So opera in America is suddenly ‘woke’

So opera in America is suddenly ‘woke’


norman lebrecht

September 18, 2019

The US opera world is awash with delight this morning at an upcoming Vanity Fair feature proclaiming it to be ‘woke’.

The article is titled ‘The opera is having a woke renaissance’.

But read the opening paragraph and you’ll see it parts company with reality several times in the first 50 words.

Here’s the VF lede by Keziah Weir:

When the virtuosic Arturo Toscanini presided over Milan’s La Scala at the end of the 19th century, the majority of the company’s repertoire comprised music written during the prolific past two decades, from Verdi’s Otello to Puccini’s La Boheme. “It was a living, breathing thing,” says Michael Capasso, general manager of the recently revived New York City Opera.

Let’s sub-edit that for factual accuracy:

When the virtuosic dictatorial Arturo Toscanini presided over became principal conductor at Milan’s La Scala at the end of the 19th century in 1898, the majority of a certain part of the company’s repertoire comprised music written during the prolific past two decades, from Verdi’s Otello to Puccini’s La Boheme. “It was a living, breathing thing,” says Michael Capasso, general manager of the recently revived  desperately struggling New York City Opera.

And that’s just the first par.



  • Toscapasso says:

    This article is utter rubbish and an embarrassment for a magazine the once knew what it was publishing. Toscanini would be repulsed with any association with the nearly defunct NYCO. The Met has problems but it is a global instituion. VF should be blushing for publishing this.

    • Laurence says:

      Why are so many (correction: you and NL) gleefully hoping that NYCO goes extinct? What did they ever do to you? And how do you know what the long-dead Toscanini’s feelings might be? A little presumptuous, eh wot?

      • norman lebrecht says:

        No-one wishes it extinct. But face the facts. NYCO was declared dead. It came back, lost its chief backer, cancelled a lot of plans and now is in parlous condition.

        • Tiredofitall says:

          As a long-time (45 years) admirer and attendee of NYCO, I can guarantee you, it NEVER came back and it is an insult to the memory of Julius Rudel and thousands of wonderful artists to compare the current incarnation to former company.

          We can’t live on memories and time marches on. Hopefully the proliferation of smaller ensembles in NYC will create a new type of viable opera company. DNR

          • IntBaritone says:

            This is very true. As a singer, this company is an embarrassment. It is not respected among performers, nor is it a desireable gig (as it was, even as recently as in 2010). The fact that a rich backer was able to buy the name “New York City Opera” does not mean it bears any resemblance to the great company that came before it.

            Every now and again you will see a decent singer there (not a great one, mind you), but that is more of a reflection on the opera business these days and the fact that very VERY few singers, even at the highest levels are making what they used to. Fees have fallen, companies are struggling so they are making drastic repertoire choices that very few want to see, and the cycle continues.

            Let’s be clear, whatever this NYCO is – it is not related to what came before it, and it is not a top ranked company. It is seen as a step below Chicago Opera Theater these days in the business, and I cannot see it ever overcoming that, at least not in this incarnation.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            “Fees have fallen…”

            …they needed to.

  • Couperin says:

    I can’t wait to see how the two operas Yannick set up for the Met will be received. Knowing the NYTimes, they will probably be raved about. Will any respectable British music critics attend and give us the truth??

    • RW2013 says:

      What’s a respectable music critic of any nationality?

      • Couperin says:

        Not necessarily Brits but for example, Tim Page, James Oestireich, Paul Griffiths. As opposed to tastemakers like Alex Ross, lightweights such as Tommasini, or freelance know-nothings like that Joshua Barone hack who didn’t even study music in any capacity.

    • Karl says:

      Both operas are by women so they HAVE to be good. Only members of the evil patriarchy will criticize them in an effort to continue the beastly oppression of women.

      • Human being says:

        Karl, why do you think this blog is the appropriate place to continually express your hatred of women? Will no one else listen to you?

        • Karl says:

          It’s weird how you see misogyny in my posts. It’s not there. I hate PC Culture. I don’t think anyone has invented a word for that yet. Pisandry maybe?

    • V.Lind says:

      Let’s sub-edit that for factual accuracy:

      I believe “set up” in your sentence means “commissioned,’ and that the first thing he has “set up” for this season is Porgy and Bess. Any objections? I know it is about black people, so automatically “woke,” but it happens to be a wonderful piece of music and woefully ignored by the Met.

      • Ken says:

        Well, “Porgy” was planned years before he was a dot on the horizon, and he had exactly zero to do with it besides turning it down when he was pencilled in, and the Met did 54 performances of it (respectfully uncut, and in a recognizable production, by the way) in the 80s and 90s. Nothing woeful about it.

  • Paul says:

    It seems that “woke” is on the way to replace “curate” as the pretentious, misused word of the year. Of course, the hip young “influencers” do have a small widow of time during which they can show their social media savvy by using both words in the same sentence as in “Just back from curating some pizza slices for the woke locals.” Now the question is how quickly can opera companies throw major resources at such terminal trendiness.

  • Bruce says:

    Silly article, not worth getting worked up about. But hey, maybe it will help lure a few “opera-curious” yuppies (remember when we used to call them yuppies?) into an opera house somewhere. And maybe one of them will enjoy it.

  • Operatticus says:

    I just hope some of the wealthy members of the younger generations will step up and support opera as others have done before them. Opera cannot survive in it’s full splendor without patronage, though lean times do inspire innovation – some of it welcome, some…not so much! I’ve been in this nutty business 40 years. Ideas, artists, trends come and go, but all are sustained when there is ongoing, committed, generous financial backing.
    I WISH NYCO could find it’s footing and try to fulfill the mission that company once embraced – giving young, mostly American professionals a prime platform to polish their craft, and from which they could move ahead more easily. There is really nothing like that for our fine emerging artists today, regrettably.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Wash, rinse, repeat. Avoid. Just another shallow fashion.

    • Laurence says:

      Speaking of “wash, rinse, repeat”, you seem to jam this phrase into every comment you make. But as soon as you saw “woke” in the headline, you jumped in to repeat yourself. It’s not even a particularly clever phrase, unless you are speaking of shampoo.

  • BrianB says:

    During Toscanini’s first season at the Metropolitan Opera, 1908-09 every one of the eleven (including Verdi Requiem) operas he conducted had been composed during his lifetime bar one. That was a single Rigoletto when he stood in for the scheduled indisposed conductor. The substitution of ‘dictatorial’ for ‘virtuosic’ is qubbling since he was both.