George Steel to Lead the Dallas Opera

August 12, 2008

It is announced today that George Steel, executive director of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, long a darling of the New York press, and aforementioned here and here, is going to Dallas. He’ll be the new general director of the Dallas Opera — a company eminent in the history of the lyric art.

Those who know Mr. Steel only as the on-fire intendant of the vigorous and successful Miller may be surprised by this appointment. Only minutes before I learned of it, I had received from his publicist, Aleba Gartner Associates, an announcement concerning his U.S. premiere of Iannis Xenakis’s only opera Orestia next month. That work is not representative, to be sure, of the usual fare at his new table. But George Steel is a musician of a breadth that is rare. And his intelligence picks up what he needs wherever he is (which may be one of many reasons, for example, that Wilbur Pauley is the star of that Xennakis opera next month: they both sang in the famous choir of St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, where Mr. Steel was a countertenor).

Recently I was told, by an eye-witness, of how the young George, at the age of fourteen and a chorister in the Washington National Cathedral, boldly approached Leonard Bernstein at the Kennedy Center and entered into serious musical conversation with him. Bernstein, no laggard at recognizing genius, took him into his circle from then on. (In fact, the inside pocket of Mr. Steel’s tailcoat has an embroidered L.B., since he conducts in a garment that once belonged to Bernstein.)

And, speaking of conducting: though he certainly has led a lot of modern music (like this year’s Stravinsky noted here), including premieres like John Musto‘s Second Piano Concerto and much else, no one who has not heard the performances of Tudor polyphony by his Vox Vocal Ensemble has imagined his musical resources.

As a colleague said to me on hearing the news, “Dallas has always been basically an Italian house.” Yes, to its glory, it has been. I have no exact knowledge of Mr. Steel’s command of that repertory, but no one who has heard him talk of music in general or of culture in many of its aspects can doubt that he knows his Verdi and Puccini as well as his Stravinsky and Stockhausen. Anyone’s doubts about his musical and stylistic wiles would be overthrown merely by hearing him when he sits down at the piano.

The death last week of the founding music director of the Dallas Opera has freshly recalled to many the early traditions of that house, just as societal changes since then challenge even the most resourceful to approximate those triumphs under current conditions. Such past glories also point up the importance of the task before Mr. Steel.

James Jorden spoke, in a historic interview, with the great critic and denizen of the Dallas Opera John Ardoin before the latter’s too-early passing. Mr. Ardoin said something that is true of all the great opera-house régimes, but he was speaking specifically of the Dallas Opera:

How do you make a great opera company? I mean, is there a recipe?

No, there’s not a recipe. It’s the individual. Everything must ride or fall on the taste of one man. As it did with Wieland Wagner; as it did with Diaghilev and his company — as it did with Kelly and his company [the Dallas Opera]. And I don’t hesitate to put Kelly in that company. He went through all kinds of crap for 10 months out of the year — mean fund-raising and playing social games and all — to do what he loved the most for two months out of the year. And Kelly didn’t care if you did Aida, or Rigoletto, or Carmen — it just had to be the best Aida, and Rigoletto, and Carmen. He would agonize over it, and think it out. Nothing was ever casual with him, in the casting or the productions. That’s not to say he didn’t make mistakes. But, ultimately, it was his taste, and his vision, and his commitment that did the trick. But too much of today’s opera has become opera by committee.

Which is bland.

Oh, totally bland. I guess I’m very impractical, but I can’t imagine just borrowing a production for, what, Carmen or Puritani, because you want to give Carmen or Puritani. It has to be something you have a real belief in. There are all kinds of ways to do Carmen, but there would only be your way. Not a mishmash with whoever’s available — just because you haven’t given Carmen in five years. You don’t do Carmen until you’re convinced you can do your Carmen. But this requires too much thought and preparation on the part of people who are inherently lazy.

George Steel’s worst enemies — if he has any — would never call him lazy.

____________________

Another early report, from Steve Smith.

Here’s what the Dallas Opera is saying.

Now the Dallas Morning News.

And the Star-Telegram.

Evidently the television stations all over Texas are carrying on.

And, finally, the New York Times.

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