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Working With Whimsy Fit for the Philharmonic
Steve Smith | The New York Times | 20 June 2011

Among the many novel ideas implemented at the New York Philharmonic since Alan Gilbert took the reins as its music director in 2009, one has come to loom larger than all the rest. "Le Grand Macabre," a musically unorthodox, wickedly funny absurdist opera by Gyorgy Ligeti, represented a substantial risk when the Philharmonic mounted a series of performances of it at Avery Fisher Hall in May 2010, imaginatively and resourcefully staged by Doug Fitch, a designer and director with whom Mr. Gilbert had worked in opera houses.

When the production was hailed as a stunning success among audiences and critics alike, "Le Grand Macabre" came to represent Mr. Gilbert's vision for the institution at its most audacious. But when you've brought down the house with the end of the world — at least as Ligeti imagined it — what do you do for an encore?

The answer arrives on Wednesday, when Avery Fisher Hall is transformed once more into a passable theater for a new operatic venture from the Philharmonic: "The Cunning Little Vixen," a 1924 opera by the Czech composer Leos Janacek. Mr. Fitch has returned to create the staging with Giants Are Small, his theatrical partnership with the producer Edouard Getaz; Mr. Gilbert will conduct a strong cast. It worked once, the reasoning might go. Why mess with a winning formula?

Still, this is hardly a sequel to "Le Grand Macabre." "The Cunning Little Vixen," a playful, compassionate fable derived from a Czech newspaper comic strip, deals soberly with life and its cyclical nature through the interactions of woodland animals and humans. It is familiar to New York City Opera audiences from a popular 1983 production directed by Frank Corsaro and designed by Maurice Sendak, which was televised by PBS and last staged in 1991. Janacek's music is as tuneful and inviting as Ligeti's is eccentric and jarring. (One World Symphony, a Brooklyn orchestra, presented a reduced version of "Vixen" last season.)

For Mr. Gilbert, presenting "The Cunning Little Vixen" with Mr. Fitch has been a longtime aspiration. "I've always thought it had his name written all over it," Mr. Gilbert said during a break at the Times Square studio where the cast and crew were rehearsing recently.

"It's a highly symbolic work, and Doug works very effectively in symbolism" Mr. Gilbert said. "His background is, among other things, that of a puppeteer and a puppet builder. And the ideal production of this opera, I think, really straddles the sort of fantasy, childlike world of the animals, and the possibility of having fantastic costumes, with a very profound, serious human message about life."

Plans to present both "Le Grand Macabre" and "The Cunning Little Vixen" were hatched around the same time, Mr. Gilbert said, noting that the Janacek work was on the drawing board before the Ligeti venture had come to term. And if the triumph of "Le Grand Macabre" boded well, it also reinforced a feeling that its successor would be different in style and tone.

"Doing operas in a symphonic context is nontraditional, and I think requires a very deft touch in the first place," Mr. Gilbert said. "Since last year's opera relied so much on high-tech wizardry, projections and all sort of electronics, I'm really excited that Doug has come up with something utterly different: old-fashioned stagecraft in the very best sense, hand-built costumes, no gimmickry, no gadgetry; just trying to trying to tell the story in a very direct way."

At the Giants Are Small studio, a madcap tinkerer's shop hidden away on an industrial block in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Mr. Fitch and Mr. Getaz revealed some of the staging and costuming concepts for "The Cunning Little Vixen."

Gone are the intricate miniatures and video projections of "Le Grand Macabre," replaced with an equally imaginative but more corporeal setting. A tiny model of the Avery Fisher Hall stage showed the orchestra surrounded by towering sunflowers, to be constructed from cardboard, bamboo and caution tape, with bright yellow plastic shopping bags for petals. A sky-blue scrim above the stage will double as a screen for supertitles in cartoon fonts.

The opera's large cast, including a children's chorus, and choreography by Karole Armitage necessitated creating more operating space. In addition to a 12-foot stage extension, a gangplank will run out into the audience seating, zigzagging to comply with fire code restrictions. ("It's a little production nightmare, turning Avery Fisher Hall into an opera house," Mr. Getaz said, chuckling.) Breezing through the studio Mr. Fitch demonstrated some of the props, including a grub-shaped accordion; a fiddle fashioned from leaves; and one character's valise, with foliage protruding to serve as a tail.

In conceiving a look for Janacek's menagerie, Mr. Fitch found inspiration in a book of dazzling photographs by Hans Silvester, "Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration From Africa," which depicts members of two East African tribes flamboyantly adorned in natural pigments, leaves, feathers and bones. Beyond its organic qualities, Mr. Fitch explained, what made the style resonate with his ideas about the opera was that the tribesmen depicted had no mirrors or sufficiently clear water in which to view their reflections.

"They see themselves through other people's eyes," he said. "That was the key for me, because the Vixen, when the Fox falls in love with her, can't believe it. She says: 'Am I perhaps lovely? Could I be beautiful?' That struck me as a brilliant way for Janacek to have conceived the difference between animals and humans, because we are nothing if not purely self-conscious beings."

Working with David Burke, the costume director of the Santa Fe Opera, Mr. Fitch included feathers, fur and face paint with business wear for adult characters and baggy hip-hop couture for children. The results are whimsical, contemporary and timeless, and nothing like Catherine Zuber's nightmarish designs for "Le Grand Macabre."

But at an institutional level some things have remained constant. The Philharmonic has again courted audiences with an ambitious media strategy, notably "Vix in the City," a campaign begun with a simulated hijacking of its Twitter account. A cheeky attempt to adapt the tale to an urban-singles milieu, it has been criticized by some for a seeming lack of focus. Among the sharper rebukes on Twitter was "Janacek yoself before you wreck yoself @nyphil."

" 'Vix in the City' may seem a bit controversial in our sometimes-cautious world, but it's really just a lighthearted, contemporary interpretation of the opera's themes," Eric Latzky, the orchestra's vice president for communications, wrote in an e-mail regarding the backlash. "We've had lots of great comments from younger people who relate to Vix, and we hope she'll help inspire them to come to Avery Fisher Hall and meet the Vixen."

Even after the success of "Le Grand Macabre," evidently, producing opera at the Philharmonic can require special pleading. Still, Mr. Gilbert views the activity and its expense as not only warranted but vital.

"It's absolutely crucial for orchestras to deal in the world of the voice, and opera is obviously one of the important ways that that can happen," Mr. Gilbert said. "But also, the idea of really presenting a dramatic picture and telling a story through music, I find that absolutely essential, to be reminded that what we're doing really is about life, and opera is such a lively art form in every way."
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