November 17, 2009

post production

Orphée is over now; we closed on Saturday. We are all, I think, grateful to be back to a standard work schedule, and yet the transition is always hard. This show was, for me, the most exciting and satisfying show in four and a half seasons, so its ending been especially bittersweet.

I want to tell you one last thing. Orphée did something very important for me. It proved something that I have long suspected. Let me tell you a brief story. For several years in college I had a very close mentor/student relationship with a professor. We were both musicians and also writers. We spent the vast majority of our friendship engaging in increasingly heated debates about books. If he recommended something to me, I nearly always liked it; but if I recommended something to him, unfailingly he would dismiss it. And it's how he dismissed the things he did not enjoy that so frustrated me. Rather than saying, "It just didn't speak to me," he would say, "The author is an incredible egotist," or "The premise of the book is far too gimmicky," or "It's sloppy and imprecise." The fault always lay in the work itself. The result of this tactic was -- unintentionally, I think -- to make me feel as though the flaw transcended the work and was attributable to me personally. After all, if the book that speaks to you is written by an author who's a complete egotist, then you must be one yourself, right?

Conversely, I always believed that if I didn't like something -- especially a thing which many others enjoyed; take On The Road as an example -- then I must be missing something. It was my problem. Maybe On The Road didn't speak to me because I just like a book with more plot; or maybe I just don't have the right life experience to be able to immerse myself in Sal's life. Somehow, I didn't have the right key to get inside that particular story at the particular moment I read it. But I don't blame Jack Kerouac.

So, Orphée. Because I tend to favor modern opera over Verdi and Puccini, I was excited for the work, and yet I also knew that I had not particularly liked Glass's music on previous hearings. I was desperate to get the most from the experience, since it's not every day that one gets to meet as big and important a name as Philip Glass. I knew I was approaching the opera from a disadvantage, which is why I started so early and worked so hard to find something to appreciate. When I realized I loved it, I was delighted to discover that, in fact, I was right -- I had been missing something! There was nothing wrong with the opera; I just had to find a way in.

This is what I've learned: sometimes appreciation comes in a flash, but other times it's a long, meandering, and occasionally exhausting road. It might seem like a stupid thing to say, but liking the things we already like is easy. Liking the things that don't automatically strike us is much harder. And yet, as I've discovered, when you're successful the end result is much more enjoyable. The reason I am so reluctant to let go of Orphée is that it's been such a wonderful process. Of course I do truly love the opera, but what I am loathe to give up is so much more: it's all the exploring that I (and others like me) have done, the discussions we've had, the endless nights we have spent swapping impressions with one another. Let's just say we didn't do anything like this for Rigoletto.

I wish it were possible for me to devote as much time and love into appreciating all the other operas I prepare for the company. But operas like Boheme and Cosi don't need me; there are thousands of other people to hold them up. No one knew Orphée when we began. It seemed to need an advocate. I'm sad to give the job up for awhile. So, do me a favor. The next time you hear a piece of music and think bleck, I don't like this at all, think of me. And listen to it again.


  1. I think this entry will speak to many people, Jess. I sat here just nodding along as I read it. I particularly like your comment about it being easy to like things we already like. It's not just laziness, it's also about being comfortable with what we know (the corollary, of course, being discomfort with the unfamiliar). Often we try to squeeze something new into an existing mental or emotional template and then when it just doesn't want to go the temptation is to discard it rather than set up a new template. But as you so rightly suggest, the satisfaction of discovery can be wonderfully rewarding. Thank you for hitting this nail so squarely on the head!

  2. Hey Jessica - I'm just now catching up on reviews, blogs, etc, for Orphee and Esther, sitting quietly in my sister's home in NJ - my first day off in months. It's been great reading so many responses to Orphee.

    I rarely post a response on line, but I wanted to thank you for your comments, which resonate deeply with me.

    The professor in college who had a lasting and profound influence on me was Dr. Jack Sacher. He wrote two EXCELLENT books: The Art of Sound and Opera: A Listener's Guide. He had an unofficial rule with his music students - that you had to listen to a work three times before you were allowed to state "I don't like it" or "I don't get it".

    He certainly understood that not all works (music, literature, painting, etc) speak to even the most open of minds, ears, and eyes, but that many great works may require more of an effort on our part. He insisted that we give every new musical encounter a fair chance, and not dismiss it after only one hearing.

    Reading your comments, I'm reminded of what a gift I received from Dr Sacher 30 years. How many operas might I have initially dismissed without his guidance and influence?

    There's a saying that "people don't know what they like, they just like what they know". There is a definite truth in this, and it means there will always be push back when each new PO season is presented. But I'm lucky to have a supportive board, a reasonably open audience, and colleagues like you who advocate so beautifully and persuasively.

    Thank you. You're the best.