Discussion Question

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Has the fat lady sung? After reading the New York Times book review about the history and evolution of opera (and exploring the additional articles, posts, and material from the chapter), address the question asked in the article: “Is opera as vibrant as ever, or is it hanging on by a thread?” In your post, discuss both authors’ opinions about this central question as well as your own. You can also expand beyond opera, including the musical stage in general and using musicals and operas you yourself have seen performed or even heard referenced (by family, friends, coworkers, or in pop culture) to illustrate your point. You must use outside support and citations to add value to your posts.

‘Marry Me a Little,’ reworked
for our times, at New Rep
By Don Aucoin
ANDREW BRILLIANT/BRILLIANT PICTURES
Phil Tayler and Erica Spyres in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Marry Me a Little.’’
•
WATERTOWN — One way to measure greatness is to test how well an artist’s work
accommodates changing social circumstances, how it stands up in a new context. Think,
for example, of the Shakespeare productions that have unfolded in other times and places
than the playwright originally intended, or, indeed, could ever have envisioned.
Now, nearly a decade after Massachusetts led the way nationally by legalizing same-sex
marriage, the New Repertory Theatre is staging a production of Stephen Sondheim’s
“Marry Me a Little’’ that broadens its scope to include gay relationships.
It works, and beautifully, too. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, the New
Rep’s “Marry Me a Little’’ is an appealingly understated gem of a revue. Melancholy and
uplifting by turns — but mostly melancholy; this is Sondheim we’re talking about, after
all — the show underscores the necessity and difficulty of human connection, gay or
straight.
There’s no story to speak of. Built on tunes that were cut from shows like “Anyone Can
Whistle,’’ “Follies,’’ “Company,’’ “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the
Forum,’’ and “A Little Night Music,’’ it is the brainchild of playwright Craig Lucas and
the late director Norman René. In 1980, apparently recognizing that even Sondheim’s
least-known songs deserved a showcase, Lucas and René organized some of his outtakes
into an evening about two lonely New Yorkers on a Saturday night. Yearning for love
inside their separate apartments, the man and the woman were seemingly unaware of
each other’s existence.
The New Rep is not the first theater to alter the revue to encompass gay characters. In
1999, Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles presented “Marry Me a Little’’ with two men
in the roles. But New Rep’s reworking doubles the cast. After receiving permission from
Sondheim to take a gender-blind approach, Robbins and musical director David McGrory
assigned songs in ways that result in a variety of pairings: a man and a woman, a man and
a man, and a woman and a woman.
The New Rep production features a solid ensemble: Aimee Doherty, Erica Spyres (who
certifies her rising-star status with a magnetic performance), Phil Tayler, and Brad Daniel
Peloquin. Their characters have no names; they’re identified in the playbill as Woman 1,
Man 2, and so on. Not until the very end does the quartet meet, in a poignant coda that is
also a beginning of sorts.
They occupy four different rooms on Erik Diaz’s marvelously detailed, two-tiered set.
Tayler’s scruffy dwelling, with a mattress on the floor, is in keeping with the bearded,
shorts-wearing skateboarder he portrays. Spyres is the dreamy innocent of the bunch,
with polka-dotted bedsheets and a stuffed animal on her pillow. Doherty’s character, in a
kitchen of burnished wood, projects a purposeful air that soon yields to restlessness.
Peloquin’s character, apparently unwinding from a long workday but not ready to shed
his necktie, moves about a dining room of muted gray.
They form alternating pairs throughout the evening as they perform little-known tunes
like “Girls of Summer,’’ “A Moment With You,’’ “Can That Boy Foxtrot,’’ “Pour le
Sport,’’ and “Rainbows.’’ Half a dozen of the show’s 18 numbers are presented as samesex romantic yearning. Midway through comes a moment that carries a special resonance
precisely because the words are sung by one man to another. Peloquin and Tayler team
up for a duet on “So Many People,’’ from “Saturday Night,’’ a show written by
Sondheim in the mid-1950s but not produced professionally until more than 40 years
later: “So many people in the world/And what can they do/They’ll never know love/Like
my love for you/So many people laugh/At what they don’t know/But that’s their
concern/If just a few, say/Half a million or so/Could see us/They’d learn.’’
We in the audience also learn a thing or two, inferentially at least, about some of the
might-have-beens and compromises of Sondheim’s career. For example, the New Rep
foursome sings “Happily Ever After,’’ a skeptical view of relationships that was
originally slated as Bobby’s final solo in 1970’s “Company’’ but was considered too
gloomy and replaced by “Being Alive.’’ In “Happily Ever After’’ we hear some of the
lyrics Sondheim repurposed for “Being Alive,’’ but without that song’s unpersuasively
gung-ho tone. The original is much closer to Sondheim’s sardonic spirit.
Not everyone embraces that spirit, of course, and “Marry Me a Little’’ is probably only a
must-see (and -hear) for Sondheim devotees. But that population may be increasing. The
composer’s 80th birthday a couple of years ago prompted a flood of Sondheim
productions around the country, and also, I suspect and hope, a wider awareness that if
you’re ranking the greatest artists of the last half-century, Stephen Sondheim is on the
very short list.
 
New York Times Book Review
A HISTORY OF OPERA
By Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker
Illustrated. 603 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $45.
Jake Guevara/The New York Times
Has The Fat Lady Finally Sung?
With Richard Wagner turning 200 on May 22, what better way for the venerable
Teatro alla Scala in Milan to celebrate than to open its season this month with his
“Lohengrin”?
That seemingly innocuous decision caused an unlikely firestorm. Calling it “a
humiliation for Italian art, a blow to national pride in a moment of severe crisis,” the
Corriere della Sera newspaper attacked the company for not featuring Italy’s own
Giuseppe Verdi, whose 200th birthday arrives in October.
“Would the Germans,” the column sneered, “have opened the Wagner year with a
Verdi opera?” The Italian president had to deny another publication’s allegation that
he missed the performance to protest the choice.
All this because of opera. After four centuries this weird, wonderful art form — which
we are told time and time again, decade after decade, is dying — still gets people
riled, still has some pep in its step. The numbers, at least, are on its side. As Carolyn
Abbate and Roger Parker write in “A History of Opera,” their insightful, smoothly
written, ultimately unpersuasive new book, “The sheer volume of live opera taking
place around the world is far greater now than it was 50 years ago, and this
expansion shows little sign of abatement.”
The news is not all good. As the authors point out, the operatic repertory has
stagnated since the middle of the 19th century, when revivals of older works began to
overtake the popularity of new ones, calcifying into what Ms. Abbate and Mr. Parker
call “a wonderful mortuary.” In search of the new, companies now modernize
productions of the classics or excavate forgotten operas rather than present much
that’s actually contemporary.
So is opera as vibrant as ever, or is it hanging on by a thread? How to write the
history of an art form that hovers, Schrödinger’s catlike, simultaneously alive and
dead?
For Ms. Abbate and Mr. Parker (she teaches music at Harvard, he at King’s College
London), the answer is to pay as much attention as possible to the living side. Older
histories tended to view opera as a written text: a score and a libretto. This book,
which wisely forgoes the long-standard snippets of musical notation, strives to
present the art form as a fundamentally live experience.
The excellent early chapters set up a distinction between the way a character is
perceived in the libretto and the way he or she comes across in a performance. The
authors explain, for example, how the straight-arrow Wolfram in Wagner’s
“Tannhäuser” takes on a surprisingly sensual authority when he sings. A traditional
synopsis would give only a part — a less interesting part — of the story.
Starting with a refreshingly widened account of opera’s origins, Ms. Abbate and Mr.
Parker highlight key works that are not always the expected ones. Along with the
usual suspects, the authors pay rewardingly close attention to operas like Donizetti’s
“Parisina,” Ambroise Thomas’s “Mignon” and Ernst Krenek’s “Jonny Spielt Auf,” all
largely ignored today but once popular and influential. This is, in the best sense,
history not as it ended up but as it happened.
Their descriptions of music are evocative. (The first two chords of Wagner’s “Tristan
und Isolde” sound “as if a question has been answered by another question.”) Their
trenchant analysis of the quartet near the end of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” swiftly and
precisely captures that composer’s gifts for definition and juxtaposition of character.
Yet any book about a Schrödinger’s cat has finally to take a position on whether its
subject is breathing. The opera industry’s party line is that while the repertory may
be woefully static, it could and should be refreshed with an influx of new works. Ms.
Abbate and Mr. Parker are not so sure. It is telling that their book’s British edition
carries the subtitle “The Last 400 Years,” where “last” could mean both “previous”
and, ominously, “final.”
While at one point the authors ask what an alternative would be “to this
preservationist tendency, to the beginnings of the operatic museum,” it turns out that
the question is wholly rhetorical. The problem, they suggest, is not that worthy new
operas are being overlooked. Rather, the operas themselves are unworthy: pale,
derivative attempts to recapture a vanished past. The art form — which has had, they
observe, “unusual longevity for a musical genre” — will linger but is effectively dead,
despite the zombielike proliferation of opera houses and performances.
It is not an indefensible position, yet Ms. Abbate and Mr. Parker deliver it in the
smug tone of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They leave out nearly all of postwar opera,
then bemoan its paucity. Besides Britten, their discussion focuses on Henze, Tippett,
Berio, Messiaen, Ligeti and Adès, who are collectively described and dismissed in a
long paragraph. John Adams gets a little more space for “Nixon in China” and “The
Death of Klinghoffer,” but his rejection is no less cutting. No examples are given of
the agile, chamber-scale works — Mr. Adès’s “Powder Her Face,” for one — that Ms.
Abbate and Mr. Parker imply would be preferable to rehashes of the old war horses.
Certain omissions are particularly puzzling, because the book seems to anticipate
them. “A History of Opera” occupies itself for many pages with questions of genre
and convention, of the ambiguous division between singing and speaking. Yet
Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” at the center of these concerns, comes up just once, in
passing. The authors virtually ignore Philip Glass’s vast “Einstein on the Beach,”
dismaying in a book that so sensitively deals with the significance of sheer duration
in 19th-century grand opera and Wagner.
The culprit may be the limitations of musicology, a stubbornly conservative
discipline that tends, like this book, to admit only grudgingly that operas continued
to be made after Britten. While Ms. Abbate and Mr. Parker have written a generalinterest study, it is one that reflects an academy still antipathetic to popular
composers like Gershwin and Mr. Glass. But it is hard to take seriously the
completeness of an opera history that neglects “Porgy,” or the pessimism about
contemporary opera in a book that makes no mention of Mr. Glass’s powerful,
innovative “Satyagraha.”
If Ms. Abbate and Mr. Parker had given a richer discussion of the recent and current
state of opera and come to the same gloomy, wanly elegiac conclusion, you could
agree or disagree with them. But they have stacked the deck so unfairly that after
many entertaining and learned chapters, their polemic ends up as something you can
safely ignore, less provocative than merely querulous. The status of the cat remains
tantalizingly uncertain.
 

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