When The New Yorker’s Alex Ross declared, “since the sad demise of New York City Opera, [Gotham Chamber Opera] has become leading alternative to the Met,” he was simultaneously correct and misleading. Gotham, of course, immediately trumpeted the flashy pull-quote. But if Gotham is now legitimately New York’s second opera company, the work it produces is nothing like the Met or City Opera. The word “chamber” is in its name, after all, and its mission to produce “small-scale rarities” that are “intended for intimate venues” makes the comparison to those larger companies with grander repertoires essentially meaningless.
It is fair to say that now the Metropolitan Opera exists in the city by its Olympian self, and that Gotham is the outstanding first company among the many smaller purveyors of un-grand opera. I’ve written in the past about the freedom, wit and clever experimentation available to these smaller companies, in which the Met’s productions, while often spectacular, cannot partake due to its sheer hegemonic position.
What Gotham brings to its productions is a persistent, pervasive sense of joie de vivre and creative variety, and the Met just can’t keep up with that. (New York City Opera tried, kind of, at the end.) I’m a committed fan of the Met and find myself consistently impressed by what it does—and it is certainly capable of silly fun—but its big-budget grandeur often weighs it down.
Beginning last week, and with the final performance tonight at the Gerald E. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, Gotham Chamber Opera’s season opener is a bill of four entertainingly oddball one-act operas called Baden-Baden 1927. This collection of short, quirky works recreates the evening of July 17, 1927, at the Baden-Baden Festival of Contemporary Music, when that small, south-western German spa resort town made an avant-garde splash.
Most notably, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht debuted their first of what would be many collaborations with Mahagonny Songspiel. The other operas were Darius Milhaud’s L’enlèvement d’Europe (The Abduction of Europa), Ernst Toch’s Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (The Princess and the Pea) and the 1927 event’s organizer Paul Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück (There and Back). For Gotham, Paul Curran directed and the company’s artistic director Neal Goren conducted.
The set design featured images by the German neo-expressionist painter Georg Baselitz, billed as set designer (along with Court Watson, who also designed the costumes), and two of the operas were set in art galleries, showing, among other objects, Baselitz’s work. He is known for his roughly painted images of figures and isolated body parts often shown hanging upside down. Baselitz gave the production an undertone of darkness, which suggested the menacing political situation in 1927, the Nazis not yet in power, but on their way; three of the composers were Jewish.
The first opera of the evening was the just eight minute long L’enlèvement d’Europe, and the set was dominated by a Baselitz’s huge 1988 painting Fist/Pugno, the titular clenched fist foreshadowing the violence of the plot. Maeve Höglund as Europa played it flirtatiously to match Daniel Montenegro’s suave Jupiter. As Pergamon, Michael Mayes sang with mounting passion and intensity until Jupiter, with his telekinetic Greek god powers and a flick of the wrist, caused the spurned lover to stab himself. There was no bull in this setting of the piece, but the chorus did—literally—moo.
Next, Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse took the form of Kardashian-style reality TV show. Veteran soprano Helen Donath played the prince’s mother with dramatic bluster, trying to find a verifiably royal wife for her son, played as blasé (and gay) by Montenegro. Members of the chorus filled the role of the reality TV crew, pushing a camera in the singers’ faces (and trying to get an upskirt shot of the princess); the camera fed to projections on the walls of the set. The energetic—even madcap—action of the constantly moving performers matched Toch’s complex music. Höglund sang the Princess with imperious verve and Jennifer Rivera, as the nurse, sounded focused and in charge; her character was the most in control.
The staging of Hin und Zurück, only around ten minutes long, evoked silent movies—appropriate for 1927. The action takes place in a domestic kitchen, and other than the table, the set was a flat image of a kitchen in black and white. A cheery woman (Höglund) sings sweetly about the morning until her husband (Matthew Tuell) unexpectedly comes home with a birthday present for her. He catches her receiving a note from her secret lover and he kills her. She gets taken out of a stretcher by a doctor and ambulance driver and the husband throws himself out a window. Then, “a wise man” comes in—here played by Montenegro as Andy Warhol, appropriate to the emotionally detached farce—and the whole thing undoes itself in reverse: the man comes in through the window, the woman gets carried back in—backwards—on the stretcher and then gets up…until she’s back sitting at her table singing happily about the morning.
Finally, Mahagonny Songspiel, a dark, ironic collection of songs about living in a city oppressed by capitalism (it’s Weill and Brecht, remember) is set again in a gallery. Baselitz’s paintings hang in the background, the pea from Toch’s opera is on view under glass on a pedestal, and there are four treadmills across the center of the stage (suitable for dancing on…), identified with a label like an artwork. John Cheek’s stern bass, as Jimmy, was effective as punctuation interrupting the antics of Mayes, Tuell and Montenegro. Donath and Rivera shone as down-and-out painted women in search of whiskey bars, pretty boys, and dollars.
Also last week, at the Met, the opera world witnessed a new, magnificent Norma in Angela Meade (her equally fantastic co-star, Jamie Barton also deserves notice). This is, for opera fans, a major event on a generational scale; Vincenzo Bellini’s druid priestess stands as a desperately beloved, legendarily difficult-to-pull-off-well operatic touchstone. It is truly exciting and important news, but I note this as an example of the kind of event that does not happen at Gotham. Nor is the company interested in operas like Norma, nor should they be. That is what the Met is for. Gotham Chamber Opera is a vital and smart institution, and it’s a pleasure to see them have a good time filling a cultural role the Met couldn’t hope to touch.