Monday, September 26, 2011

A Wave of the Wand

   In order to marry a little portion of my life in university to my passion for opera, I elected to write an essay on conductors and their often overlooked role in the production of an opera. Many people I have come to know, especially fellow aficionados of opera who are local to me, are rather ignorant of the masters of the performances. It has been my finding that some of my colleagues concern themselves with merely the principal singers of a production, and it is in this that they greatly neglect the most important facet of the performance, for it is the conductor who commands the evening's entertainment. He is the one who creates every melodic line and delivers every nuance in the score to a superb climax. It is his further duty to develop such rapport with the singer that he may alter his reading ever so slightly without disrupting the delicate balance between the orchestral and vocal music. Without his involvement the performance would shortly crumble, yet too few of my acquaintances with whom I study or converse realize the importance of having any specific conductor; indeed, in their eyes, once a certain quality is attained, there can be no greater degree of mastery achieved. To them it does not matter if Riccardo Muti conducts Verdi or if Marco Armiliato does it, nor do they make a distinction.

   Therefore, when I was requested to compose a profile essay for my English Composition class, I elected to juxtapose two of my great passions, which are opera and writing. Our profiles were encouraged to be comprised of gory, grotesque images to make them all the more enthralling to the reader, who is none other than our professor, and this gave me some trouble for a considerable length of time. However, I finally had an idea of how to make my profile fall within the parameters of my professor's desires, so I chose James Levine as my specific subject, and I opened my essay with the scene from Puccini's Tosca in which the heroine plunges her knife into Baron Scarpia's throat. If I do not bore my readers too much with such an offering, I hereby present my unfinished, initial draft of my essay as I confided it to the eye of my professor this morning. He specified that they should be at least three to five pages, but I am inclined to think that my essay will encompass at least seven pages to say all that I wish it to intimate. As it was this morning, it was just longer than four pages.

The Wave of the Wand
As one sits confined to their seat, their gaze is transfixed upon the woman before them, who is an object of captivating beauty. She is clothed in a red gown that is made of costly fabric and is of an elegant design. If the scene before their eyes was not so tense, one could notice all of these things, but the sole feature that is obvious to the eyes is the dagger that this woman holds. Her weapon is a delicate one, for it is comprised of a slender blade of steel that is coupled with a hilt of gold, which is crowned with various small jewels, and she carries it with an exact intent. There can be no denying her motive as she stares unflinchingly at the large man who is a mere yard away from her present stance, and she lunges for him. As she does so, any defense that this muscular man may contrive is powerless in the face of this attack, and our heroine buries the double-edged blade into the man’s throat, which issues forth blood from the wound that is now inflicted. This powerful man sinks to his knees as the life escapes his veins, and the woman slowly withdraws the weapon from his neck. A moment of silence ensues, and one is left to ponder the grotesque image for a brief space of time.
The woman glares at the man even still, and we begin to glimpse a transformation of her character. It is no longer that she is desperately hopeful for another end to this episode, for this countenance has been replaced with a commanding presence that is often assumed when
one gains mastery over a situation. The silence lingers just long enough for the spectator to ponder all of these things, but it is suddenly broken by a collection of instruments, an orchestra. Ordering this interruption to a chain of thought and the consideration born of it, there is a man dressed in formal attire standing in a dimly lit space that is just below our field of vision. Indeed, there is a massive, capacious stage before an audience, and this scene that I have just depicted is the catalyst of the action in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca. With a wave of his baton, this imposing figure, who is just obscured from our view, compels the members of his orchestra to play the music that underscores the mood, and we are reminded that we witness a performance. This man’s name is James Levine, and he is the conductor for the evening. It is he who is responsible for making the group of individual musicians to deliver sounds as a cohesive unit. Every tone must be precisely synchronized with the other members of the orchestra, and he ensures that such is the case.
In his hand he holds a baton. Based upon the movement of this small, carved piece of wood, he can create luscious melodies and inspire any sort of emotion known to human beings; therefore, if one exercises his imagination, it is almost believable that he possesses a magic wand. If he wills it, music is created, and he can mute any sound with the slightest gesture of the wispy rod. I ask the reader: is this not a power that is most surreal? I would adore such ability!
James Levine is the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera House of New York. According to Martin Mayer, author of The Met, Levine was engaged as principal conductor for the 1972-1973 season in 1971 by the General Manager elect of the Metropolitan Opera for the
1972 season, Goeran Gentele, after a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller. He had been a mere spectator in the house at Lincoln Center that afternoon, but the brilliance of the conductor, who was a mere twenty-eight years of age then, arrested his interest, and he thought it would be a sound move to hire an American as the principal conductor of America’s leading opera company (1). As we learn from the telling of Paul Jackson in his volume Start-Up at the New Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts 1966-1976, Levine’s substitution for the deceased Fausto Cleva was nothing short of superb.
“Levine’s shepherding of the early Verdi work is both masterly and masterful,” Jackson praises in regards to the performance given on October 15, 1971.
To illustrate the magic that he possesses, Jackson continues, “And what an invigorating ride it is. The first measures of the overture put us on alert. The reading is notable both for its structural coherence and pointing of detail. Verdi’s little chords, nestled under the opening theme, are rhythmically alive and propel the thematic line onward; integration between melody and accompaniment is complete. When the clarinet takes over the theme, Levine allows it to sing – the change is slight, but the intent is clear.”
From this vivid description of Levine’s marshaling of his orchestral components, we can see that his ability to work magic from the pages of musical scores has been a trait that he has never lacked from his beginning as a conductor. Having worked as an assistant conductor to maestro George Szell, he learned his trade well, and his attention to detail became evident. Jackson writes of this, as well.
“The Met had long lacked a conductor of the Italian repertory who combined an impeccable ear for detail with the ability to shape formal structures, small and large, for maximum musical and dramaturgical effect. Mr. [Rudolph] Bing had found one in Levine,” Jackson assures us.
What ensued after Gentele’s appointment of Levine was a thirty-nine year career as the ultimate music figure at the Metropolitan Opera. He began as the principal conductor. Previously, it was the custom to engage whatever high profile conductor a manager could locate, and they were prone to hire conductors with whom they had worked in years past whom they knew would deliver excellent results. Giulio Gatti-Casazza, another General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera during the 1930’s, is a prime example when he imported the famous Arturo Toscanini when he was scheduled to assume authority of the company. Levine has seen the succession of five General Managers over the course of his tenure, and his contract is set to last for the 2011-2012 season. Over the course of the years, he has risen through the ranks of the company. While he did begin with a prestigious position, he was promoted to the de facto appointment of Music Director in 1974 after the unexpected departure of Rafael Kubelik early in the year, but he did not gain that title officially until 1976, and he became the Artistic Director, which was a title that he was the first to bear with the company, in 1986.
In the spring of 2004, his health became a concern to the management of the house, for there were tremors in his left arm that sometimes impaired his abilities on the podium;
nevertheless, the Met extended his contract, but these past few years have been marked by worry for the future of the Met’s Music Director.

   As my readers can apparently observe, there is some discrepancy in the format of my essay as it is transcribed here as opposed to its original structure. It is supposed to be perfectly double spaced and indented, but, alas, it has not shown itself that way in this medium, and I am too lethargic presently to alter it, so you must bear this ghastly sight for the present. When I complete the essay, I shall include that portion here as well, and, finally, I shall record my grade that I receive on it for any who are inquisitive enough to want to know such a thing.

   Finally, I hope that you have found this article and a glimpse into my life engaged in the university to be most entertaining and pleasant to read, and I pray that you are all exceptionally blessed. I am ingratiated that you have chosen to read my humble musings, and I wish every blessing from God upon all of you.


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