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To Muni and the Good Life

By Steve Ramos · October 6th, 2004 · Arts Beat
Recent productions of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins and Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine are what I visualize whenever I think about Cincinnati Opera. I think about the recent avant-garde productions, by far the best artistic efforts by the Opera, which means I'm thinking specifically about Artistic Director Nicholas Muni.

Muni first came to Cincinnati Opera in 1996, took control of the programming for the 1997 season and recently announced his departure. I don't know how many longtime Opera patrons enjoyed his risky undertakings, but I'm convinced he captured the imaginations of new opera fans and made headlines for the company.

Muni took chances on challenging productions and new talent like visual artist Mark Fox, UC College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) Professor Richard Cawood and maverick stage directors and, because of him, our opera company is thriving artistically. Without him, would soprano Catherine Malfitano have performed on Music Hall's stage -- twice in the past two seasons?

The Maids, composer Peter Bengston's 70-minute chamber opera based on Jean Genet's play Les Bonnes, and The Emperor of Atlantis were season highlights in the arena of creativity and artistic verve, something far more noteworthy than any middlebrow production of La Bohème.

Cincinnati Opera has enjoyed increased name recognition and some notoriety thanks to Muni, and I've never considered notoriety a bad thing. But critics will argue whether he's helped or hurt the company and its fiscal health with his avant-garde tastes, best seen in productions of Dead Man Walking, Elektra and Erwartung.

Muni never looked like the typical Cincinnati native with his long flowing dark kimono robes and round Buddha body. He was friendly but prodding, pushing us toward experiences we don't expect to see at Music Hall or during the summer opera season.

It probably bothers some that the Opera would solely revolve around its artistic director. It's not Muni's Opera, they might argue -- he's employed by the company.

Those critics who took issue with the music in The Turn of the Screw and who hated the stage design for Faust would say Muni has killed off suburban patrons who the Opera so desperately needs to grow its audience base.

The drive to attract upper-middle class suburbanites -- people more attracted to familiar prestige productions of well-known operas than anything new, different or (God forbid) sexual -- has little in common with Muni's high art interests and adventurous spirit.

Mounting operas is an expensive undertaking, and the financial risks are large for a mid-sized company like the Cincinnati Opera. The key questions surrounding Muni's departure are these: Have there been enough enthusiastic opening night audiences to support Muni's vision? Have the risks he's taken paid off?

Muni has talked about the life span for an artistic director before. Two years? 30 years? There's no right or wrong number. Yet when someone is good, you miss that person when they leave.

The first rumor about Muni leaving came as early as 1999. A talented artist leaving Cincinnati to work elsewhere isn't new. Years ago, when asked about his position at the Opera, Muni said, "I see my position as a catalyst for movement, but the community has to do it with me."

In his wake, these are the new questions: Will avant-garde work remain part of the Opera's program calendar? Who will argue that the risks are worth it for the company and its patrons?

The tide is turning for more experimental productions, but Muni is leaving and the spirit of adventure is leaving with him.

Currently, Opera staff are loading boxes and preparing to move to new offices in the north wing of Music Hall. Good taste is everything when you discuss Muni, and it'll be interesting to see if good taste follows the company into its new headquarters.



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