Brian Kellow wasn’t always an opera lover. One fateful performance of The Tales of Hoffmann changed his mind. He shares his story below.
A favorite topic among opera lovers is the Great Conversion Moment—the performance at which the key mysteriously turned, and opera became something more than an outpouring of beautiful melody and instead became something we began to understand on a gut level, something we began to crave.
For me, that moment took place on a glacial night in February of 1983. I had been living in New York only for eight months, and I had been going to the Metropolitan Opera on a twice-weekly basis (sometimes oftener), thanks to a close friend who was the performance manager and could write me a free pass with a flick of her fountain pen. I had been mightily impressed by my first opera, Der Rosenkavalier, on opening night of 1982, and I had loved many of the other performances I had seen: Joan Sutherland and Alfredo Kraus in Lucia di Lammermoor, Eva Marton as Gioconda, Richard Cassilly as Tannhäuser.
As I was taking my first steps in this world, attending multiple performances of most of the works in the Met’s repertory, opera seemed to be a matter of waiting for the parts I loved best to emerge from the musical fabric. I thought the high points of Rosenkavalier were thrillingly high, but there was a lot of connective tissue to wade through. La Gioconda had glorious music, but even my neophyte self could tell that its libretto was scroungy and ragged.
Without fully realizing it, I was waiting for one of the works I heard at the Met to envelop me with its completeness as a musical and dramatic experience.
And that’s exactly what happened to me on that night in February, as a blizzard shut down New York, and I experienced my own personal key-turning, with a Met performance of The Tales of Hoffmann, in the Otto Schenk / Günther Schneider-Siemssen production that had first bowed there in 1982.
The snowstorm had thinned out the audience that night, and there was no one sitting on either side of me. As it turned out, this was appropriate, because it felt like the entire performance was being pitched exclusively to me. From the very beginning, I was stunned. Here was an opera that was nothing but high points, with one great outburst of music following another. One of Hoffmann’s strongest features—the element of suspense—made itself felt from the beginning. As Hoffmann (tenor Kenneth Riegel) sang the “Ballad of Kleinzach,” I began to feel that narrative pull that we do in a first-rate suspense novel or film. “Kleinzach” was a nice, jaunty number, one that drummed itself into your head right away. But there was also a thrilling creepiness about it, and not just in its description of the black-nosed, spidery-legged, hunchbacked dwarf. The music had a wonderfully bizarre edge, and I began to feel the grip that we do in the early stages of a great thriller—say, before James Stewart catches his first glimpse of Kim Novak in Vertigo and the sinister doings begin to unfold.
I remained riveted for the entire performance, watching closely as Hoffmann lost his way—through his fascination with the mechanical doll Olympia (Gwendolyn Bradley) and the glamorous seductress Giulietta (Viorica Cortez). One moment, I was mesmerized by Offenbach’s melodious outpourings; a moment later, I was jolted by another bizarre, unexpected turn in the story.
Hoffmann offered one of the bleakest views of romantic love I had ever come across; there was a greater degree of horror and sadism in this story than in many of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Coppélius’s smashing Olympia to bits in front of the love-struck poet was truly unnerving. So was the lustful way Giulietta gazed at the diamond in the second act, and so was her contemptuous laugh as she glided off in the gondola.
But it was the Antonia act that really pulled me into the opera’s bizarre undercurrent. I was spellbound from the moment the curtain opened to reveal the eerie, washed-out set: a room that looked as if no light had been let in for decades. As Antonia, Catherine Malfitano was the embodiment of Offenbach’s neurasthenic girl who will die if she yields to her passion for singing. Malfitano, all in white, channeled a genuinely disturbing Victorian-era weirdness; she seemed to have stepped right out of an Edward Gorey drawing. The idea that the one thing you love to do more than anything else can lead to your demise is an intriguing concept, one we know from sources as diverse as The Red Shoes and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Malfitano’s performance was so vivid that I can remember shifting uncomfortably in my seat as she made her way through the glorious trio with the diabolical Dr. Miracle and the spectral voice of her dead mother. She accomplished what seemed theatrically impossible: she sang with increased fervor and intensity, at the same time, conveying the idea that the life was being drained from Antonia, measure by measure. As she reached the climax of the trio, she actually seemed to grow paler before my eyes.
More than 30 years after I attended that performance, it is still the macabre aspects of Hoffmann that speak to me most deeply.
For many of us who look back at our voyage of discovery into opera, the blossoming of love for a particular work is so often inextricably tied to a specific performance. Whenever I hear The Tales of Hoffmann, the memory of that February night at the Met is always front and center. Since then, the world of opera has undergone dizzying changes. Back in the early 1980s, when one spoke of teaching someone to love opera, the argument was more than likely to hinge on introducing him to a great performer—a Jon Vickers or a Leonie Rysanek. Today, with so much of the conversation in the world of opera centering on access and outreach, on getting neophytes and young people into the seats in order to help rescue a financially beleaguered art form, it troubles me to think that one of Hoffmann’s greatest virtues—its breathless pace and its astonishing variety—might also be its crassest “selling point.” The settings and characters change so rapidly that it seems the ideal fit for our era, when audience attention spans are continually shrinking, when so many people we see in the opera house can’t concentrate for the span of a single four-minute aria without wanting to check their text messages. But for anyone who truly loves Hoffmann, its magic isn’t simply that it moves on high speed. It’s the banquet of melodies it offers, all in service to that magnificently perverse story.
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Brian Kellow is the author of five biographies of prominent women in the arts, including Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent and Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. Kellow was not always an opera lover.