Concert Performances at Le Poisson Rouge and Mathis der Maler in Zurich

I don’t know how you all feel about the “Response to Comments as Blog Posts” format I’m following here, but it’s really working for me.

In the past week I’ve gotten a couple of interesting comments that I think are worth sharing and responding to – one about the Met’s new concert initiatives at Le Poisson Rouge and one about Zurich’s recent Mathis der Maler and the lack of coverage.

The first comes from “Ulyana” and is quite long – you may read her post here.

I think it’s a really cool project and great exposure for Adès and Muhly (not to mention Purcell, Tippett, Ives, and Stravinsky…), but if indeed their goal is to get more of the coveted 20-somethings paying for tickets to the Met, I agree with Ulyana that they will be sorely disappointed.  They might get a few more people in the rush ticket line or family circle, but I can’t imagine it’s going to help them in the full-price ticket department any time soon.

However, if the Met is suddenly trying to make long-term investments in their audience and trying to contribute to the presence of classical music in contemporary culture, I think this is a noble and wise initiative.  I can totally see the the 25-35 year olds targeted here eventually buying full-price tickets to the Met (maybe even subscriptions) when they do find themselves with disposable income in their 40s and 50s. Perhaps their exposure to composers like Ives and Tippett will even give them a taste for more challenging repertoire.  But somehow I don’t think that’s what Gelb is going for.  I think he probably does have some wild ideas that the “kids” will see these events and decide to drop $200 on a ticket to The Tempest.

While I agree that targeting the youths isn’t a short term solution, I would love to see more companies angling for a long term solution.  The Met can certainly afford investing in its long-term future.  I think one of the biggest problems with opera today (and in the past 30 years or so) is that there hasn’t been any audience cultivation for the Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y.  Of course, earlier generations than those mentioned didn’t require (or didn’t require as much) deliberate audience cultivation – there wasn’t such a significant rift between popular and classical forms of music before the 20th century.  I think a lot of companies and fans are trying look back at how things worked before for a model, but things are just different.  This is a new frontier, and, in that vein, I am all for experiments like Le Poisson Rouge.

The big question is: who do these events actually attract?  I don’t know what the audiences at Le Poisson Rouge are like, but I’ve been doing some work with an opera company that does all shorter, contemporary works with very contemporary themes, and the audience makeup isn’t actually that different from who you’d see at a larger company’s Don Giovanni (or whatever).  It’s still mostly people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.  The number of people in their mid 20s to mid 30s did make up a larger percentage of the audience, but it was still only 8-10 people in that demographic (out of an audience of 80).  That said, I have no idea how many of these people were new to opera.  It may be that while these efforts don’t necessarily attract a lot of younger people, they do attract people who aren’t regular opera attendees.  

I also agree that this is really the type of thing the City Opera should be doing (perhaps even partnering with the Met to do – what a concept).

I’ll be interested to see how long this Poisson Rouge initiative lasts.


The second comment comes from Keleven (on my About page), and it’s not very long:

This past June the Zurich Opera House staged Hindemith’s great work “Mathis der Maler”. There were 7 performances. The title role was sung by Thomas Hampson (his debut) and Daniele Gatti conducted. A real highlight on the opera calendar for sure and yet it received depressingly little coverage.

There was nothing in any of the main broadsheets (Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Herald Tribune). Not even the opera forums (i.e. Parterre Box) made note of the omission. But what is truly inexplicable to me is the fact that the 4 leading magazines — Opera News, Opera Now, Opera Brittania and the venerable Opera (UK) also chose to ignore it. There is not A SINGLE WORD on this major and rarely performed masterpiece or its star cast.

The website which usually provides about 10 reviews on average for each opera posted only 4 (yes 4!) entries. And these were mostly by freelance critics.

This entire situation is very weird.

Why does it seem like editors and critics wish to keep Hindemith’s great opera from receiving the exposure it so clearly deserves?

Oh man!  Hindemith!  You’re speaking my language, Keleven!  I’m so excited about a Hindemith-related comment that there’s part of me that’s very suspicious that I’m being trolled right now.

My short answer is: I DON’T KNOW!  AND I’M SO UPSET!

Hindemith wrote some fascinating operas.  I’m a big fan of neoclassicism and Mathis der Maler is really interesting, thematically.  I’m also a big fan of Hindemith’s Cardillac which is also tragically short on performances.  And Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah!  Why isn’t that opera performed all the time?!  The music is beautiful and very accessible, it’s a powerful story, there are great roles and great arias – I really don’t get it.  Or Menotti’s Saint of Bleecker Street, Marc Blitzstein’s Regina, or John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles (which was slated for the Met a few years ago and got cancelled)?

I don’t think it’s that people are actively trying keep these works down, I think they’re just caught in a vicious cycle.  These aren’t popular works, so they don’t get much coverage, and thus they continue to be unpopular and continue to not receive coverage.  Between opera companies trying to present low-risk pieces of rep and newspapers having less time, money, space, and journalists to cover everything that’s going on, it’s just a bad time for more recent works that aren’t some kind of premiere or somehow controversial.  As my music history professor once said: getting a first performance for a new work isn’t hard; it’s getting the second performance, and the third, etc.

7 thoughts on “Concert Performances at Le Poisson Rouge and Mathis der Maler in Zurich

  1. At least the LPR concerts represent (maybe) a Young People’s outreach move that is not predominantly based on “You’ve heard that we have champagne and chandeliers, yes?”

    • 8D Yes. “Champaign and chandeliers that you can only afford to look at!” Though… I’m not sure one should be doing anything besides than LOOKING a chandelier. (Top level donors have the opportunity to swing from chandeliers. If you give over $5 million dollars, you may pick a performance in which to drop the chandelier on unsuspecting audience members…)

  2. Hi Caitlin!

    You asked:

    “Why do you think Mathis der Maler (and operas/productions like it) doesn’t (don’t) get proper coverage?”

    I don’t know why it remains largely unknown not just with regular opera goers but among academics and opera scholars as well. And I have no idea why it inspires so little affection from the few who do intimately know it.

    I suppose one factor for the lack of recognition is that the popular 3 movement symphonic suite (a spinoff of the opera) which Hindemith arranged kind of steals its thunder… ? Maybe people think something like they’ve heard the symphony and that’s it, they don’t venture further into the opera. The symphony of course is among Hindemith’s most recorded orchestral works. On the other hand I do know that Mathis der Maler is perceived as “untrendy or “unglamorous” when set beside the operas of Strauss, Berg, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Shostakovich, Schoenberg and Janacek. And of course it is radically different — in aesthetic and technique — compared to the tightly packed Cardillac. It also lasts over 3 hours (without the intermissions). And yes it probably is less innately ‘theatrical’ than, say, Berg or Britten but this is never an issue for me since I adore the entire score (with the exception of Regina’s music in the First Tableaux which I find musically inane. Thankfully her role here is small. And when she does reappear in the Sixth Tableaux it’s with a nice lament)

    The mostly lukewarm to negative assessment by professional critics over the past 74 years doesn’t seem to be changing. Here for example are two recent comments on the 2010 Paris production:

    “Mathis der Maler” is not an easy work to hear. The austere, almost academic passages, the skewed fugues and quirky counterpoint, can sound more like arguments than like opera”

    — (Opera News)

    “The best music in the score is undoubtedly in the opening prelude (Concert of Angels), the orchestral interludes and the haunting final 20 minutes (Seventh Tableaux) of the opera. The rest of the piece is discursive and drab. It outstays its welcome because Hindemith was not an instinctive musical dramatist. I won’t feel deprived if I don’t see it again for another 20 years.

    — (Opera UK)

    Oh well… I have given up trying to persuade those who resist this incredible opera. As an aside: it baffles me that Ursula’s big, gorgeous aria in the Fifth Tableaux beginning at — “Verdammt Mich fur Niedriges” (Condemn me for a base action that I did unwittingly when you have searched your own heart) followed by the great quartet between Cardinal Albrecht, Ursula, Capito and Riedinger – has never been excerpted on an opera highlights CD.

    Maybe in some ways it’s really meant for a select subculture of connoisseurs.

    • I just revisited the Grove entry on Mathis der Maler:
      “However, there is nothing academic about the opera, which is a powerful expression, clearly autobiographical, of the dilemma of an artist in times of political strife. Both words and music are skilfully used to present the main characters (Mathis, Albrecht, Ursula, Regina) as living human beings, and the lyrical scenes are as touching as the more spectacular ones (the book burning, the temptation of St Anthony) are dramatically exciting. Mathis der Maler is without doubt Hindemith’s operatic masterpiece. Difficulties with the Nazis prevented its production in Germany until 1946, since when it has become well established in the operatic repertory.”

      That quote starts out vindicating and finishes with me wondering when exactly this entry was written.

      I do think there’s a general attitude that everything worthwhile in Mathis der Maler is covered in the symphonic suite. That is certainly the impression I got when I first discovered the opera. My own knowledge of Hindemith is quite by chance; in my college music theory classes we were required to read A Composer’s World – a text that had been assigned by a previous music theory professor (who was a bit of a Hindemith champion himself) that somehow stuck. Most of the other students didn’t like it. I loved it, and here we are.

      I’m not sure why Hindemith has fallen out of fashion. His educational texts and compositions are really excellent, in my opinion. And his personal history is fascinating. I hope it is just fashion and eventually things will come around again.

      I’m not sure about the “trendy”/”glamorous” thing – I HOPE that’s not true. Surely Cardillac fits in with those operas in terms of trendiness, German Expressionism, the absurd, etc. yet it doesn’t get regular performance. Mathis der Maler confronts issues of art and war so directly – it raises such a compelling question. What is the role of the artist in times of war? It reminds of Mother Courage (and dramatic and moral value of Mother Courage is certainly not in doubt).

      It is odd. There are plenty of long, undramatic operas (or simplistic in their dramatic writing) in rep that remain unquestioned, but they generally represent some kind of vocal hurdle for singers.

      I think if opera companies can afford more impresarios that are interested in supporting challenging repertoire rather than crowd-pleasing popular works and star vehicles, we’ll see a few more Mathis der Malers. But the idea that audiences need to be challenged or should invest in acquired tastes is not a popular idea these days.

  3. “Regina’s music in the First Tableaux which I find musically inane.”

    Ha ha. Well, it is supposed to be inane, of course! She’s an adolescent who would rather be singing ditties and wearing pretty scarves instead of being dragged around the war-torn countryside by her peasant leader father. I think there is a suggestion of insanity, as well (especially at the end).

    I agree completely, Wistful Pelleastrian, with everything you say about this opera and its comparative neglect. I have listened to the Kubelik/Fischer-Dieskau recording whilst reading a translation of the libretto about two dozen times now and it never ceases to overwhelm me with its greatness.

    Unfortunately, the audience for opera (and I hope I don’t offend anyone here) is subdivided, like that of film and literature, into those who confine themselves only to what is popular and/or not especially demanding and those who are equally drawn to less accessible fare. It’s the same phenomenon in Jazz. For whatever reason, some connoisseurs limit themselves to those forms of Jazz not influenced by the great innovations of the 1960s and beyond. In fact, many of these people are rather sneering in their contempt of such latter-day developments, with epithets such as “unlistenable,” unmelodic,” noisy” and “pretentious” usually bandied about. Sound familiar? Without tooting my own horn, I can say that I have always tried to be receptive to new and challenging ideas, be it in music, literature or what have you. That doesn’t mean that I am undiscerning or without standards; only that I know from experience that there is often much undiscovered treasure to be found if you wander off the beaten path (hence my interest in rare or neglected operas). I am inherently dissatisfied with limiting myself to canonical works.

    It’s not always the case that “the cream rises to the top,” even with the passage of centuries. Sometimes you must actively seek it out.

  4. Hi Pelleastrian,

    I too love Mathis though I’m not as fanatical as you! (And yeah Caitlin I also enjoyed A Composer’s World)

    In my opinion the Sixth and Seventh tableaux are the best. Tableaux Six is very theatrical with enormous stage potential, depicting The Temptation of Saint Antony, and then St. Paul and St. Antony as seen on the Isenheim Altar. The vocal music in the Seventh Tableaux, scene one when Regina is dying is very beautiful, and so is the orchestral interlude (Entombment).

    My overall verdict: this opera has many moments of extreme beauty, the instrumental part is very good, and it is very theatrical. On the other hand most of the vocal writing is not that exciting, and there are some longueurs – the opera is a bit monothematic, with the endless doubts and philosophical meditations and dialogues on the meaning of life and sense of one’s worth, direction of one’s work, and religious themes. At one point this all gets to be a bit tiresome when there is too much talk and the flow and pace get slowed down. Some judicious cuts would have improved this work. It is interesting to notice that the present version I’m reviewing is basically the only entirely complete one; others have suffered cuts. Maybe they worked. Cardillac with a running time a little under 2 hours and 10 minutes is a lot more compact.

    These shortcomings stop me from saying “highly recommended opera”. I’d rather say that it is a solid “recommended”

    Just my opinion of course!



  5. Mathis der Maler is, as you say, a great opera. And I share your dismay but have no explanation, outside a very general impression that Anglo-saxons tend to find Hindemith – the person and his music – perhaps just a little too “German.” Let’s hope that this disinterest is put aside at least temporarily for the 50th anniversary of his death next year.

    (But I’m not getting my hopes up – Hindemith simply doesn’t feature the “glitz” factor of someone like, say, Ligeti)

    Best wishes.

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