Opera died and went to America.
Italian theaters are-horror!-budgeting. German opera houses are watering the free beer. Russia’s Bolshoi and Kirov are paying singers with cough drops. England’s Royal Opera is in ruins. But in America, opera is thriving.
Statistics show an exponential growth in professional performances. Opera people insist they are finding a more receptive audience, as younger people discover opera in large numbers. This, despite the fact that American arts organizations must raise more than 90 percent of their budgets without government assistance.
In America, the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Opera, ant the San Francisco Opera appear to be thriving, selling out big barns in the first two cases. But they are having artistic trouble. There aie few voices and personalities substantial enough to fill the biggest houses, and casts this year have been almost disastrous in “bread and butter” operas such as the Met’s La Bohême and Aida, San Francisco’s Tristan una Isolde and Norma, and Chicago’s La Gioconda.
Both the Met and the “new Broadway” spawned by Disney money rely on tourists for their audiences. Well and good. I suppose. But art has never flourished for a transient public. Art must be about the community in which it occurs. It can celebrate or condemn or mock that community. At its best, art enriches the community.
That happens with older operas and new ones, with the great plays and the experimental ones, with classical ballet and exploratory dance. If there’s no community. it’s hard for art to be meaningful. It’s as trendy and transient as the audience itself.
The great thing about Dallas is that it is a great community. No wonder the arts are growing so fast there.
“When I first came to Dallas,” says the Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus “I said to my wife. ’Now this is America!’ It is fantastic, amazing here. And when I go back, I always feel the freshness of this country!”
The beauty, size, and diversity of Dallas stunned them. The term “megalopolis” could have been invented for this city. Within one huge place are multitudes of communities and cultures. As many recent visitors have pointed out, the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts will be a place to come from many different directions-part of a glamorous, newly refurbished section of the city that includes lofts, restaurants and shops, and an island of arts.
“This psychology is very important,” says Leiferkus. “People must know that is (he place for art.”
Larissa Diadkova, the renowned contralto who sang the part of Ulrica in The Dallas Opera’s production of A Masked Ball, makes her home in St. Petersburg. “I need to be in New York for my career,” she says, “but Dallas feels better.” She finds New York huge, impersonal, and very costly.
Diadkova is shy about her English. But her voice is a singer’s voice. From the phone bounce and glow all the colors of the rainbow, from deepest blue to wildest red. “You see, it was my first time in Dallas and I was scared. I not drive,” she says. “But it was no problem. I would stop and wait. And the people would lilt me up.”
Diadkova was amazed they knew about The Dallas Opera. “In St. Petersburg, so many do not know about our theater. And in Dallas (they) all know. ’You are at the opera?’ they say. ’Wow!’”
You’ve never heard a sound in your life like a Russian contralto intoning, “Wow!”
It isn’t only the kindness of strangers that makes Dallas special. It’s the sense of community, something which has been squeezed out of New York, and which never existed in Los Angeles.
Sergei Leiferkus sings with the Met (he opened this season in Samson and Delilah). He compares Dallas to ancient Greece. “In Dallas, everybody wants the opera to be good,” he says, “You sing, and there are people. Not record people or music business people. Real people. They want to know you. And they are so full of curiosity. The first time I sang in Dallas, in 1990, it was Borodin’s Prince Igor. Only in Dallas did everyone know that was the centennial of the opera. There were exhibits in the museums, and lectures. They were celebrating art. not just giving a show. Not even in my country does that happen.”
Leiferkus was amazed at the vitality of all that goes on in Dallas, from the theater to the various dance troupes and the symphony. “People recognize me as one of them, because I love and need these things too,” he says.
“WE’RE TALKING DALLAS here,” crows John Dayton. Dayton and his wife are one of the powerful families who have always had a say about the arts in Dallas. They know where the bodies are buried. (Dayton sounds crusty enough to have put a few in the ground himself.)
In Italian there’s a word, papataci, which means “Daddy, shut up.” It usually refers to the older husband of a lusty young wife, who pays the bills and never gets around to mentioning all her affairs. East Coast patrons of the arts are encouraged to be “papatacis.” Give us the money and shut up is often the attitude toward them. There’s a problem in that, though. Those who are uninformed often end up underwriting the foolish and the wasteful. And those with intrusive egos but no knowledge have a way of inventing foolish and wasteful ways of spending the money they raise.
There’s no danger of that with Dayton. He cuts through an interviewer’s guff like a laser surgeon. There isn’t an opera company or symphony orchestra he doesn’t know like the back of his hand. His love for the arts (not the social cachet that goes along with funding them) is intense, smart.
As chief operating officer of the Dallas Center tor the Performing Arts, Dayton is in charge of seeing that the money gets raised and spent properly, and that its distribution is fair. “We have an ecumenical vision about the arts.” he says. “Our theatrical organizalions have matured. And we have a growing audience for all the arts.”
That is borne out by the bond campaign last year. Ten million dollars was authorized by almost 73 percent of the voters to buy more land for the performing arts center. “That’s the largest approval rating in the history of Dallas,” notes Plato Karayanis, the longtime general director of The Dallas Opera who recently announced his plans to retire at the end of the 1999-2000 season.
In 1957. The Dallas Opera was folnd-ed on a wing and a prayer by a young producer-really, a magician–named Larry Kelly, out of Chicago. To this day. no one really knows how he did it. Charm, everyone supposes. But ht: seemed to wave a magic wand and-poof!-Maria Callas was opening the first season of the Dallas Civic Opera, as The Dallas Opera was originally known. A couple of years later. Joan Sutherland came to sing on the Music Hall stage. Both divas put Dallas on the map as an opera city.
In those days, improvisation was the operative word. The Music Hall was big and drafty and had questionable acoustics. Seasons were short. It was hart to find rehearsal space.
For Dallas opera, those were horse-and-buggy times. Great singers were plentiful and could be booked six months in advance. Callas was difficult but loyal, in love with the spirit she found in Dallas.
That world has gone. Now, not-so-great singers are booked up to three years in advance and may cancel fecklessly at the last minute if a better engagement comes along. The big stars need four and five years” notice, and they often want to show up just in lime for the performance, then take the money and run. Many opera companies go along with that attitude to gel the big names. But the art form suffers, and the audience is cheated. The Dallas Opera steadfastly refuses to play thai game.
“That’s why I think we are at the top.” says Jonathan Pell, The Dallas Opera’s director of artistic administration. Pell, who is responsible for casting and, with Karaya-nis, planning each season, is hugely admired in the operatic world. “He’s the best there is,” says Patrick J. Smith, former editor of Opera News.
“Other companies may have bigger budgets and do more operas, but they are factories.” says Pell. ’ Singers fly in and out. We rehearse. Every production must be special. We are a festival situation here.” According to Opera America, The Dallas Opera ranks twelfth in the country in terms of budget and total expenses, but Pells thinks that “in quality, we’re equal to anybody.”
In Kelly’s time, there was so little regional opera in America that the fledgling Dallas Civic Opera automatically attracted a lot of attention. Those were the days when the media really cared about the arts. On The Ed Sullivan Show, upwards of 50 million people saw Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, and all the other magical names of the time (usually mis-pronounced by Sullivan). They sang before and after an Italian-talking mouse or a circus act. It didn’t matter. They were as much a part of our culture as stand-up comics and Elvis’ pelvis.
But Larry Kelly died young. Maria Callas did. too. Little by little, those great names faded. The new ones wanted more money and needed more notice. When the Sunday arts ghetto was auctioned off to football, arts coverage in the media vanished. Dallas began to compete with companies that were bigger and better-financed, which meant higher fees.
Inevitably in the wake of Larry Kelly. feuds were fought. In the ’80s, The Dallas Opera had to define itself against an almost mythological past-a past kept alive by the all-powerful local critic. John Ardoin. and the aging but doughty supporters of Larry Kelly.
The Music Hall strikes some visitors as eerie. “There were ghosts there,” says Cecilia Bartoli, who sang the role of Rosina. in The Barber of Seville, five years ago. “Dallas is a wonderful city, great people, they love music. But the hall is so large and full of shadows.”
Karayanis has been fighting to clear away cobwebs. “I have heard about that,” says Bartoli. “I can’t wail for the new opera house so I can return.”
Right now. Pell and Karayanis are thrilled about the Opera’s new rehearsal center. Everything is centralized there, from offices to costume shops to storage space for sets. “The rooms mirror the best performing spaces in the world,” says Karayanis. Asked if the Opera plans to amplify when it gets the new opera house, he recoils in horror. “Absolutely not!” he cries. “Amplification not only kills the art, it disappoints the audience. We have more and more young people every year. And you know what thrills them the most? Voices. After all the amplified rock concerts, to hear a human produce those sounds without help, well, they can’t get enough of that.”
Diadkova and Leiferkus were amazed by the center. “You know what is great about it?” says Leiferkus. “The colors! I think that is because Plato is a baritone, like me. He understands. When I sing at the Bastille in Paris”-and that is one of the most costly and elaborate arts complexes in the world-“everything is black. You think you are trapped in eternal night. They have done so well with this new space, I have a dream. It is to sing with Plato on the stage of the new theater, That will make my career!”
That is some time away. According to John Dayton, groundbreaking is three or four years away.
“There are hurdles to clear,” says Dayton. “But now the economy has turned around and we can move forward with confidence.”
Inevitably, there are conflicts. Dayton stresses that the Center for the Performing Arts is not just for opera. Karayanis understands but says, “there is a danger of being politically correct, trying to include too many groups, please too many people; you lose momentum.” He has been involved in the project for 22 years, through Dallas’ boom and bust. But making art happen on a large scale is always a shotgun wedding. Everybody means well, but everybody wants their say. And power games and polities are part of the terrain. So. one suspects, there will be some testing and maybe a range war or two among the several constituencies involved before everything is settled.
But 1 think Dallas is to be envied. Those of us who have worked in the theater know there is a magic time, a time when everything is ripe with potential. Pell points with pride to the outreach programs in Dallas that translate opera to an astounding number of young faces in the audience. He and Karaya-nis have continually brought younger singers to Dallas.
The rehearsal center will allow one production to be in full preparation while another performs, so plans are already starting for more operas and performances, with that festival quality in place. So it’s all ready. Now all there is to do is wait, work, and smile. Dallas has been re-inventing and revitalizing opera for the past five years.
With the young, visionary Peil. Dallas will be the great opera city of the new millennium. The Washington Opera and the Los Angeles Opera are up-and-coming. But they are being run by the great tenor Placido Domingo. Presumably, he expects to keep singing 200 performances a year. Running an opera company is a 90-hour-a-week, year-round proposition. Both those companies have been around for a while. Bui neither has worked to create the infrastructure crucial for growth. Pell and Karayanis have done brilliantly with outreach programs in schools and in all kinds of communities.
“We are a center in Dallas,” says Karayanis. “Everyone is welcome here. We work with the dance troupes, the theater, the students, the kids, the children ’a theater. We are the leader.” From that, more and younger audiences will come, as well as fresher talems. Washington, D.C. is a seasonal town, dominated by a massive government that doesn’t like the arts. And L.A. is really a consortium of huge suburbs, each with a titanic mall. There will never be a convincing downtown, easy and quick to get to-exactly what Karayanis and Dayton have planned for Dallas.
In or about the year 2004. opera in Dallas will mean a magical rite, unamplified. in a 2.400-seat house, where, as Karayanis says, “you can see the whites of their eyes.” The opera caravan that migrates from La Scala to Paris to Bayreuth to New York will be banging down the door of The Dallas Opera.
Know what? They won’t be able to gel in. Too many locals will have dibs on the seats in their new opera house. And that will mean the best opera in the world.
FOUR DECADES OF THE DALLAS OPERA
In March, Dallas Civic Opera is chartered, with Henry S. Hier, Jr. is president, Lawrence Kelly as general manager, and Nicola Rescigno as artistic director. In November, Maria Hallos opens the DCO’s inaugural season in concert at the State Fair Music Hall. Performance puts Dallas opera on the map.
Jon Vickers and Nicola Zaccaria make their U.S. debuts in DCO’s production of Medea.
Soprano Joan Sutherland makes lier U.S. detail in DCO’s production of Handel’s Alcina.
A 19-year-old Placido Domingo makes his U.S. debut Willi DCO in Lucia di lammermoor. DCO launches its student matinee series.
John Houseman debuts as an operatic stage director of Verdi’s 0tello.
Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones appears in DCO production of Verdi’s Macbeth.
DCO stages Mozart’s toe di figaro with sets and costumes by Peter Hall.
DCO mounts its first German-language production, Beethoven’s Fidelio. Helga Dernesch nukes tier U.S. debut.
State Fair Music Hall is renovated
Marilyn Home debuts in lier first Mignon, staged and conducted try Sarah Caldwell. Jose Carreras debuts in Lucrezia Borgia. Lawrence Kelly dies.
DCO stages Tristan und Isolde, its first Wagner opera.
Beverly Sills debuts as Violette in La Traviata.
Plato Karayanis becomes general director.
Renata Scotto sings her first Manon Lescaut in a joint production with the Greater Miami Opera.
DM mounts Orlando furioso, the first-ever U.S. staging of a Vivaldi opera.
Jon Victors triumphs in the title role of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Dallas Civic Opera becomes The Dallas Opera.
TDO commissions puppet opera. Hakes See, Monkey le, by composer Robert Xavier Rodrigue.
TDO fatums the world premier of Dominick Argen-to’s The Aspern Papers.
Nicola Rescigno resigns is artistic director.
“Music! Words! Opera!” arts education initiative is launched.
Graeme Jenkins is named sic director.
TOO features the Southwest premiere of Argento’s The Dream of Valentino.
ISO features Ik Southwest premiere of Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest.
David Men, Cynthia Haymon, Andrew Litton, Irai Mishura, and Elena Prokina make their TDO debuts.
Preposition Seven passes during the May election, and a new opera house is in sight. The City of Dallas (ill allocate $10.5 million toward site acquisition, infrastructure imprints, and planning and development of a master plan for the Dallas Center fertile Performing Arts.
In September, a state-of-the-art rehearsal/production center opens.
In October, Theatre Project Consultants of Connectait releases its opera house feasibility study.
Opera died and went to America.