, the L.A./London exchange is two-way. The stakes now, though, will be for the U.S. premiere of Benjamin’s “Written on Skin.” A marvelously astute opera, with exquisitely detailed and descriptive music and a startling libretto by Martin Crimp, it is based on a medieval tale of a man who feeds his wife her lover’s heart.

The British composer has close L.A. ties. He has been performed frequently by the L.A. Phil and has been a featured composer at the Ojai Music Festival. There are curious coincidences between “Skin” and “Other Mary.” Both feature countertenors (in Benjamin’s case, native Angeleno Bejun Mehta sang the role of the lover). Both have prominent parts in the orchestra for the Hungarian percussion instrument, the cimbalom.

But what struck me the most was the picture of Benjamin in the Royal Opera program book, two days after the L.A. Phil gave its first Green Umbrella new music concert in Britain as part of its Barbican residency. The 1998 photograph was taken by the late Los Angeles philanthropist Betty Freeman, and it shows the composer performing in L.A. That was at a Green Umbrella concert.


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