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Throwing Out the Baby With the Bathwater

01/06/2014 12:34 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014

The New York Observer arts critic, James Jordan, recently wrote a "good riddance" of sorts to the Metropolitan Opera's 45 year-old production of Der Rosenkavalier, which had its final performance December 13, 2013. Zachary Woolf, who writes for the New York Times, also wrote an essay on the demise of this production, addressing the reasons it should be discarded, and how a more contemporary version, perhaps, should replace it. Alfred Doblin, a writer for NewJersey.com, has even made an analogy between the long standing production at the Met, verses the non-changing congress, which "endures" the same public officials for generations, as though Met audiences had to suffer through with this production.

The day finally came for the Metropolitan Opera's venerable and beloved Rosenkavalier production, originally directed by Nathaniel Merrill with glittering sets by Robert O'Hearn, to be retired. It has run nearly 200 times since its inception, having premiered on January 23, 1969.

I first realized that this production was bidding auf wiedersehen when fellow mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham, mentioned it on Facebook. Then came the long stream of comments, with many people wistfully regretting the demise of this particular production, sharing wonderful memories.

Even the prompter posted a sad farewell. I find it both amazing and significant that the retirement of this beautiful and appropriate production has garnered such attention. The fact that anyone noticed is quite telling.

My first glimpse of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier was as a student standee at the Met in the 1970s. I was not clear as to why two women were in bed together when the curtain rose. Later, I understood that one was singing a trouser role (later, I was to specialize in trouser roles). I only stayed for the first act that time. The next time I saw the opera was in Zürich, and all I can remember were the never-ending speeches by the bass, Baron Ochs. Both of these experiences were pre-supertitle usage, so I did not really understand the work.

It really was not until I was able to perform in the opera that I understood it and respected the style and tradition of the work. The piece certainly is ironic. It slaps the face of pretense and the traditions from a different era (albeit traditions invented for this work) so it is curious that the very opera that "sends up" tradition is itself tied to so many real traditions.

The brilliant librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, was made even more so by his collaboration with the singular Richard Strauss. The piece is sourced from two Moliére plays, and to keep the time of composition in context, it is thought that Hoffmannsthal had in the back of his mind the crumbling Habsburg Empire. The conversational style and use of colloquialisms and Austrian dialect is wonderful. Many know the work for the few exquisite ensembles: "The Presentation of the Rose" and the trio for the three leading female voices at the end of the final act. Of course, there is much more to love. Real aficionados of the opera know this.

I have performed in the Met production, as well as many others around the world. All were traditional in style. One was set in Strauss's time -- early 20th Century -- directed by Jonathan Miller, and it worked very well. The very first time I sang Octavian was in a production in Paris that tried to be radical by having me wear a blue sparkly outfit, rather than a silver one. I also sang a duet with the soprano singing the role of Sophie with our backs to the audience facing a wall of mirrors upstage that gradually closed in on us. The real radical moment, which failed horribly, was when the director and costumer decided that the nubile shoulders of the boy, played by a girl (moi), should show in the bed scene. Moreover, I should be wrapped in just a sheet, and run around like this until it was time to get dressed. Big fail. The designer claimed she could tie said sheet onto me in a way that it would withstand the bed romping, room running and other activity. Instead, I was not even three minutes into a dress rehearsal in front of an audience when the sheet fell, and I was left standing in my undies and bust binder. I excused myself and returned with the traditional loose shirt over tights, with knickers to be thrown on later. There is a reason that works better! Without breaking into a song from Fiddler on the Roof, tradition is a hallmark of this work. It is the way it is.

From the performer's perspective there are traditions that endure and as a singer I feel it is a honor to be a member of the "Octavian Club" (I was once honored by the Opera Club at the Met along with Jarmila Novotna and Risé Stevens- two great Octavians). When I sang the role at the Vienna State Opera, it was almost a spiritual experience to don the heavy, white and silver sequin- laden jacket for Act II with the wardrobe tag inside the rear collar listing all the great mezzos who had worn it before me: Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbaender and many others. These name tags are traditionally left in the costumes at many companies. It keeps that link to the past and to operatic history. An additional thrill was singing with the Vienna Philharmonic (and the Met orchestra for that matter), analogous with riding in a Mercedes versus a Hyundai.

When performing Octavian, I always felt I must use gestures that have been handed down through the past century. In the famous Act II scene, when the rose is presented, there is a special timing, pose, bow, presentation. Whether using my sword to fight Och's comrades, handling the dialect in the last act while pretending to be a maid flirting with Baron Ochs, or knowing when it is right to look upon the departing Marschallin, the piece is drenched in tradition. That, along with the exquisite setting, music and emotion, is the point.

The excitement that occurs at that first costume fitting, or running up the steps in the Met production that start way beneath the rear of the stage, timing out the entrance just so that I arrive at the top just when the great chords ring and set the scene are beyond words. That music will always give me chills and a feeling of no turning back, just like the few opening bars of music before the curtain rises. It is hard not to cry at those moments.

The scenery enhances all this. That is the wild and amazing thing about this opera. It is large and it is meant to be seen as a whole; scenery, music, drama, costumes, lighting, dance. Take one away and it just does not work. All of the elements enhance the others.

As for production elements, it should remain quasi-traditional, because again, that is the whole point -- a send up of the style, mannerisms and social norms of the period, and the, at times, absurd use thereof. The first stage image is of the boudoir with the tall windows that gradually let in the light, the exquisite breakfast tray, the various doors with lackeys lurking just out of earshot, the bed piled high with pillows, the dressing table from which the Marschallin sings of her fading beauty and the march of time. Act II needs the over-the-top décor of the Faninal family home, attempting to make a good impression, while having no taste. In the Act III tavern scene, the trap doors and false windows from which fake goblins appear on cue, are so necessary, as is the look of an impromptu set up by Octavian to dupe the Baron.

Part of the fun of being an opera singer is that I get to "live" in another era. I also get to portray some of the rawest emotion any mezzo will ever get to play when I sing the role Octavian, Count Rofrano in Der Rosenkavalier. The character basically grows up and makes a major transition from the beginning to the end. Each singer in this opera experiences that same growth and they each see the piece strongly from only their character's perspective. I do not always find this true of other works. Even the music is so challenging yet so perfect that it cannot be well-cut or re-orchestrated. It is not easy to sing, play or for that matter conduct. Only the really great conductors tackle it. So much detail needs to be addressed by any stage director, and there are thankfully still a few who understand the piece, the style and the plots, sub-plots and subtexts that abound. Yet the human story in the piece and the basic human emotions are timeless.

Yes, I am sorry to see that dear production go. It was old and, like a great car, more costly to keep up than to get a new one. However, I find it hard to see how a contemporary approach will enhance or otherwise serve the piece no matter how great the team. There are some works of art that should be left as they are and that is okay. There are other works that lend themselves to reworking and new approaches. I welcome those, as well. Just don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.