Opera Newcomer Tries to Tame a Tempest

Posted May 10, 2018 11:48 p.m. EDT

LONDON — “Gorgeous!” called out Daniel Kramer, drawing out the final syllable, as two singers finished the impassioned duet at the end of Act I of his production of “La Traviata.”

Leaping out of his chair, Kramer ran up the aisle of the Coliseum theater here and bounded onto the stage. “Fantastisch!” he yelled to the chorus, which had been cavorting on a vertiginously mirrored set. “At one point you might want to grab his gluteus maximus,” he added, gesturing first to one singer and then another.

Kramer, the ambitious 41-year-old American who has been the artistic director of the crisis-laden English National Opera since 2016, is not known for elegant restraint. As he put it in an interview after the rehearsal in March, his work is “too too” for many tastes, especially British ones. (“There was a noise in the auditorium when the curtain went up,” critic Erica Jeal wrote in The Observer after the blingy “Traviata” opened. It was “the sound of 4,000 eyebrows being raised simultaneously.”)

Kramer, who has never before held a position at an opera house or run a major arts organization, will need all his optimistic, feisty exuberance to prove himself and rescue the company. Its subsidy has been slashed, and it has bled administrative and artistic executives in recent years, curtailing its offerings and threatening its high reputation. The company is renting out the Coliseum for longer stretches to gin up revenue.

“He is a man of the theater to the deepest recesses of his heart, and he feels music deeply,” director Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who is on the company’s board, said in a statement when asked why Kramer was hired. “That is why he loves and why he directs opera.”

“He also,” Whitworth-Jones said, “inspires donors to give generously!”

On May 1, the company announced the first season programmed by Kramer and his music director, Martyn Brabbins, since both were hired two years ago. With four revivals and five new productions, including a “Porgy and Bess” that is to travel to the Metropolitan Opera, a staging of Britten’s “War Requiem” and a new Jack the Ripper opera from British composer Iain Bell, the plans have won modest approval. “At first sight, they seem to have got the balance between mainstream works and more adventurous projects just about right, without tempting fate at the box office too often,” critic Andrew Clements wrote in The Guardian.

Kramer said the season hit all the bases. “We have blockbusters: ‘Magic Flute,’ ‘La Bohème,'” he said. “Something for the operetta audience with ‘Merry Widow’; for serious opera lovers with ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ and ‘Akhnaten’; a major art-house piece with ‘War Requiem.'”

“It was important to close on a world premiere,” he added, “because if opera is going to survive we should be doing 50 percent new work. We can keep pillaging 400 years of white male opera in the canon, but we need stories about people now, by people now.”

Kramer is intense and hyperbolic, talking at top speed, with multiple segues down paths of internal reverie, self-scrutiny and political critique. “We are not talking enough about the masculine, we are not discussing enough the patriarchy, what a healthy masculine could look like,” he said in impassioned tones. “We’re going to talk about these things — about nationalism, Brexit, America now.”

English National Opera has lately been scrutinized more than scrutinizing.

The past few years have been probably the company’s worst since it began in the late 19th century with performances organized by philanthropist Emma Cons and Lilian Baylis, her niece. (The companies that Baylis ran would eventually become English National Opera, the National Theater and the Royal Ballet.)

In 2014, Arts Council England, which contributes more than a third of the company’s budget, cut its subsidy to 12.38 million pounds ($16.8 million) from 17.2 million pounds ($23.3 million) and, citing low audience turnout, placed the company in “special measures.” (This meant its position in the national portfolio of regularly funded arts organizations was under review.)

The chairman of the board resigned, as did its executive director, who was replaced by Cressida Pollock, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant with no arts management experience. Soon after, John Berry, the company’s longtime, critically lauded artistic director, resigned.

Without an artistic director, and amid threats of strikes and stormy accusations of mismanagement, a labor agreement in March 2016 saw the chorus accept pay cuts, layoffs and a move to nine-month contracts from yearlong ones. Mark Wigglesworth, the music director, who had been in the job for only six months, resigned, saying that “the company is evolving into something I do not recognize.”

Any single appointment — first Pollock, now Stuart Murphy, who replaced her after she resigned in the fall, and Kramer — might have been fine, John Allison, the editor of Opera magazine, said in an interview.

“But having so many people from outside the opera world means that there is no one with the kind of experience you need at a major company,” he added. “I think they are all playing at running an opera company. Martyn Brabbins is the most solid, but even he hasn’t previously had an opera position.”

So the glaring question presents itself: Why on earth would Kramer want to take on all this? “I could see they needed a leader who had some of the maps to come out of trauma into forward motion,” he said. “It felt like the opportunity of a lifetime, and it has been and still is.”

Kramer grew up on a farm in Wadsworth, Ohio, the son of a school principal. When he was 8, he saw a play directed by his father at the school.

“I don’t know what it was, but I was obsessed with it,” he said. He became “the actor guy” in high school, studied theater at Northwestern University and won a Drama League of New York scholarship, which led to work with avant-garde director Richard Foreman. After meeting and falling in love with actor Simon Callow, he moved to London, where he studied at the International School of Corporeal Mime for a year and began to try his hand at directing.

“I don’t deny that coming to London, I was laser-focused on climbing that ladder,” he said. “My first play went to the West End, my second play went to St. Ann’s Warehouse. I did a dance piece, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ at the Young Vic. Five plays in, I was doing ‘Angels in America.’ I was ambitious; I was American.” David Lan, the former director of the Young Vic, said that Kramer’s work is “emotionally very direct. I think he sees himself in the tradition of Russian experimental directors. There is often one big overriding idea that controls everything else, and he brings his own background, his own symbolic imagery, his sexuality into the work.”

His bold style won him a following. In 2010, he was hired to direct the musical “King Kong,” destined for Broadway after an Australian opening. “It was a wrong turn,” Kramer said. “The biggest learning curve of my life. I woke up one day and thought: Wow, what happened to that guy who thought art can change the world and is now basing multimillion-dollar decisions on what someone’s wife thinks?”

He withdrew from the production about nine months after it opened in Melbourne in 2013, spent time in Buddhist centers in New York and taught at Brown University. “I quit everything,” he said. “I looked inside and I saw who I was. I was the ‘enfant terrible,’ the ‘wunderkind,’ and that allows a form of behavior I don’t want to do again.”

He returned to London, and Berry asked him to direct “Tristan und Isolde” for English National Opera, where he had already staged Harrison Birtwistle’s “Punch and Judy” and Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” He applied to direct the Manchester International Festival and the Royal Lyceum Theater in Edinburgh, and was turned down for both before ending up in opera.

There were a number of well-known British opera directors who would have been well suited to the position at English National Opera, said Matthew Epstein, a former artistic director of Lyric Opera of Chicago and Welsh National Opera. “But of course they might have said no,” Epstein added, “because Cressida Pollock wanted to run the show and make choices, and she is not an opera professional.”

But the woes began well before Pollock, said Peter Jonas, the general director of the company from 1985 to 1993. “I think there has been a lot of skulduggery,” Jonas said in a telephone interview. “There has been a growing desire by the Arts Council to shift funding onto politically correct agendas. John Berry had a real nose for flair and innovation; he was a real European intendant type, which of course the English hate.”

The Arts Council, Jonas added, flexed its muscle and gunned for Berry, while imposing “this special measures nonsense. You either fund companies or you don’t, and you have to accept that sometimes they don’t do so well.”

English National Opera is now out of special measures, but its Arts Council subsidy is frozen until 2022.

“A lot of people who love ENO are upset about what’s happened, and I agree,” Kramer said. “I didn’t want the chorus cut. I didn’t want Mark Wigglesworth to go. I didn’t want to be reduced to nine operas a year and have rentals.”

He added that he wanted to keep the 17 million pound subsidy, “but if you don’t move on, someone else will.”

So he is both an optimist and a pragmatist? “Yes,” he said. “Right now, I am fighting to achieve a miracle in 2021. It’s all music and singing, but thinking in a bigger box about what is going to pack audiences in to hear and love live music. I’m beginning to think we have to reinvent from head to toe.”