Opera in Morningside Heights

hallfinalI enjoyed reading the piece in the NY Times this past Sunday about Miller Theatre and the important programming that has been happening there. I want to offer a bit of a supplement and a correction. While there was not a strongly focussed curatorial presence in the years I was at Columbia as a grad student in the 1980s, there were definitely some fine concerts. I remember hearing  Bethany Beardslee, the original performer of Babbitt’s Philomel, doing the piece with its original four channel electronic component some two decades after the premiere; Wallace Shawn narrating Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon; and a series of concerts curated by the Columbia Electronic Music Center (formerly the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and presently the Columbia University Computer Music Center.) The EMC was directed by Mario Davidovsky at the time, and put on a series of concerts that featured premieres of pieces by Charles Wuorinen, Paul Lansky, Preston Trombly, and John Melby. I remember Copland came to the first of these, a program including his Sextet. I helped out with those concerts, moving speakers and music stands. There was a nice setup for electronic music, with I think 19 JBL speakers positioned all around the hall. There was also a memorable day honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of Edgard Varèse, the mentor of composer Chou Wen-Chung, who was at the time vice-dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia. There was a concert in the evening at which Ionisation was so boisterously received, that Anthony Korf and his ensemble Parnassus played it a second time. Earlier in the day there was a panel discussion that featured people like Meyer Schapiro and, I think Otto Luening. Varèse’s widow, Louise, was there, and we awaited her contribution to the discussion, thinking now we would get some unique insights into the character and art of her late husband. The entireity of Mrs. V’s remarks: “I just want to say that there was never a dull moment.”

UnknownThe Times piece gives the impression that Miller Theatre (formerly called McMillan Theatre) was the home of opera on the Columbia campus, but in fact the opera workshops took place in the Brander Matthews Theatre, now torn down. In fact, for 17 years the workshop at the Brander Matthews presented a remarkable array of new and old pieces. To quote from a 1998 Times article by Anthony Tommasini:

“Works receiving premieres there included such notable achievements as ”Paul Bunyan,” Britten’s first opera and his only collaboration with W. H. Auden; ”The Mother of Us All,” the second and last collaboration between Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein, and ”The Medium,” by Gian Carlo Menotti. Other operas that came out of Columbia, though less successful, deserve re-examination, like Otto Luening’s ”Evangeline,” Ernst Bacon’s ”Drumlin Legend,” Carlos Chavez’s ”Panfilo and Lauretta” and Douglas Moore’s ”Giants in the Earth,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951.

Besides premieres, the workshop presented important revivals of recent works and productions of nearly forgotten 18th-century operas. It gave the first American performance in 136 years of Paisiello’s ”Barbiere di Siviglia,” an opera so popular in its day that Rossini’s friends strongly advised him not to tackle the same story.

In the workshop’s 17 years, it presented some 40 operatic works. Columbia University was a hotbed of innovative activity, and its training program, Mr. Beeson suggests, was unprecedented.”

Jack Beeson was a composer, best known for his operas (Lizzie Borden, among them), and Columbia faculty member. I have heard that he was Bartok’s only American pupil.

Above is the only image I could find for Brander Matthews Hall, as well as a photo of the Columbia professor for whom it was named.

The astonishing Tony Arnold sings Philomel at Monadnock Music in 2010 (the text is by the late John Hollander):

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