NY Met: The End of The Season
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  • When it comes to opera I am not an easy sell, but I can be won over. You make Billy Budd seem like I might actually like it. Connecting Vere and Pilate reminds me of a recent performance of a contemporary version of The Passion here in Perth. It was a warm up performance by a London based company and took place outdoors on a beautiful late summer afternoon in a space much larger than is possible indoors and required the support of dozens of local actors and actresses to fill ‘the stage’. Pilate was convincing, Christ not. And I suppose that is to be expected – Pilate’s predicament is all too familiar.

  • Jim.

    Only a handful of “great” cities, but a nice selection of smaller one worth a look, for a weekend with good friends. On the West Coast, just off the top of my head:

    – the Carmel-by-the-Sea Bach Festival. As a plus, has Pebble Beach golf nearby. It’s got a nicely “walkable” downtown as well, with the added advantage of being a place you’d actualy care to go for a walk in. Beautiful.

    – the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The selection of fine dining may not match NY’s, but the scenery has the grimy steel troughs of NYC beat all hollow.

    – if you like grimy steel troughs with a world-class orchestra and good restaurants, San Fransisco might appeal to you. It’s got some nice scenery too, provided you leave the city.

  • thibaud

    Lovely. Thanks so much for the tip, Mr. Mead. More like this, pls.

    btw, is Cafe des Artistes still open? Back in the day, that was my preferred hangout after going to Lincoln Center.

  • God, you make me jealous! I feel like a rube.

  • WigWag

    Is Melville extolling Christianity in “Billy Budd”

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Melville’s attitude toward Christianity was complicated but he wrestled with it all his life; the opera libretto stresses his Christian side.

  • Rhodium Heart

    Is Melville extolling Christianity in Billy Budd? Is he ever! Billy Budd is most definitely a Christ figure, one who must be put to death so that others may live. It doesn’t get more Christian than that.

    Captain Vere is not so much a Pilate figure, as he is a metaphor (stand-in, actually) for the judiciary in American society. The struggle between justice and fairness in rendering a decision. Quite a lot happening in a novella (rather than a short story).

  • WigWag

    Actually, I don’t think Melville was extolling the virtues of Christianity in “Billy Budd,” more likely he was ridiculing Christianity. While Melville joined the Unitarian Church to please his wife (are Unitarians even Christian?), according to his biographers, Melville detested Unitarianism. We also know that Melville, who spent some time in Hawaii, had a very problematic relationship with Christian missionaries there. Many commentators try to find Christian themes in Melville’s work and in the work of his contemporary, Walt Whitman. Neither rejected Christianity entirely; they both hoped that their work would transcend Christianity. It did.

    While many operas have Christian themes, few of the greatest operas do (although I did enjoy “Dialogues of the Carmelites” and the second opera in “Il Trittico,” “Suor Angelica” by Puccini which takes place in a convent).

    I think Benjamin Britten’s best opera is not “Billy Budd” but “The Turn of the Screw” which is based on a novella by the (closeted gay) author and essayist, Henry James. Britten’s opera hardly celebrates Christian themes; it is about a young boy (Miles) who is sexually abused first by his former governess (Miss Jessel) and then raped and murdered by the gardener (Peter Quint). The opera, when performed correctly, is both riveting and disturbing; there are no Christian themes from Britten here.

    Many critics believe that the three Mozart operas written in conjunction with Lorenzo Da Ponte are the best operas ever written; I agree. While none of these operas can be considered anti-Christian, in one way or another they all reject Christian values and instead celebrate Enlightenment values. This is hardly surprising considering that they were written at the height of the Enlightenment in Vienna.

    In the sublime Cosi Fan Tutti, the theme is wife swapping or more specifically fiancé-swapping. It’s hard to imagine an opera more disdainful of traditional Christian conceptions of the proper relationship between men and women.

    In “Le Nozze de Figaro” Count Almaviva, who lusts after his wife’s servant, gets his comeuppance at the hands of his wife, the servant who he desires and her fiancé, the clever Figaro. The opera, which is both beautiful and hysterical ridicules authority figures and derives its humor from the fact that the servants are so much smarter than the aristocrats. Again, traditional Christian themes of respect for authority are turned on their head. Da Ponte’s libretto was based on a play by a European hero of the American Revolution, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais had little use for Christianity and he became an avid supporter of the French Revolution (he bought arms for the Revolutionaries from the Dutch and he favored stripping the French clergy of all of their property).

    Perhaps the single greatest opera ever written was “Don Giovanni.” The naive interpretation of this opera is that the protagonist was dastardly. A more sophisticated interpretation is that he broke all of the conventions mandated by the Church to release mankind from the oppressive dictates of the Christian religion. This interpretation is confirmed by the opera’s final scene; Giovanni, given an opportunity to repent, refuses. Instead, he is willingly dragged into hell cursing Gods name. It is harder to imagine a more thorough Enlightenment hero than Don Giovanni.

    If Mozart was the greatest composer of opera who has ever lived, his counterpart, Da Ponte, was the greatest librettist. Da Ponte also found Christianity tiresome. He was a defrocked Priest who married twice and engaged in numerous extramarital sexual liaisons. His life was somewhat reminiscent of both the fictional Don Giovanni and Casanova, the real character who Da Ponte based the Giovanni character on (Casanova and Da Ponte were friends). The behavior of Da Ponte was so outrageous that (like Casanova) he was actually banished from several Italian cities, which is how he ended up in Vienna and met Mozart.

    There is a wonderful biography of Da Ponte that is highly entertaining that every opera fan should read; “The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte–Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario.”


    Anyone who reads it will understand very quickly that exploring themes pertinent to Christianity was very far down on Da Ponte’s list of priorities.

    While Professor Mead is right that the exploration of Christian themes does play a role in some operas, the greatest operas were a product of the Enlightenment and the greatest operatic composers thrived during an Enlightenment period that was clearly a repudiation, at least in part, of traditional Christianity.

    Herman Melville, the author of “Billy Budd” didn’t think much of Christianity. Neither did Henry James, Beaumarches or Da Ponte. One of the things that makes opera so interesting is that it breaks the fetters imposed on people by religion in general and Christianity in particular.

    Opera is about the glory of human creativity, not the glory of God.

  • WigWag

    By the way, Professor Mead, another great choice for dining when you visit Lincoln Center is Joanne Trattoria, NYC. The restaurant is less than a year old; I ate there for the first time last week and was very pleasantly surprised; the food is excellent and the prices are reasonable (relatively speaking).

    It’s located a few short blocks from Lincoln Center at 70 West 68th Street. The cuisine is Italian (I had the Osso Bucco) and the staff is very friendly. As it happens, the restaurant is owned by Lady Gaga’s mother and father, Joe and Cynthia Germanotta; but don’t let that stop you. Joe, who I am told is usually there, is a big opera fan. Mention that you are heading to the MET and he will almost certainly provide you with his review of what you are about to see/hear.

    In case you are interested in the menu, it can be found here,


  • WigWag

    “btw, is Cafe des Artistes still open? Back in the day, that was my preferred hangout after going to Lincoln Center.” (thibaud)

    I used to love it too. Sadly the restaurant closed in 2009. I always wondered what happened to the lovely murals that adorned the walls.

    Here’s an article about the closing of Cafe de Artistes.


    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

  • Anthony

    “Good friends, good food, and great art….” What a country we have (and some excellent world class cities).

  • thibaud

    @ Wig – No worries. CDA was a part of my youth, which is only a distant memory.

  • Kris
  • WigWag

    Yes, Kris; thank you. I read “Spengler” faithfully at PJ Media and also his music column at “Tablet” magazine. Occasionally I catch him at the “Asia Times.” In a certain way he reminds me of Professor Mead; brilliant, eloquent, thoughtful, cheeky and frequently wrong.

  • BlogDog

    I have come to opera late in life but find that I am rather stuck on bel canto. I find most modern works grating and insalubrious. But I will certainly give “Billy Budd” a chance when I can.
    I feel lucky that we live in an era of the most amazing divas. Fleming, Netrebko, Geoghiu, Garanca, Damrau, DiDonato. Wonderful voices, engaging actresses and stunning beauties. There is much for which to be grateful in opera today. (I am also rather taken with Juan Diego Florez since I saw him in the Met’s “Comte Ory.” All the things I said about the divas applies to him but please sub in “handsome” for “stunning beaut[y]!”)

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