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The Hartford Wagner Festival postponement: What really happened

Yalta photo used by Festival
Yalta photo used by Festival
Hartford Wagner Festival

When we read an advertisement last month in Opera News about the Hartford Wagner Festival, we were absolutely blindsided! Wagner in Connecticut? The whole Ring? This was surely too good to be true, and as it turned out, it was.

Last month, when we went to the festival’s web site, we found precious little information: dates, tickets, performers were mostly still all kind of vague although a few Wagnerian singers had apparently been booked.

It wasn’t until we looked at Facebook pages that we discovered what was going on. I am a graduate of Oberlin College which has one of the two or three top undergraduate conservatories in the US, as well as being a top notch liberal arts college. The Oberlin alumni Facebook page began a discussion of this Hartford festival, because at that time, the stage director was to be Oberlin’s opera director Jonathon Field and the music director was to be Paul Polovnick, who was until recently the director of the Oberlin Orchestra.

In the discussion on that Facebook page, we first learned that the Hartford Wagner Festival planned to use a digital orchestra of some kind. With some digging, we learned that they had contracted to buy an extensive set of orchestra sound samples from the Vienna Philharmonic. You can listen to some digitally produced orchestra pieces using this library here. They sound, to our ears, at best OK.

The driving force behind this Wagner festival is Charles Goldstein, who in addition to Peabody Conservatory training and experience singing in opera productions at the Met and elsewhere, had studied at the MIT Media Lab. He has substantial expertise in the area of digital orchestra sampling and playback, using much more complex and flexible systems than the usual MIDI digital systems we are used to. He describes this in an interview in Beat Magazine and recently in a sort of close-out interview with The Wagnerian web site.

By the time we learned all this, the web site for the Hartford Wagner Festival was finally up and running, and this year’s opera, Das Rheingold had been completely cast. The plan was to present 3 performances of Das Rheingold the first year and then add another opera each year for 3 successive years so that there would be 2 performances of Die Walkure and two of Das Rheingold the second year, and so forth, adding Siegfried in the third year and Gotterdammerung in the fourth.

The idea of this production was to be that it would give younger singers a chance to put experience singing Wagner on their resume. And the performance venue was to be the 600 seat theater at the Kingswood Oxford School. However, it didn’t take long to realize that the cast members Goldstein and his team had engaged were in fact experienced opera singers, most with experience at the Metropolitan Opera.

In fact, any singing coach would tell you that Wagner is not something young singers should be singing, since the long operas over a large orchestra take huge amounts of experience and vocal maturity. In fact, the singers they engaged included well-known Met tenor Robert Brubaker to sing the role of the evil dwarf Mime. Other cast members still showing on the website included Michael Chioldi at Wotan, Matthew Anchel as the giant Fafner and Sondra Kelly as Fricka, Wotan’s wife.

As the web site developed, we also learned that Sondra Kelly was also on the Hartford Festival’s Board of Directors, and that tickets were to be $99 each for all seats in the theater. For a digital orchestra! The sets seemed to be mostly planned to be projections.

Now speaking purely musically, it is easy to have some reservations about this endeavor. Singing with a digital orchestra has its challenges, and can be tricky. This is still live theater, after all, and things tend to happen at every performance that the conductor and singers have to adjust for.

We have personally had one experience singing with a digital orchestra in a performance, but the show was a Broadway piece: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, by Stephen Sondheim. The music director had created MIDI files for each number in the show and the cast sang with what sounded like an actual orchestra in a theater much too small to actually hold one. It was quite successful and most people thought there was a real orchestra in the balcony. However, it is important to note that this is essentially popular music with a highly regular rhythmic pulse and while the music director could make modifications in real time to the tempo and even skip measures, this was a much simpler system than would be required for a Wagner opera.

It is also worth noting that the system they used in Forum crashed during one of the performances, but the young man singing Hero was able to finish his song a cappela. This is unlikely to work out very well in grand opera.

In fact, we contacted Goldstein a few weeks ago to ask how he would deal with the rubato of a Wagner opera. Because, while you may think of Wagner as loud and stentorian, it is also essentially romantic music where tempos do vary with the singer and the mood they want to convey. Goldstein responded that he would be working with the singers to set the tempos and variations they wanted and include them in the digital stream that would control the orchestra playback.

The other problem we foresaw was that Wagnerian operas are quite unlike the rest of the classical repertory in that most of them have only a few singers. In the four Ring operas, only the final opera, Gotterdammerung, utilizes a chorus. Thus, 6-8 singers have to carry the night in operas lasting up to 5 hours, and in fact the orchestra becomes that much more important., with Wagner’s rich harmonies and huge array of instruments as important or more important than the singers themselves. The orchestra becomes a major character in these operas, and having it reduced to a set of playbacks through speakers in the front row or pit is simply not the same thing. (Goldstein planned to place 34 speakers where the various instrumental sections would be.)

Given our Oberlin connection, we contacted the stage director, Jonathon Field at Oberlin, asking if we could interview him about the project. He immediately replied, saying he’d be glad to talk with us if the festival agreed, but that he would only talk about directing. He said that while he may have opinions about the use of the digital orchestra, that wasn’t part of his assignment in this production and he wouldn’t talk about that aspect. Since we were curious as to how this would affect the directing process, we didn’t follow through with this interview.

At about this time, looking through the web site, we discovered that the music director Paul Polovnick was no longer with the production and that Charles Goldstein would be conducting.

Serious criticisms

We soon discovered that this production had generated a huge amount of criticism among opera fans and particularly among orchestra musicians, who not only felt that digital orchestras were a major threat, but that they could not be anywhere near as good. The Facebook page for the Hartford Wagner Festival was filled with such criticisms, by the musicians. However, according to horn player Erin A Paul, the comments were being deleted and musicians were being blocked from further comments.

A counter Facebook page, Musicians Against the Harford Wagner Festival was soon established where musicians could share information and complain about the implications of this project, calling it essentially “karaoke opera.” In addition, they felt that work for classical musicians was seriously threatened, especially since the demise of the Connecticut Grand Opera.

The festival was quick to reply that no musicians jobs were threatened because they had never planned on using anything except a digital orchestra from the outset.

The situation became worse when members of the musicians union of the Chicago Lyric Opera contacted each of the singers in this production suggesting that if they continued with the project, they would find difficulty getting work with other major opera companies. The New York Times reported on these events on June 11, noting that tenor Robert Brubaker had withdrawn as Mime.

Finally, this became too much for the Hartford Wagner Festival, which announced last Friday that the festival would be postponed until 2015, citing “vicious and coordinated attacks” by the American Federation of Musicians, “which forced the resignation of our music director and two of our performers.”

Can this performance be saved next year? Watch this space for more details.

Meanwhile, we note that the lovely photo from Yalta the festival had been using has been replaced on their Kickstarter page (which has raised no money) with one from the Met’s old production.

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