Back in 2007, I headed out on the road to hear some orchestras that aren't regularly covered by classical critics with a national reach — all four or five of us. Since then, I've been plotting to produce an operatic counterpart. Because I've spent very little time in the Great Plains, I was particularly eager to travel in that part of the country. (I've now been to forty-seven of the fifty states; the missing ones are North Dakota, Hawaii, and, somewhat scandalously, Louisiana. Yes, I know, I know.) The result of my efforts is in this week's New Yorker — a report on recent productions at the Tulsa Opera and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. (I'm sorry to have missed the Omaha Opera, which I would have visited if I had gone through with this expedition last year.) As is my wont, I'm posting a largely irrelevant smattering of amateur snapshots.
Having flown into Kansas City, I took a long detour out to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Willa Cather will play a significant part in my Wagnerism project, and I wanted to see the area where she grew up. I decided to take a bridge across the Missouri River some ways north of Kansas City. An hour later, I was headed south again — the damage from the catastrophic floods of last June is still severe, and several bridges remain closed. I was shocked to see scenes such as this:
Instead, I entered Kansas via the St. Joseph bridge, and then cut north into Nebraska. Driving west along Route 136, I was fascinated by the nineteenth-century town names, and in particular by a sequence of Biblical places and British notables: Gilead, Hebron, Gladstone, Ruskin. (Nebraska Place-Names confirms that the last is indeed named for John Ruskin.)
The sun was setting as I reached Red Cloud, and I headed immediately to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. This is a large patch of land that was never plowed and is now preserved as a reminder of what the prairie was like in the late nineteenth century, when the Cathers arrived. Running in my head was that great passage from "A Wagner Matinée" in which the narrator listens to the Tannhäuser Overture and thinks of his childhood on the plains: "The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war."
I came back before sunrise the following day:
The pictures don't convey it, but this is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life.
On a Friday night, Red Cloud wasn't quite hopping:
After the prairie sunrise, I went to the offices of the Willa Cather Foundation, which is housed in the same building as the old Opera House. A kind and very well-informed volunteer gave me a tour of local Cather sites. Here is her childhood home:
And here is the theatre of the Opera House, where Cather saw the likes of The Bohemian Girl, Martha, and The Mikado:
At the superb Cather Foundation bookstore, I picked up a copy of Richard Giannone's 1968 study Music in Willa Cather's Fiction, which has been reissued with a foreword by my old friend Philip Kennicott. I then got back in the car and drove all the way across Kansas, north to south. The weather was pretty bad — there was talk of tornadoes — and I don't have much to offer visually. But I did get to see the World's Largest Ball of Sisal Twine, in Cawker City (inevitably, the title is contested):
Vistas on the highway:
The sun breaks through in Oklahoma:
Barnsdall, Oklahoma, boasts the World's Only Main Street Oil Well:
Time was running short, so I couldn't stop to explore the new-music scene in Avant:
The Tulsa Opera performs at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. Chapman Hall, the main theatre, is a cavernous but acoustically favorable space, seating 2400. The Barber of Seville didn't fill the house but drew a healthy, diverse crowd. Coming up next in Tulsa's 2011-12 season is Dead Man Walking, in late February and early March. Maria Kanyova will sing in Madama Butterfly at the end of the season.
On my way back to the hotel, I admired the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church:
To make the matinée in Kansas City, I had to leave literally at the crack of dawn:
But I stopped for a few minutes in Bartlesville, to look at Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower:
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City has taken up residence in the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which was designed by Moshe Safdie. As I say in my column, the complex delivers a fair amount of architectural déjà vu — my inexpert eye caught echoes of the Sydney Opera House, Frank Gehry's Disney Hall (outside and in), the Guggenheim — but it's spectacular all the same. Helzberg Hall, where I saw Laurie Anderson perform, is especially striking, although because Anderson used amplification I couldn't get an idea of the acoustics. Paul Horsley's report from opening weekend was certainly good; Yasuhisa Toyota, master of Sapporo Hall, Disney Hall, and the New World Center, knows how to bring an orchestra alive. The verdict is less certain on the acoustics of the opera house.
At dusk and at night:
A shout-out to the savory burger and pizza joint Grinders, where I caught a bite with Adam Crane of the St. Louis Symphony, who was reconnoitering the new hall. And a serious link to close: Joyce DiDonato's excoriating blog post about Governor Sam Brownback's campaign against the arts in Kansas.