“Would I love to do these big operas in Symphony Hall? Yes. When I feel like I’ve got two-thousand people to attend, I’ll move over to Symphony Hall.”
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Odyssey Opera kicks off its fourth season on September 16th with a concert performance of Antonín Dvořák’s grand opera Dmitrij at Boston’s Jordan Hall. Based on the historical record as well as Schiller’s unfinished play Demetrius, the opera follows Boris Godunov’s doomed successor and his fate at the hands of his nemesis, Shuisky. A popular success during Dvořák’s lifetime, Dmitrij fell into neglect after his death. Its American premiere occurred only in 1984 and Odyssey’s single performance will be the first time it’s ever been played in Boston. In anticipation of the event, I spoke with Odyssey’s artistic director (and Boston Modern Orchestra Project head) Gil Rose about the upcoming production, his burgeoning company, and a few related topics of interest. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation follows below.
Arts Fuse: First off, out of all the obscure operas out there, how did we end up with Dvořák and Dmitrij this year?
Gil Rose: Well, I think it was a matter of going from the general to the specific. We started out thinking about doing something in some kind of Slavic language, like Russian – we haven’t done anything Russian yet – and that led to thinking about doing something maybe in Czech. You know, in this September slot, we’ve always been trying to do these grand operas, so I got to thinking about what grand opera did Smetana write or what grand opera did Dvořák write. And that, eventually, led me to Dmitrij.
AF: And which version of the opera is Odyssey doing? (Dvořák revised the Dmitrij twice, the first time after its 1882 premiere, then again in 1894. The second revision replaced several lyrical portions with music written in a consciously Wagnerian style, an undertaking that led one of Dvořák’s biographers to comment that, while the composer had achieved “an act of admirable self-denial and artistic discipline…in doing so he has violated the true essence of his creative individuality.”)
Rose: There was a critical edition done in 2004, which, if you patch together the path that Dvořák took in the revisions, is sort of his last wishes, where he put back some of the original, more Czech stuff and took out some of the more Wagnerian writing. There’s still a lot of [the latter], but I guess you could call this his final statement on Dmitrij.
AF: Regarding the cast, have they sung the opera before?
Rose: The problem is, nobody’s sung the opera before! Most of the principals are from Prague and I don’t think any of them have sung Dmitrij before. But they’ve sung many Rusalkas and lots of Smetana, so they’re well-versed in the style. I actually think they jumped at the opportunity to sing Dmitrij since they’ve all heard of it but never had the chance to sing it, since it’s so rarely staged. But the fact that they’re native Czech singers is huge.
AF: As far as doing these grand operas in Jordan, it’s kind of ironic that Jordan such a cozy space while these pieces are, by definition, huge. With Dmitrij, for instance, one of the reasons it’s so rarely presented is its enormous scale – there are two warring armies, for instance, in addition to lots of other stuff going on. Doing this now for the fourth time, what are some of the challenges of presenting these pieces in that space? Do these difficulties get easier to resolve over time?
Rose: Well, you learn a few tricks about things like how to place the orchestra – and this orchestra is very similar to the Wagner (2013’s Rienzi), not quite as big as the Korngold (Die tote Stadt in 2014) or the Massenet (Le Cid in 2015) – since space becomes an issue. The nice thing about Jordan, though, for the people who are in the audience, is that the experience of hearing the music is very visceral. It’s right in your face, especially since the shape of the hall kind of steers everything right to the front of the stage.
Would I love to do these big operas in Symphony Hall? Yes. When I feel like I’ve got two-thousand people to attend, I’ll move over to Symphony Hall. But, for now, having a sell-out is good. When I feel like I can sell out two, that will be a time when I’ll think about moving across the street.
AF: Kind of related to that, is there anything you think that the city’s powers-that-be can do or should be doing differently to make Boston more of a friendly place to put on world-class operatic productions?
Rose: Well, there’s a lot of talk around town about an opera house. There is a proper opera house already, actually, which is the Opera House. You can produce grand opera there. You have the right amount of seats. After they did the renovations, the pit is perfectly functional for opera. But it’s owned by Commercial Ventures, so it’s not really usable except at certain times.
Aside from that space becoming more scheduling-friendly, I don’t personally think about whether there could or would be an opera house. If the powers-that-be can get their act together and line up and do it, fine, but I’m docile. I don’t agree, like some people who are advocating for it, that it’s as possible as people think it is. But, if one is built, I’ll cheer as loudly as anybody else.
AF: You work with a lot of the same musicians with Odyssey, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and Monadnock Music, and you do a lot of contemporary music. How, if at all, does the experience of being so involved with new music affect how you approach and interpret more traditional scores by Korngold, Massenet or, now, Dvořák?
Rose: Conducting a lot of new music is particularly good training in a certain way of being able to really get down to the interior of the music. For example, the skills you have if you conduct middle-period Stravinsky, like the middle-period ballets and such things, are, in many ways, the same skill-set you need to conduct Beethoven.
So I think some things relate, but, quite frankly, I don’t think it influences it much. When I take something on, whether it’s Gluck or Korngold or Andrew Norman, I just try to take what’s on the page and use my skill-set to bring it off and also to give it some sense of style. I always try to find out what the unique gesture or style or sound-world is of any one piece, whatever era, and really focus on it. It sort of cuts across all genres – or I like to think it does.
AF: In doing that, have you found any surprising similarities between Andrew Norman and, say, Mozart, or something like that?
Rose: You know, you find odd things. Mozart is a good example because I find, whenever I conduct Mozart, I always have a terrible time memorizing Mozart. I could memorize a Beethoven symphony very quickly – and have had to. But a Mozart symphony, albeit in some ways simpler, is really hard to memorize because Mozart never writes anything in even-numbered denominators of phrase lengths and things. So, in that sense, Mozart’s a lot like Stravinsky because it’s not always four-plus-four-plus-two. It’s three-plus-five-plus-one with an additional three – you know, these sort of things. It’s all sort of frantic: he never stuck with anything for more than a second.
AF: What’s your process for programming with Odyssey and BMOP? And since Odyssey and BMOP have been doing productions together, how do you integrate both ensembles’ seasons?
Rose: Well, we’re kind of opportunistic, I guess. You have to be able to pay for what you do and, for BMOP, so much of what I decide to program is around ultimately finishing recording projects for BMOP/Sound, so that’s kind a driver in that sense.
For Odyssey, the company’s young enough that I’ve really wanted to show a great range, so doing different languages, different styles, different eras is important to me now. In the upcoming season, we’re changing format a little bit – there’s been a May/June summer festival in past years – and we’re going to be announcing a festival (in the September 16th booklet) that has an over-arching theme, but the four events will happen throughout the year. They’ll be in different venues but they’ll have a guiding theme, which I think is quite clever and very interesting which allows us to do four things around the same topic but of quite different styles that will happen between November and May.
AF: So a bit more of a regular season sort of thing.
Rose: Yeah, that festival slot had its plusses and minuses, so we’re going to try to work through in the regular year and get some data about what it’s like to do that. I’m looking forward to peoples’ faces when they see what I’ve programmed!
AF: My last question is, now that Odyssey’s in its fourth season, how, if at all, has its mission/vision adapted? And how do you see its role developing over time?
Rose: Well, I think that in some ways Odyssey’s and BMOP’s missions are driven by one similar practical reality, in that both organizations – purposefully – have two things in common. One is that they both try to explore and preserve repertoire that wouldn’t otherwise be presented to the public. Like Massenet’s Le Cid: what was the chance that somebody was going to play that opera in Boston? Or Dvořák’s Dmitrij is as good or better an example of that. It’s only had two American performances (in ’84 and at the Oregon Bach Festival in 1991) and neither of them of this new edition which is, we feel, Dvořák’s final wishes for the piece. So, BMOP’s the same way, whether in concertizing or recording, what we’re really trying to do is present the parts of the repertoire that are being abandoned and left by larger institutions.
That being said, we’re also trying to do it with very small staffs and low overhead. Those things go together because I don’t think you need to be a giant institution to present worthwhile and artistically interesting projects. So, in that sense, they both have a lot of flexibility, because they don’t have a lot of fixed costs. They stay kind of lean and mean, as it were. And in this day and age, that’s a model that can allow for us to thrive. Opera America and the American Symphony Orchestra League are showing a lot of data that this subscription model is one that’s not going to work very well into the future – it’s not working very well now – so I’m trying to keep BMOP and Odyssey project-based, keep the overheads down, and stay out of everybody’s territory and repertoire and just carve out a niche, you know, our own place. And I think we’ve become known for that and I think people who are interested in adventurous stuff and don’t want to hear the same thing over and over again – whether it’d be an opera or a symphony – appreciate that they have these institutions they can go to in Boston.
So I think that’s the guiding principle. You know, we picked this name, Odyssey, with the implication that we were going to travel to different shores all the time, in big boats and small. And so far, so good.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette