The Word is… “Ambitious!” 


The following article did not find its way unto ionarts, because Mme. Berger, the artistic and musical director, founder etc. of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company deemed it inappropriate (from what I was told, her objections were not regarding my description of the performances but rather that of the people) and convinced Charles T. Downey that he might not want to publish it. This isn’t terribly surprising, given what I had heard about Mme. Berger and her ways. The most disturbing aspect of the company and presumably Mme. Berger is the strong sense of paranoia that is emitted from the whole affair. Dark forces must be out there, hell-bent on crushing the good work of this company. Their dark throne apparently rests within the Washington D.C. Wagner Society. But then, Wagnerians
do have a tendency to dramatize. At any rate, belatedly, here is my review of a concert from some months ago:

Last Saturday I went to St. George’s Church in Arlington, Virginia, to finally see and hear what the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, of which I had read in the German press and on Ionarts, is all about. The Millennium Wagner Opera Company (MillWOC) bills itself as an “American, professional opera company with a contemporary European perspective […] complemented by a historic/traditional European singing style and color.” For a more exhaustive and rather interesting self-characterization see Charles’s interview with founder, musical, and artistic director, Carol Berger, or their Web site at www.milleniumwagneropera.org.

To understand my review of any concert, it is perhaps necessary to know that I don’t have varying standards by which to judge performers and performances. Whether the local high school’s choral competition winner or René Pape; all get judged by the ideal best performance. Technical perfection is the necessary but hardly sufficient condition. Emotional expression is measured against the best in the field and my personal perception.

This “one-standard-fits-all” approach may be both unfit and unfair, alas not the least for consistency and personal preference, I stick to it. I will leave it up to the reviewer to adjust his judgment according to the person or organization reviewed and the expectation they have of themselves. However, this approach actually fits quite well in this case, because – according to Carol Berger – the only difference between the Millenium Wagner Opera Company and, say, Bayreuth or the Munich Staatsoper is: The Money!

First Impressions

To further Wagner and his operas is a worthy undertaking. As such, the MillWOC should be lauded in their efforts to get an organization started devoted to just this. Given the difficulties involved in such a project it is quite astonishing to see that they have come as far as they presumably have. That they are clearly at an early stage in their project does not mean that further development is not likely or not forthcoming.

Asked about where exactly MillWOC sees itself (perhaps on a scale from one to ten, one being the humble beginnings, ten being the ideal to which MillWOC aspires), Carol Berger found herself unable to answer. “We are at such an incredibly high standard of performance” that a rating on a scale from one to ten is impossible. The singing, apparently, can’t be bettered – only the circumstances are lacking. Surely, she is right in regard to the venues and lack of an orchestra being huge obstacles and limitation and primarily a matter of money – of which MillWOC has little. That she looks at the singers’ achievements more kindly than I do is also understandable. But even given the unfortunate circumstances under which I heard MillWOC perform, the idea that it is Staatsoper, or MET, or Bayreuth-level singing is absurd. Singing at Bayreuth, as did for example MillWOC cast-member Brenda Roberts (the youngest-ever Brünnhilde on the green hill), is a different affair, altogether.

Speaking of Carol Berger (whom I had never met prior to the concert), as I sat in my bench, listening to the concert, I was trying to make out who and where she might be. From across the room it was very clear that the artistic director must be the person next to the pianist. Very red hair, a very important look on her face, very red lipstick – and her artistic vision channeled through very black, horn-rimmed glasses convince me. Imagine my surprise when that very lady introduced me to… Carol Berger.

Very embarrassing, indeed. Carol Berger makes a quite different impression. Cute, in an alert, somewhat mouse-like way, she is a woman of some sparkle and energy. She comes across as kind and unpretentious – but then, we had not yet talked about Wagner. She kindly invited me to do so, after the show and over a few glasses of wine.

But to the concert itself. The concert was in most parts, including cast and program, identical to the one that Charles saw and heard (see his review). I will gladly focus on the one big difference, as that happened to be the single most outstanding element of the night. Young pianist Chung-Wei Kang from Manhattan played Franz Liszt’s transcription of Der Liebestod. Ms. Chung-Wei performed admirably! Liszt and this teenager made Isolde sing more heartbreakingly than anyone else present did or could have done. Astounding playing for such a young artist, indeed – but then, astounding quite regardless of age, too. It was deserving of a better venue, a better piano and, let’s be honest, a better audience than this unfortunately sparse group of dedicated music lovers as well. A shame that not more people were able to enjoy this rarely heard transcription that works surprisingly well on the piano.

With the venue, I come to probably the single worst aspect of the concert. The church had such a miserably resonant acoustic (apparently the exact opposite of what Charles was lucky enough to experience) that no matter how good the singing may have been, it was bound to be garbled and to bounce about incomprehensibly. Carol Berger herself did not hesitate to call the church an “appalling” venue from an acoustical standpoint. Judging the worthy efforts of the soloists under such circumstances is certainly difficult, possibly impossible, and likely unfair. Of course, that does not keep me from doing so.

Stereotypes, Anyone?

What must be striking upon seeing the cast, this night made up of Anne Wright Coffman (soprano), Joci Patrice Houston (mezzo), and Hans Aschenbach (tenor – what a perfect name for a Wagnerian!), is their picture-book-perfect, typecast fit for Wagner singers. Mme. Houston was floating about and delighting the audience with up-close “acting” and radiant singing – if persistently an 8th or quarter step below what she may have aimed for. All three were overly dramatic even in small gestures and seemed affected and overly self-important. The humility that surely must be present in all of them was not communicated at all. What a pity. I hope that this is not what “a historic/traditional European singing style and color” means.

Carol Berger gave a memorable line justifying the lack of headquarters (i.e. the ‘global nature’) for MillWOC: “We do not have a domicile, because having a domicile would be un-Wagnerian!” I must clearly go back to my Wagner letters and reread all the sections about him pining and whining for a home, a point of focus and domestic bliss, or, for that matter, Bayreuth. Wagner’s unsettledness had probably more to do with circumstance than choice – much like the lack of a domicile for MillWOC might have to do more with saving on overhead than ideological authenticity of spirit. In fact, it strikes me a bit as if the head of the Primo Levi society were to say: “We are not happy, because being happy would be un-Levi-like.” It misses the point spectacularly – perhaps it was a jest.

But then, such things matter little for a company that has as its overarching philosophy the idea that “Body, Spirit, and the Mental are combined into one”; that being the “essence of Wagner.” Everything that is not, is consequently not Wagnerian. It sounds awfully campy, even if there is something to be said about the unity of the art as Wagner saw it, a unity that is of course difficult to preserve when you do Wagner without the staging and without the orchestra. The Gesamtkunstwerk is slightly incomplete. Well… baby-steps. Some Wagner is already present in MillWOC, perhaps the “Opera” part will, too, be forthcoming one day.

If this is going to be the case, it may well happen without (two-thirds of) the singers present that night. All three were admirable in effort – but less so in result. The figures fit, the voices did not. Booming as it was, Joci Patrice Houston’s voice was less lacking power perhaps than accuracy. Diction was reasonably good. Two out of three ain’t bad – but it isn’t enough for a company as ambitious as MillWOC. (Of course, it is fiendishly difficult to musically articulate the chromatically dense melodies of the Wesendonck Lieder so that they come out right – especially when the acoustics are bad. Wagner nibbles in these songs – as he does later in Tristan und Isolde – at tonality and minute changes in intonation make or break the flow of harmonies.)

Aschenbach as Tristan also had a powerful voice. But his voice originates from far, far back in his throat, giving a bit of the quality of a frog, yet not entirely unsatisfactory. A talented frog. His only opera-recording to date (Kienzl, “Don Quixote” on CPO), where he performes as “Vocalist/Tenor” is a failure not due to the singing (which Gramophone Magazine calls “professional”) but the piece itself. A Lohengrin (title role) in Weimar was well received in the loud parts (a bit shaky) and criticized for the softer parts (lacking tension). He is clearly a professional singer, and that belies any notion of MillWOC being a rag-tag group of amateurs. He probably doesn’t deserve to be called “a talented frog,” either... but I could not resist. He is, at any rate, good – but again, not enough, for my taste. In “Isolde kommt,” Aschenbach’s singing gave reason to suspect that Isolde might more likely have turned on her heel upon hearing so much. The self-adoring, slow-motion glances with which the singers doted on each other, too, were unnecessarily distracting.

There was some Brahms ruined – sung as though it were Wagner and with a pronunciation that Germans would consider “unter aller Sau” – despite all the living and singing in Germany that these singers have done and do. The relation between Wagner and Brahms, of course, is that they had none. Tenuous. Richard Strauss’s four last songs, two of which were presented, too, sounded more Wagnerian than they actually are. The third of these songs, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed, was belched out without mercy or consideration of the fact that there was no orchestra to overpower. Mme. Coffman’s interpretation was lacking in tension and delicacy. The acoustics made sure that the sound had but a faintly discernable resemblance to the actual song. My principle of charity worked overtime.

The Terzette from Act 1 of “Die Fledermaus” was a much welcome surprise and change for the audience, who indulged the performers in as much applause as they could possibly have mustered. While I was quibbling with Johann Strauss coming courtesy of Lohengrin, Brünnhilde, and Kundry, the other listeners present appreciated this light-hearted moment.

What’s to Hope for?

At that part of the program, the wonderful Liebstod came to the rescue. And perhaps it is that piece that, ironically, should shed light on the entire evening. Aspiration is admirable, ambition is important, and an unwavering sense of determination is necessary if the Millennium Wagner Opera Company’s idea and plan are ever to take off. If so far most of its offerings have failed to convince me that the almost natural stage of initial mediocrity has been overcome, there was light in the playing of Mme. Chung-Wei that makes it easier to hope for better and bigger things to come. Until then, however, the whole affair reminded me of a quote I’ve once read in response to a Health-Spa’s dinner-offering of “essence of estragon over spinach extracts with celery-steamed tofu.” It said: “You have to be pretty sick to eat that – and pretty healthy to survive it!”

While I was not given access to CVs of the performers who are contractually bound to MillWOC (and all performers who sing for them are), I browsed around for a few. Probably the most notable, pointed out to my by Mme. Berger, is Brenda Roberts. The youngest Brünnhilde in Bayreuth, ever, she must clearly be a wonderful singer. In her only opera recording to date, the dreadful “Sternengebot” by Wagner fils, Siegfried, she did not convince the Gramophone reviewer who mentioned that “[t]he female contingent fare[d] less well, with a good deal of shrill and unstable tone from both the principal sopranos.” This notwithstanding, there is, with such singers on board, clearly a bright silver lining on the horizon.

What certainly does not help is the lack of attention for detail. Better no reception at all, than the kind of reception available after this concert. In what could not have been a less conducive atmosphere, there was a selection of crackers and cheesepuffs entered straight from bags into little plastic baskets. Bottles of wine and plastic cups, too, were discernable. That and the unprofessional, badly designed, and free (www.vistaprint.com) business cards place it in good company with the Beethoven Society. I expect more from both as much as I hope for their success.♫

For more on Carol Berger and the Millennium Wagner Opera Company read the interview (in six parts) that CDT of ionarts had with Mme. Berger!

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