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Monday, September 5, 2011

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House by William Christie

One of the great impresarios of the 20th century, Harvey Lichtenstein, former president and executive producer of BAM, traveled the globe to listen to people he liked and discover people he didn’t know. We were first introduced when he came to our performance of Lully’s Atys at the Opéra Royal of Versailles; he was absolutely bowled over by the piece and wanted to bring it to BAM. Working with Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, or Robert Wilson, and now taking on a 17th-century French Baroque opera, was risk-taking, but Harvey knew his public and he knew about creating an audience for what he liked. So we met and became friends, and decided to work together. “Look,” Harvey said, “we can’t provide an orchestra, and we don’t have a standing choir. What we can provide is intelligence, creative programming, we can provide an audience, and we can provide a venue.” And that was the beginning of a BAM career for me and for my ensemble, Les Arts Florissants.

It was the spring of 1989 when we finally brought Atys to BAM. Coming from Europe, where opera houses and civic theaters are generally in the plushest parts of town, when I arrived at BAM it looked as if I had entered a war zone. Here was this incredible building, this great white elephant, surrounded by little more than parking lots. Once inside, of course, it was heaven. First of all, you have a staff that is one of the best in the world, not only the people up top but the people in and around the stage who actually work with you. It’s a truly wonderful team. And the hall itself is brilliant, with marvelous visibility and acoustics, and the people who go to the opera, who want to see things as well as hear things, are virtually guaranteed a visual experience as exciting as the musical experience.

Every opera house has its own personality, some are opulent and grand, some intimate and elegant, others have an extraordinary sense of history. The Howard Gilman Opera House at BAM is nothing less than magnificent, with very savvy people coming in to hear its productions. It caters to the connoisseur, which I mean as a compliment to the BAM audience, and offers a different repertoire than other lyric houses in New York. The reputation it has in Europe, under Harvey and now under Karen Brooks Hopkins and Joe Melillo, is that the cutting edge of things has found a way first to BAM, in terms of theater, music, and dance, for the past 25 to 30 years. Cutting edge I define as simply a repertoire, a way of performing and dealing with the public where there are new things to be said and new things to be received and new things to be understood.

Howard Gilman Opera House in 1978,
photo by Dinanda H. Nooney
The Howard Gilman Opera House is clearly a house that we love, and Karen and Joe are people we admire greatly. There’s no compromise about certain things that I find important. For me, opera is essentially enjoyment, and I’ve had as much enjoyment doing period pieces as I have with performances that you might call contemporary or even postmodernist. The awful reality is that it’s not the same world as it was when we started. There is a world crisis, economically speaking, and it obviously affects us terribly, but Karen and Joe are very clever people who have the ability to face this reality, and it seems that over the years we’ve never lost touch with BAM. As for what comes next for us at BAM—as much as BAM can give us.

This text was excerpted from BAM: The Complete Works, available in October 2011. Click here to pre-order the book.

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