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Wagner Blues

Despite cancellations by key players, Cincy Opera's 90th season debut is on track

By Anne Arenstein · May 5th, 2010 · Onstage
April has been the cruelest month as far as Cincinnati Opera is concerned. Within a two-week span, the highly anticipated production of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nrnberg lost three of its star performers: Celebrated conductor and Cincinnati native James Levine cancelled due to back surgery, followed by bass James Morris (for health reasons) and soprano Hei-Kyung Hong (for personal reasons).

Wagner’s only comedy hasn't been seen in Cincinnati since 1983 and the new production was touted as the centerpiece of Cincinnati Opera’s 90th anniversary celebration, featuring world-class performers conducted by Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera, who was also scheduled to conduct at the CO’s gala concert on June 19. Die Meistersinger is an epic work, requiring huge forces, including an expanded orchestra and chorus and over a dozen leading roles. Planning began more than two years ago and now, with less than six weeks before rehearsals begin, the company’s artistic staff has gone into operatic overdrive.

Artistic Director Evans Mirageas is a perennial optimist with possibly the world’s best rolodex, but even he couldn’t hide a note of frustration when we spoke last week. Adding to his frustration was being stuck in London as volcanic ash grounded flights.

“The timing is lousy,” he admitted, “but it is what it is.”

Cancellations are an inherent risk factor in the opera world. Singers’ bodies are their instruments, and a cold, a sore throat or allergies can take out even the healthiest performer.

But shit happens and companies deal with it.

The stakes are considerably higher for this production, celebrating the CO’s 90th anniversary, and even before the awful April announcements there was already a major change.

As the economy tanked, the company scrapped its plans to set the production in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, with scenes in Music Hall, Old St. Mary’s Church and on portions of Vine Street. Props go the production staff for finding an excellent alternative: Dusseldorf Opera’s production set, which is set in 16th-century Nuremburg and designed by Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider-Seimsen, who also designed the Metropolitan Opera’s production. The price was right and included more than 70 costumes.

John Keenan, Levine’s assistant music director for this production of Meistersinger, stepped in for Maestro Levine immediately. According to CO sources, Keenan was Levine’s personal choice to take over.

Keenan (pictured above) might not have name recognition but he has the Wagner chops, having conducted Meistersinger at the Met and served on the music staff at Wagner’s theater in Bayreuth, Germany. Keenan will conduct CO’s La Boheme later in the season.

On Wednesday, the company announced that James Johnson will sing Hans Sachs, a role he's performed at the Metropolitan Opera and in Berlin. He appeared in last year’s May Festival performance of Mahler’s “Eighth Symphony” and has sung Wagner roles at leading opera houses throughout the world. The role of Eva, the object of everyone’s affections, goes to emerging American soprano Twyla Robinson, whose credits include performances with the New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera and the Cleveland and Atlanta symphony orchestras.

The big question is: Will audiences pay the same big bucks they would have for Levine, et al? That’s what Cincinnati Opera is hoping. And since opera is equal parts art form and spectator sport, the potential for hearing performers on the verge of major careers is worth a shot — after all, they’ll have as much at stake as the company itself.

Is there any possibility that Maestro Levine might return to Cincinnati once he’s recovered? Mirageas won’t speculate, but he tells me that Levine “was so devastated when he had to withdraw. You should have heard the disappointment in his voice.”

So, as Cincinnati Opera heads into the ninth inning with more than adequate pinch hitters, the crowd’s course of action seems clear: Root for the home team.

For more on Cincinnati Opera’s 90th season productions, go to www.cincinnatiopera.com.



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