Archive for October, 2010

PostHeaderIcon A Young Guy’s Guide To Opera


Tristan und Isolde

I was a latecomer to opera, not falling under its spell until my late forties. Why?  Well, to my mind back then, opera was a foreign world, a musical universe in an orbit all its own. Countless opera fans worldwide treat this 400-year-old art form as a quasi-religion. They know the arcana of each opera’s composition, its performance history, major historical figures and hold passionate beliefs about how the music should be played and each aria should be sung. Such cult-like devotion, combined with opera’s centuries-old association with society’s aristocracy, made me think a guy from the West (not East) Side of Manhattan wouldn’t find opera to my liking.

Guys, don’t repeat my mistake and postpone discovering opera until late in life, or not at all. Let me offer several reasons that may convince young Chicago males to give opera a try.

Singers Are Athletes
When the weekend hits, most young men’s thoughts turn to sports. During the fall and winter opera season, that means the Bears and the Bulls.  Compared to Derrick Rose or Devin Hester, opera may seem like a long shot.  However, opera singers are athletes in their own right.

Like athletes, opera singers’ instruments are their voices. To be able to project their voice out to the rafters of the upper balcony’s last row without aid of a microphone is an athletic feat comparable to a running back or a marathon runner. All require great lung capacity, stamina and physicality. “These guys (and ladies) are strong,” says Roger Pines, the dramaturg at Lyric Opera for the past 15 years. “(To sing) Puccini or Verdi is a huge feat of singing force and power.”

Great Stories
I used to think the plots of most opera’s were outdated and overly melodramatic. They may seem so in reading the bare plot summaries but, on stage, the stories and emotions come alive in a larger-than-life way. You want stories about love, lust for power, sex, tales of the gods or the meaning of life? Opera has them all in spades. As Metropolitan Opera trustee and major donor, Agnes Varnis,

commented recently, “The opera’s like Broadway, only better. It’s got sex, it’s got incest, it’s got rape. You introduce young people to music, you’ve got them for life.”

opera couple

Porgy & Bess

Better than Broadway
Ms. Varnis’ non-PC remark hit the nail for me. Over the past five years, on semi-annual trips to New York, my hometown, I’ve bypassed Broadway in favor of seeing an opera at the Met. Such a choice has become a no-brainer because most Broadway musicals are retreads or not very engaging. And now that opera managers are engaging many more directors with theater experience, like Chicagoans Barbara Gaines or Gary Griffin, to stage new productions, the results on stage are more imaginative and gripping.

Opera usually has more complex, imaginative sets, richer costumes and a full orchestra of at least 80 members rather than a pared-down ensemble of fewer than 15 musicians. And the ticket cost differential is almost non-existent with premium Broadway seats going for $250 and up.

Better Date Cred
Tell that lady you’re trying to impress and move your relationship to the next level that you’ve got tickets to the Goodman and she’ll be pleased. But tell her to dress up because you’re taking her to Lyric Opera or The Met and your stock jumps dramatically. She may now see you in a brighter light, as being more sophisticated and with definite mating potential.

More Eye Candy
Besides staging more theatrically-attuned productions, major opera companies are busy retiring the old stereotype of the “Fat Lady” from the legendary expression, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”.

The days of Montserrat Caballe and Jane Eaglen-type leading ladies are numbered. That was the message conveyed in 2004 when a director at London’s Royal Opera House dropped Deborah Voigt from a production of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, because she was unable to fit into a tiny black dress. Ms. Voight, seeing which way the opera winds were blowing, subsequently underwent gastric bypass surgery and has resumed her top rank as a slimmer, but no less dramatic, diva.

Nadja Michael in Macbeth

Nadja Michael in Macbeth

So, men, if you crave slim, believable, beautiful leading ladies, you now have divas such as Joyce DiDonato, Ana Maria Martinez, Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca and many others to galvanize your attention and win your heart.  At the present time, through October 30, you can be mesmerized by the stunning Nadja Michael who is playing Lady Macbeth to a tee at Lyric Opera. I watched in fascination last week as Ms. Michael, sheathed in a super-sexy thigh-high slit dress, gave a tour de force vocal performance driving Macbeth to murderous mayhem. It was easy to see why Macbeth was a goner. What man could resist a woman of such wicked wiles?

Nadja Michael & Thomas Hampson - Macbeth

Nadja Michael & Thomas Hampson - Macbeth

Opera now offers more ogling opportunities for young males than in decades past and less excuse for dozing off after Act One. And, during intermission, keep your eyes peeled for attractive, unaccompanied females who might be looking for their next opera arm candy as well.

For those five reasons, I urge 21-35 year-old men to give opera a chance. It’s not your parents’ opera anymore. Creative general managers like Peter Gelb in New York along Bill Mason and Brian Dickie here in Chicago are re-configuring it to appeal to a wider audience to insure its survival. The music and the voices must certainly remain the primary driving force. But there are many changes that are being made to modernize and replace practices grown stale and reinvigorate the mission.



If you’re a neophyte, take in that timeless tale of passion and fickle love, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”, Lyric’s next production. See why this tale of a sex-bomb, gypsy seductress is the world’s most popular opera. Katherine Goeldner (October-November performances) or Nadia Krasteva (March) should get your hormones racing. You can even fantasize that, while Don Jose didn’t have the cojones to tame Carmen’s love ‘em and leave ‘em ways, she might have met her match in you.

Note: If your knowledge of the operas at Lyric this season is rudimentary or nil, you can get up to speed by attending one or more of the six remaining talks in Lyric’s Discovery Series, led by Roger Pines. The next one is Nov. 8th on “A Masked Ball.” Call Lyric at 312/332-2244 to register. For tickets:

PostHeaderIcon Two Bound Works Of Art

Matisse - radical invention

Bathers by the River

In the last six months, the Art Institute of Chicago has mounted three extraordinary exhibitions—“Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917”, “Henri-Cartier Bresson—The Modern Century” and the recently-opened “Gray Collection: Seven Centuries of Art.”

When writing on exhibitions, the focus, properly, is what’s on the walls.  Yet, in this instance, I found the catalogues to the Matisse and Gray shows as impressive. Both are richly informative additions to our knowledge of two persons at the top of their game: one a major artist of the 20th Century (as protean as Picasso and productive of more personally satisfying creations) and the other a premier mid to late 20th Century art dealer and his wife whose private collection is on public view for the first time.

The Matisse and Gray shows have resulted in two visually striking catalogues published by Yale University Press. The Matisse exhibition was a five-year curatorial collaboration between the museum’s Stephanie D’Alessandro and the Museum of Modern Art’s John Elderfield, the reigning authority on Matisse’s work.

Matisse has become the new Monet, an artist whose name brings out the masses. Yet a mere 87 years ago, Matisse was burned in effigy by students at the School of the Art Institute when his work appeared in the infamous 1913 Armory Show. And, as late as mid-century, he was viewed as an accomplished colorist and decorative artist but not one worthy of admission to the pantheon of 20th century giants.

I found the show (which closes at MoMA next weekend) when it was shown in Chicago earlier this year to be a grand sweep of masterworks prior to 1913 followed by the more austere and radically reworked portraits and drawings from the World War I period.

The curators probably reasoned that just showing the severe black and white drawings of the transformative period would have been deadly. Thus, they chose to accent the contrast with pre-1913 works. They opened with paintings bursting with color and sculptures such as the busts of Jeannette and the initial “Back” studies in bronze.

I learned a great deal about Matisse’s methods and psychological frame of mind during this time but found the show’s heavy emphasis on new x-ray evidence to be more of a curators’ obsession and too didactic in pressing how radical a shift Matisse’s art underwent.

Matisse - dancers

The dancers

Just seeing “The Dance” and “The Moroccans” can often be enough to make us to marvel at the creative act that produced it.  The one exception was “Bathers by the River” (fourth state) in which the curators opened my eyes and helped unravel its mystery for me.

Sometimes the catalogue can be more successful in making one’s case than a museum exhibition where the act of seeing and our more

instinctual appreciation usually takes precedence.  If you are a fan of Matisse, as I am, and want to go inside his painstaking step-by-step artistic process, I urge you to buy the book and read its expert investigations.

Gray collection

Richard Gray

Mary & Richard Gray

Just last week, I viewed Richard Gray’s collection in the museum’s Richard and Mary Gray Galleries for prints and drawings (quite a stroke of symmetry). I can only describe my wanderings through the galleries as a sensual viewing delight as well as one of admiration for the keen eye that assembled this rich assemblage.

I cannot recommend seeing this superb collection too highly (on display through January 3, 2011). I think you will be enchanted and possibly transported by the virtuosity on display. And to marvel that such drawings were not collected as avidly until several decades ago.

I have known Richard Gray in passing over three decades and admired his strong taste in artists and, more recently, his and his wife’s philanthropic generosity to many Chicago institutions from the Smart Museum of Art, the Chicago Symphony, Chicago Humanities Festival and WFMT.  It is testimony to his solid integrity as an art dealer (not generally the most ethical profession) that he was invited to the board of the Art Institute.

The catalogue to the show offers a greater appreciation of the over 100 works on display and gave me a glimpse into how the collection was formed.  A great addition to the catalogue, besides analyses of the exhibit’s 115 drawings by over 50 international experts, is the interview with the Grays conducted by Lawrence Wechsler.

I was delighted to get to know Richard’s life story and to read that, as a dealer and collector, Gray has always trusted his eye and his gut, not as I assumed, some superior knowledge of art and artists.

Gray Collection Seven Centuries Cover

Gray Collection Seven Centuries

Gray began collecting modern and contemporary artists, many of whom his gallery represented. Over time, with his wife’s art history expertise, he took his collecting addiction back in time so that the collection now spans seven centuries.

The book has been lovingly produced from the range and expertise of the contributors, the book’s renowned designer and its paper and reproductive quality. You will learn a lot about one man’s passion and how it led to the assembling of this museum-quality collection.

Since Gray started his collecting journey and moved backwards, it might be fun to start with two of his earliest acquisitions on pages 103 and 129. Then savor it, starting at page 170 all the way back to the arresting late 15th Century “Portrait of an Old Man” drawing that graces the front cover. It might be enough to start your own collecting juices racing.