Artistic Growth at Seattle Opera

 

Seattle Opera 2017 Katya Kabanova Philip Newton photo

Seattle Opera 2017 Katya Kabanova Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

Interview any artist, whether it’s a rock star promoting a new album or a symphony director discussing his orchestra, and you will hear about “artistic growth.” But we don’t often talk about audiences’ artistic growth.

It doesn’t matter how excited the dancers are to learn Maillot’s impressionistic choreography; if audiences aren’t ready to reimagine the classic Cinderella story as Cendrillon, they won’t get a chance to perform it. Every pop album is considered a “progression” – or a failure.

If growth is risky for pop stars and dancers, how much greater the temptation must be for an institution like Seattle Opera to play it safe, with opera’s high overhead and historically limited audience? But every season, Seattle Opera puts on at least one production that stretches my appreciation for the art form. Among opera cognoscenti, I’m a beginner, but I’ve seen enough opera to have a sense for what I like best. Sometimes it’s tempting to skip the ones that challenge me.

But art is a relationship between the artist and the audience, so I go. And I grow.

This season, Katya Kabanova is my opera stretch. Katya Kabanova has a few elements familiar to opera-goers (tragic love affair, suicidal heroine, heartbreakingly beautiful music) but the rest strays out of bounds. The music is beautiful – I have to say it twice – and almost every line is as exquisite as Violetta’s “Amami Alfredo” in La Traviata. Janáček draws from the many musical modes beyond major and minor available in Slavic folk music (I don’t even know what that means) and borrows melodies from Moravian folk songs to create haunting, eccentric music completely unlike the bel canto arias audiences are used to.

But there are no songs. No hummable melodies, no Bugs Bunny-worthy arias, only individual lines. With no stopping for arias, the pace is quick, which is fortunate, because the claustrophobic atmosphere of the story is almost physical. This production is set in a mid-century, middle class, middle American town (America at its most conformist) and the conventional décor of the Kabanova house had me fidgeting in my seat like a little girl at grandma’s house on Sunday morning before church.

A 20th century opera based on a Russian play and sung in Czech, the opera examines small town respectability disguised as religious piety. Early childhood in a small town, followed by eight years of Catholic school taught me to be on the lookout for hypocrisy whenever someone starts talking about sin, and in this anti-authoritarian Janáček delivers.

Victoria Livengood (Kabanicha). Philip Newton photo

Victoria Livengood (Kabanicha). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

His characters are all despicable. The pious mother-in-law Kabanicha is a small-minded despot who terrorizes her family (mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood embraces her villainy to good effect) while secretly carrying on an affair with her son’s employer. Husband Tichon is a spineless toady who refuses to stand up to his mother, drinks too much, then takes it out on his wife. Lover Boris puts up with bullying by his boorish uncle to protect his inheritance and never lifts a finger to defend Katya when she is ruined by their affair.

Corinne Winters (Katya). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

Corinne Winters (Katya). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

Even Katya, so beautifully sung by Corinne Winters (almost unrecognizably transformed from the bold Violetta she sang last month into the mousy cover girl of Helmet’s Betty album), lacks a true moral center. She is pitiable for her lack of agency, and perhaps mentally unstable (she sings of happier days, when as a teen she would pray until she collapsed in the church). But for all her prayerfulness, she is too weak to either resist temptation or live with her guilt. Guilt which she, like everyone else, considers a sin against God rather than betrayal of her husband’s trust. She, like everyone else in the story, abdicates responsibility for her own choices and judges everyone else.

Joshua Kohl (Kudrjas) and Maya Lahyani (Varvara). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

Joshua Kohl (Kudrjas) and Maya Lahyani (Varvara). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

The only exceptions are Tichon’s sister Varvara and her lover Kudrjas (the science teacher). Mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani’s powerful voice so perfectly captured her character’s devil-may-care attitude, it was like the proverbial breath of fresh air. Varvara knows the only sin is getting caught, and Kudrjas argues that natural forces are not messages from God. While everyone else is looking for divine portents and going mad with guilt, they get on a bus and move to the city, where we imagine they live happily ever after. They depart well before the end of the opera, but I found my moral in their choice, rather than in the finger-pointing and posturing of the final scene.

Except for the moments when I closed my eyes and just listened to the music, I was too busy hating the characters to be able to really enjoy Katya Kabanova. Eliciting such a strong emotional response to fictional characters is not so easy to do, so even though I can’t really say that I liked it, Katya Kabanova was really good. And the music was beautiful.

See for yourself – tickets are still available tonight (March 1) and March 4, 8, 10, and 11.

 

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