• Exclusive interview with Maestro James Meena about Tosca

    As part of our coverage of our partners Opera Carolina's upcoming production of Puccini's Tosca, Opera Lively has interviewed maestro James Meena about the piece (we do touch a bit on other subjects at the end of the interview). This is our second talk with Maestro Meena - you can read his first interview with us [here]. The full announcement for Opera Carolina's show (including ticket information) can be found [here]. Navigation help for all our educational articles on Tosca filled with interesting facts can be found [here].

    The shows are scheduled for October 13, 18, and 21 in Charlotte, NC. Opera Carollina productions are 90% locally-made and are always first class, so this is not to be missed! Support your local opera company; there is nothing like live opera.

    Image © Opera Carolina, used with permission

    Let's read the maestro's thoughts on this beautiful opera:

    Opera Lively - If you had to give advice to a young conductor doing Tosca for the first time, what you say? What is needed to successfully conduct Tosca?

    James Meena – I have an assistant conductor for this production. I spent an hour and a half on the telephone with him the other day going through the entire score. Tosca is one of the most difficult operas to conduct, among all of them. Because of Puccini’s demands, you have to be very precise but also very emotional. Puccini is very fastidious about tempo changes, meter changes; there are a number of entrances with strong beats and weak beats; often he writes the same passage in a different meter or a different way with just a little bit of change.

    To me it’s his greatest opera from the standpoint of his technical facility, his ability to bring out the dramatic sense of what is happening on stage. The orchestration is absolutely brilliant; as brilliant if not more so than in La Bohème. It’s Puccini at the absolute height of his creative ability and his technical finesse as an opera composer.

    For a young conductor it’s a very difficult piece. You have to know everything. You have to have the entire opera so memorized that as you lead it it’s almost second nature so that it doesn’t feel complex. Verdi's Falstaff is the same way for many of the same reasons. So you have to make the difficult look easy (laughs) so that everyone has a sense of security, otherwise a piece like Tosca can absolutely fall apart.

    And then there’s always the question in Puccini of musical pace, not unlike Mozart: if it’s a little too fast it doesn’t feel right, if it’s a little too slow it doesn’t feel right. There are gradations of tempi in Tosca particularly that can make or break a performance. It’s not a question of the artists singing it; you have to be musically very careful, observing the metronome markings of the speed of each piece, and his gradations between andante and allegro and presto and vivace and those sorts of things. It’s very well calculated to get a lot of contrast to the music. From that standpoint it’s challenging but it’s a great challenge because the piece is so magnificent that all the hard work pays off whenever it all comes together.

    OL - Benjamin Britten deemed the opera cheap and empty. I disagree, but how would you respond to this?

    JM - With Britten, he also was not a fan of Verdi operas. The music personality of Benjamin Britten was so different than the musical personality of Verdi and Puccini; I can understand why he was critical and didn’t have an affinity for those works. Britten was an excellent composer for the stage himself but his aesthetic is completely different. There are also famous quotes of Britten’s regarding Verdi operas.

    When he hears a Verdi opera that he doesn’t like he assumes it’s his fault, not Verdi’s, so at least he recognizes in these composers the greatness of their works, even though his aesthetic was different.

    OL - Let’s talk a bit about Tosca’s musical structure. It’s been said that Tosca has brutal music. It is full of strong dissonances and twisting harmonies, signaling the wild emotions of the "good" characters and the villany of its antagonist. Another notable characteristic of this opera is Puccini's careful and meticulous musical scene-setting. Sometimes it feels like a movie score where he underlines the scenes with the music. Can you please comment on the above?

    JM - From that standpoint it is the apex of his use of themes, in a way that is very similar to what Wagner does. He uses leitmotivs, for Scarpia and for Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Angelotti, and those musical themes permeate the entire opera and underscore the drama.

    The piece of course is completely through-composed, so we don’t have the standard arias and duets, with segments. It’s a complete music drama; it’s as close to music drama as Puccini ever gets, perhaps with the exception of La Fanciulla del West, which is also very much the same way: a through-composed music drama. You obviously still have the great arias like "Vissi d’Arte," "E Lucevan le Stelle," and Scarpia’s two arias – you obviously still have those traditional musical structures but they are so deeply embedded in the dramatic composition that you don’t feel that the drama ever stops.

    That’s why in our production we will be taking just a few stops for applause. There are only a few moments in Tosca where the music and the dramatic flow actually stop and the audience can applaud. Puccini wants you to become engrossed in the dramatic mise-en-scène, that you are completely in the drama that is unfolding.

    OL - Yes, I agree. But if there is one criticism that I do agree with, it’s the one saying that the third act is anti-climatic. Do you feel that the third act is a bit deflated when compared to first and second?

    JM - You know, Giulio Ricordi was critical of the third act as well. Puccini was adamant that he wanted it to be compact, that he wanted it to move the drama along, didn’t want to delay things. I think the first time I worked with Tosca I thought so as well, that the third act was anti-climatic, that it wasn’t just as powerful anymore. But it’s a different kind of dramatic statement.

    Certainly it pales in comparison to the second act which is just tremendously dramatic, but there is an intimacy in the third act, first of all in the soliloquy that Cavaradossi has and then in the duet that Tosca and Cavaradossi have all through the execution. That is why it is intimate, because it is a congress between the two lovers. It’s not big, expansive; it’s a conversation between these two. It’s being able to bring that intimacy out that makes the third act effective.

    And then when they finally celebrate, if you will; when they seem triumphal, as an unaccompanied duet, it is a wonderful statement of their optimism and hope that they will actually be together and will live free from the oppression of the Roman government.

    Like I said, I used to feel it is anti-climatic but now I don’t, I feel it is magnificent. But it is different; there is no big bombshell, big explosive ending or a lot of big dramatic arias, and I know that’s exactly what Puccini wanted.

    OL - Now, regarding Opera Carolina’s Tosca. How is it coming along?

    JM - Well, we haven’t started rehearsals yet (laughs), we start a week from yesterday, this coming Saturday. This is a physical production that we acquired from New York City Opera, that we are re-designing, not unlike what we did for Il Trovatore, only not as elaborate with the projections. We actually had to refurbish and repaint many of the backdrops. It’s a very traditional and handsome production. We had some of our patrons who were very unhappy with the Butterfly production that we did with the Kaneko production because it wasn’t very traditional.

    OL - Really? It was so beautiful!

    JM - You know, some folks are just very traditional in their tastes. This is a very traditional Tosca, and that’s strategic from our standpoint, because we did the Butterfly which is a new production, and of course we’ll do the Magic Flute in January that is another new production by Kaneko and is not traditional, so for Tosca we wanted to be very true to the traditions of the piece and we wanted a cast with really excellent singers, which we have, and give people good traditional grand opera (laughs).

    OL - OK. Let me change the topic a bit. I’m curious to know if Opera Carolina is planning something to celebrate the big centennial that are coming up in 2013: Britten’s, and bicentennials for Verdi and Wagner. I know that the coming 12-13 season doesn’t have operas by these three, so are you planning to do something else in your outreach and educational efforts to highlight these three composers?

    JM - Yes, we are opening 13-14 with a new production of Aïda, and we have a new production of Der Fliegende Holländer for that calendar year as well. We haven’t settled the rest of the schedule yet so I’m hoping that we can do something to celebrate Benjamin Britten. I know that we cannot afford to do Peter Grimes, which is what I wanted to do, so we are still trying to navigate through the finances of what we can do to celebrate Britten’s centennial as well. We are instituting this year a gala concert at the end of the season, and we may put some of Britten’s music on that gala concert in May of 2013, so yes, we are very aware of it and planning on it.

    OL - So Peter Grimes is too expensive?

    JM - Yes, it is extremely expensive, there are so many characters, there aren’t any physical productions out, and we’re doing three huge major operas so we just can’t afford it, unfortunately.

    OL - There’s the question of the score as well, in terms of affordability. Can you comment a bit on the cost associated with scores, for rent or purchase, and the cost of critical editions and the such?

    JM - It depends. If it’s in the public domain we will buy them. Between the Opera Carolina library and my personal library we have just about everything that is in the public domain. The good example is the orchestra and piano parts for Nabucco; I own this one in my personal collection; I bought the critical edition and made all the corrections on our score as per the critical edition. The Aïda which I also personally own is the same way. For Tosca it’s easier because Puccini was very, very clear, and the editions are very faithful to the autograph. This is again my personal property, the orchestral part. When we can buy them, it makes sense to buy and to invest in them, because we can use them again. It’s better to have a library of our own, and we do.

    OL - What are the typical costs involved?

    JM - Well, to buy just a score for the piano of an opera in the public domain it’s $35, but if you buy the score for all the instruments in the orchestra, it’s more like $800. It’s not cheap but it’s not ridiculously expensive. But when we talk about a piece like Peter Grimes that is not in the public domain you are dealing with royalties and rentals, it will cost $2,000, maybe $3,000; then you have to pay royalties on top of that. The operas of Strauss are also still under copyright. These orchestral scores you have to pay $3,000 just to rent, you cannot buy them. Opera materials for Turandot you also have to rent, because the Puccini Foundation still gets money from the performances of it.

    OL - OK, thank you Maestro Meena. I’ll probably not be able to attend the opening night for Tosca but I’ll be there for the Sunday matinee.

    JM - Wonderful, and you’ll be able to talk to the singers. It’s a wonderful group of performers. I think you will be very pleased with this production.

    OL - I look forward to it because your productions are always world-class.

    JM - Thank you. I appreciate it.

    Don't forget to explore our other articles on Tosca, which will also feature interviews with the singers, to be published soon. All these articles will be placed under the header of our Tosca In-Depth series, [here].

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