'Gala' evenings in music: what makes a good one?
Galas, galas, galas. The music world is now bursting at the seams with them. Flocking to the latest gala event is something most people love to do now and then. But there is a very real danger of overdoing it. Beverly Sills is hoping to do some splashy fund raiser every year. The New York Phiharmonic seems to have several unusual concerts each season. The Met is now in the habit of offering special concerts.
On Dec. 4 the Metropolitan Opera honors tenor Carlo Bergonzi in a gala evening. This fall, the Met has offered its radio audience a gala of stars culled from broadcasts of the past decade. The New York City Opera has had a salute from Broadway, with a glittering list of stars from the Great White Way, and members of the NYCO roster.
The Met has opened its 98th season (every opening is meant to be a gala occasion). The New York Philharmonic has presented Danny Kaye in an evening of hijinx on the podium. The Boston Symphony celebrated its 100th birthday with a glittering event. The Washington Opera Society paid glamorous tribute to its ailing ex-director George London with a veritable who's who of opera today.
On a no-less gala scale, Montserrat Caballe was heard in a special concert of Wagner, Donizetti, and Bellini arias with the New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta conducting. Vladimir Horowitz sold out the Met in a special Sunday afternoon concert with a top price of $100 to benefit the Met. And we are not yet half way through the musical season!
What is it that makes for a good gala? Among those mentioned above, the BSO's evening was a knockout, as has been discussed in these pages. The Philharmonic's Danny Kaye soiree, which raised over $300,000, was another unique phenomenon. Television viewers who saw the ''Live From Lincoln Center'' telecast of the event are probably not able to understand how funny it was in the hall.
Kaye's comic timing is usually faultless. His larger than life parodies (that looked awkward on TV) were amazingly accurate, and large enough to be ''felt'' in the entire hall. His conducting skills are surprisingly sophisticated for a man who claims to not be able to read music. He had the usually dour, bored Philharmonic in stitches, and the audience roaring at very pratfall and facial grimace. In short, it was something special, something unique. And that is what a gala is meant to be about.
The Met's radio gala had the right sort of lineup for the musical selections, even if now and then choices seemed to fall on the artists in favor with today's management. But the problem with the evening, which was intended as a nationwide fund-raising effort, was that for every minute of singing there were at least 10 of talk - and not even from the most interesting people, but from whoever was around. In past years, this gala featured live singing from List Hall in the Met.
Invariably, most of the names listeners would have wanted to hear were cancelled. By using broadcasts, there were no ''cancellations,'' which was a decided plus. There was a feast of grand singing (more than can be heard on an average night at the house these days) though several promised singers were preempted by all that endless chatter.
People will send in money for something they appreciate. That is the message the disappointing results of that broadcast should be proclaiming. People will pay inflated prices for something they feel is special. Caballe's evening at the Philharmonic marked one of a nearly insignificant number of New York dates she is scheduled for this season. Her fans, Wagnerites, and lovers of great singing were on hand to greet her. She is a great singer who chooses to sing Wagner rather than a great Wagner singer. What the voice loses in beauty and suppleness may be too great a price to pay, considering how incidental her real insights are. But it was great vocalism, and Mehta gave her vivid support.
It was also a rehearsal for a CBS Masterworks recording of the Wagner she was making the next morning with the same forces. This is not a new trend - taping a gala event for future release.
But before, special events were given special status. Now, any ''event'' is candidate for a recording, a telecast, and what not, in the hopes of viewership, royalties, and general promotional value, though not necessarily in the hopes of creating a great artistic happening.
The Philharmonic's Verdi Requiem last season was a case in point - a sold-out hall (at accelerated prices), a live PBS telecast, and now a CBS digital set. The same holds true for the historic Sutherland-Horne-Pavarotti concert (though the digital recording is on London Records).
And what about the coming Bergonzi celebration? At one time, Richard Tucker got Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, and Leontyne Price for his 25th anniversary fete , and the most resplendant act from three operas that showed him off to best advantage. Bergonzi will get Catherine Malfitano and Galina Savova to fete his 25th. Act II of ''La Traviata'' will give us mostly Malfitano and Mario Sereni, not much Bergonzi.
The middle of the gala will be the second act and the big third act aria from a Bergonzi specialty, ''Un Ballo in Maschera,'' with Bergonzi on the sidelines as Luciano Pavarotti takes front-stage center for the mostly tenor singing of the evening. But then again, Pavarotti is said to be responsible for getting Bergonzi this celebration at all. Bergonzi will close the evening with the last act of ''Tosca,'' featuring Miss Savova - who has not had any great success at the Met - in the title role.
The point is not how unfortunate this particular gala looks on paper, but how unfortunate that the Met is unable to put on a gala event anymore. The Washington spectacular, which can be seen on PBS next spring, had a long list of singers beloved of the opera world and, in the case of most of the big names, are rarely, if ever, singing at the Met.
Reports have it that most were in fine voice, which only added to the excitement of the evening. It was also a one-shot deal. Here's hoping that in New York, galas will come to mean something very special again, not just another event with an eye for future recording royalties, or some publicity plug, as the pattern has been all too sadly pointing to of late.