Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, May 29, 2020

In Memoriam: Jessye Norman, 1945-2019

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Jessye Norman died on September 30, 2019. We should not expect to see her like again. Vocally, dramatically, and physically, she dominated world stages throughout a career that spanned four and a half decades and an astonishing diversity of styles: those of the Baroque, 20th-century modernism, spirituals, jazz, the American songbook. Happily for us, the wide compass of her operatic repertoire of forty roles was captured on CD and DVD.

Norman was, of course, a dramatic soprano. Had she followed convention, she would have found a prominent place in the core offerings of premier opera companies. Her power and sumptuous timbre marked her as a worthy successor to, say, Zinka Milanov in the Italian canon or Kirsten Flagstad in the German. But she deviated from the prescribed path early in her career by eschewing Verdi (except for two rare operas she performed only in the recording studio) and avoiding the Wagnerian diva’s obligatory Isoldes and Brünnhildes. And she never engaged with the most popular opera composer of the 20th century, Puccini. In the peak years of Norman’s international fame she embraced Purcell, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Janáček, Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Poulenc, and in doing so, was instrumental in reshaping the taste of the public and the standard offerings of the major lyric theatres.

In 1969, at only twenty-four, Norman made her opera debut with the prestigious Deutsche Oper in Berlin as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The Thuringian princess became one of her favored roles. In her ecstatic entrance aria, “Dich teure Halle (O cherished hall),” Elisabeth invests the space with memories of her beloved minnesinger Tannhäuser and her joy at his return. In a 1985 London concert the audience gives an extended ovation to the singer’s stunning exhibition.

Another of Norman’s early Berlin roles was the Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. In the exquisite “Porgi, Amor (Love, grant me respite)” she entreats Amor to rekindle the affection of her philandering husband. Norman’s impeccable legato and clarity of attack limn the introspection of the Countess, her heroic voice hushed to the finely spun piano dynamics. We hear the soprano in the 1971 recording of the complete opera, conducted by Colin Davis.


Ariadne in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos was, by far, the role Norman sang most frequently in her nearly one hundred appearances in over more than thirteen seasons at the Met. Both the comic Prima Donna of the Prologue and the tragic Ariadne of the opera seria suit the soprano’s temperament and her prodigious vocal resources. Norman negotiates the more than two-octave span of the aria, “Es gibt ein Reich (There is a kingdom),” from G sharp, well below the comfort zone of most sopranos, to high B flat, much of it forte, with remarkable evenness of timbre. Her crystalline diction conveys the despair of the Cretan princess, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the deserted isle of Naxos, as she begs for the deliverance of death. We hear Norman in a 1988 Leipzig recording led by Kurt Masur. A DVD of her Met Ariadne, made the same year, is available on Youtube.


Post Script: Jessye Norman was the object of deep affection and high regard in France. She was the recipient of several official honors, including the Légion d’honneur. A measure of the esteem she enjoyed was the choice of Norman, an American artist, to sing “La Marseillaise” in the spectacular celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14, 1989. Draped in the Tricolor that recalled “Marianne,” the national personification of the French Republic, she stood at the foot of the obelisk at the center of the Place de la Concorde and unfurled her huge voice in this extravagant rendition of what is arguably the most stirring of national anthems.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Met: Looking Back in a Time of Pandemic

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It has been some months since Operapost published its last entry. We take up our blog again, glad to be joining the individuals and organizations that are bringing more and more music into our isolation. Their number and reach tell us how very crucial music is at this moment and how critical the diffusion of music of all genres has become.
Over the years, our posts have centered largely on the history of New York’s dominant opera company, the Metropolitan. The Covid-19 pandemic that has attacked New York so cruelly, draws us once again to the Met’s past, particularly as we contemplate its future. In this installment, we look to three critical periods of the company’s history: that of the 1918 Spanish flu, of the Great Depression, and of the 1969 stand-off between management and labor that shut the theater for months. How the company fared during and after these crises may help us to anticipate how the Met will survive the current humanitarian and economic catastrophe.

Although New York was hit less hard than nearby Boston and Philadelphia during the three waves of the Spanish flu it endured between September 1918 and February 1919, the city suffered a terrible blow.  Thirty thousand New Yorkers of a total population of 5,600,000 died. Theaters and other entertainments, including the Metropolitan Opera, remained open for the entire 1918-1919 season--albeit under stricter regulation and inspection by the Department of Health. And despite its full  performance schedule, in the ten years that separate 1911 from 1921, the 1918-1919 season saw the deepest dip in gross box-office receipts.

More telling than the comparison between the Spanish flu and Covid-19 on the operations of the company is the comparison of the effects of the strike of 1969 with the current closure. (See our three posts on labor-management conflict at the Met, Ars et Labor: 1. The Met, 1906-1966, Ars et Labor: 2. The Met, 1969, Ars et Labor: 3. The Met, 1980). Under General Manager Rudolf Bing, the Met shut its doors for three months, from September to December. When the company finally opened the delayed season, the average percentage of filled seats fell from 96% to 89%. A significant number of patrons failed to renew their subscriptions. Eleven years later, in 1980, when yet another contract dispute threatened the season, subscriptions still lagged behind the 1969 tally by 16%. We should note that as recently as the 2016-17 season the capacity at the Met was 67% and the strength of its financial profile is not nearly what it was in the late 1960s.

The current predictions of depression-level unemployment in the coming months suggest that even a fleeting  glance at the effects of the Great Depression on the Met may be instructive. The company stayed afloat, unlike the Chicago Civic Opera forced to go under by its balance sheet. The fragile equilibrium that obtained through 1929–30 was undone by the more than 10% decline in subscriptions in 1930–31 and another 10% the next year.  Principal singers, with very few exceptions, agreed to reductions in contracts and fees. Ticket prices were lowered; the lost revenue was offset by a major reorganization. As 1932–33 began to take shape, and more than one-tenth of the city’s population was on public or private assistance, the season was shortened from twenty-four to sixteen weeks, and subscription costs were halved and individual ticket prices reduced in order to generate more robust sales. But the drastically reduced prices did little to spur subscriptions. The company took to the radio in a “Save the Met” campaign. Within two months the $300,000 goal was achieved. An astonishing one-third of the total was contributed by radio listeners. (We will devote our next post to the story of the Saturday afternoon broadcasts.)

The Met was, in no small part, “saved” also by the box-office draw of a late-1930s contingent of superlative Wagnerians. (See our  three posts, Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: I, The Dramatic SopranoWagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic TenorWagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: III, Other Voices) on this remarkable moment of Met performance history.) The stars of this cohort were the Norwegian dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad and the Danish heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. The Flagstad-Melchior team guaranteed a full house in the seven seasons they sang together in New York—a stunning average of nearly thirty performances per season. We hear them at their peak in this 1939 studio recording of the duet that marks the triumphant finale of the prologue to Götterdämmerung. As the lovers declare their transcendent passion, Brünnhilde urges Siegfried on to new heights of heroism. Like the audiences of the Great Depression, we too are lifted out of our gloom by the boundless exuberance of these voices.