Marc A. Scorca: Patrick, it is such a pleasure and an honor to have this time with you. Thank you so much. This was part of our 50th anniversary, which was 2020, but (it) was interrupted and we're just picking it back up now, and going forward with our oral history project to speak to 50 people who have made an indelible impression on American opera over the last half century. And you are certainly one of those people, so I'm really happy that you're with us. Thank you.
Patrick Smith: Thank you for doing this. I think it's very good idea.
Marc A. Scorca: There are so many stories that don't get captured and I always start the storytelling with the question: Patrick Smith: who brought you to your first opera?
Patrick Smith: I don't remember. I do remember that the opera obviously was at The Met and that it was Faust. Now who brought me to Faust, I have no memory, because it wasn't my mother or my father. So it had to be somebody else, or I went by myself, or I went with a friend.
Marc A. Scorca: And it was at the old Met and in all of the storytelling, we really do hear from people that there was something special about that old Met: that going into that building had a kind of vibe that people remember extremely fondly.
Patrick Smith: That is true. I remember it a little less fondly. I was glad when they moved. I suppose I was in a minority at that time, but it was very funny because, as you know, the stage was only alive for voices in certain spots. And you watched the singers who knew that, and the singers who didn't, and that became a very good game to play.
Marc A. Scorca: That's very funny.
Patrick Smith: It is absolutely true, because singers like Licia Albanese knew exactly where to stand on the stage.
Marc A. Scorca:...and I guess the young singer making a debut wouldn't have that advantage.
Patrick Smith: Absolutely not. Or unless they were lucky to know somebody.
Marc A. Scorca: So Patrick, there you are a student at Princeton and you had a career in music criticism, and I really want to talk about that. What was it that got you started on this career path of music criticism?
Patrick Smith: It's very difficult to say, because it was just natural. In other words, I was doing writing of all kinds. I wrote an unpublished novel, and I was being published by doing music criticism for Musical America or even earlier than that, other places. So I gradually sort of came into music criticism, without realizing what I was doing. And when I did that, I realized I better know what I was talking about. So I then, although I'd taken courses other places, studied it really intensely so that I knew a bit about what I was writing about. So, it was sort of a happenstance and it was getting published, and because it was getting published, I concentrated on it rather than something else. So that's how I got into the business. And once you got to know a number of people, you felt your way around the business and you became accustomed to it. And then you began to make a career there, rather than anywhere else.
Marc A. Scorca: I read, of course, in your bio that you were the president of the Music Critics Association from, I think it was 1977 to 1981, and there were a lot of music critics in 1977 and '78, and they occupied a real niche; they had a role to play in the development of the American music system. And I've heard today that there is something like 15 or 16 full-time music critics left in the United States. But when you were at the outset of your career, when you had become president of the Music Critics Association, what was the role of the music critic in the life of American arts?
Patrick Smith: Well, it had a role, but the role was diminishing even then, because when I first knew anything about music or did anything, in New York we had 6, 8, 10 critics, at least writing reviews of music. By the time I became president of Music Critics that had shrunk and the ones around the country had shrunk. The other problem was that the kind of music that was being reviewed was really mostly opera because the symphony (orchestras) were less reviewed and chamber music, not at all, and solo recital only when Vladimir Horowitz came to town. So it really was a dying art as it were. And now you have it at the smallest, and I suppose it will still shrink, as newspapers go out of business. However, maybe in the world of the blog and the world of the internet, it will take off there. There's certain people who are writing on the internet that would be considered music critics of a newspaper, if there were newspapers.
Marc A. Scorca: I find it interesting that you say that opera was the more reviewed. Was that because there were 10 more performances coming up? Why opera?
Patrick Smith: I think because of the presence in the city. In other words, the papers had to reflect the fact that the Opera obviously is spending a great deal of money putting these works on the stage and they wanted publicity, and the papers realized that there were more people probably going the opera, than were going to chamber music, or even the Symphony: that depends on the city. Certainly Boston is the other example where the Symphony is the rule, there. But because of that, the papers felt that they had to cover (opera). And they did. So that you had representative critics in certainly the major cities, and even in some smaller cities as well.
Marc A. Scorca: And was the role of the critic very much the same as today, really a critique of quality; of what occurred last night; of the audience reaction to it? Did the music critics also write features, or was that a separate set of writers?
Patrick Smith: No, it depended very much on the newspaper, and usually the critic wrote features as well as reviewing, and in reviewing, it depended on the critic. From the majestrial critic like Claudia Cassidy, who could affect the careers of musicians, to people who were really negligible in whatever they wrote, 'cause less attention (was) paid to the critic. And that depended on the city and what the critics were saying.
Marc A. Scorca: My early years in opera were in the 1970's and we were still hearing Ms. (Leontyne) Price, (Joan) Sutherland, (Birgit) Nilsson, Jon Vickers, (Leonie) Rysenek. I could go on listing the folks, whether it's (Luciano) Pavarotti, (Placido) Domingo, Montserrat Caballé. It was an amazing moment in opera, and I sometimes wonder whether I remember it so fondly, because it was my introduction to opera or whether those were really special years. You go back further into the '60's, and those great singers, the legendary singers. Was it really a golden age of sorts in those years when you were at the height of your music criticism?
Patrick Smith: Yes. It was more of a golden age, except (as I have written elsewhere) every time in music, everybody looks back to the past and says, 'This was the golden age.' And I remember when I was listening to Caballé and whatnot, people telling me, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no, you should have heard X, Y, Z.' And I'm sure that that is true because today I do feel that we are not living in a golden age of singing. We are much more directed in other ways, because of the way opera is being presented today; it depends a lot less on the voice.
Marc A. Scorca: For sure. And we'll get to that in a moment.
Patrick Smith: Yes. But you see, that makes a difference, but I do believe there was a thinning out over those years that you're talking about, 'cause when I was first going to opera, there were a number of singers who were really good, and I do remember even the ones whose voices were on a downgrade: somebody like a Leonard Warren. We don't talk about Leonard Warren, but wow - what a voice. If we had that voice...that's just one.
Marc A. Scorca: Yeah, for sure.
Patrick Smith: Robert Merrill.
Marc A. Scorca: You're right. The line of American baritones, from Lawrence Tibbett through Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill down to Sherrill Milnes: that incredible baritone lineage that we had.
Patrick Smith: And in some cases, this phases in and out. There are phases when you have a plethora of these singers and then they die out, but I think that we are in a less golden age now, in terms of singers.
Marc A. Scorca: Right.
Patrick Smith: And I'm not at all sure that singing is that important anymore. That's the sad thing in my estimation.
Marc A. Scorca: Let me go back to the chronology, 'cause I do want to explore what you just said, but I want to get us there. So in 1985, there you were at the National Endowment for the Arts, as the director of the Opera Music Theater Program, which had been established only a few years earlier. What got you to the NEA?
Patrick Smith: Samuel Lipman, who was on the board that controlled The National Council for the Arts. He was a friend of mine and he called me up one day and said, "There's a vacancy at the NEA where I'm on the board. Would you be at all interested?" And I said, "Yes." So, eventually after a lot of bureaucratic in doing, I was there. But, of course, I knew nothing of what I was getting into. It was (as if they were) throwing (me) into the large end of the pool. It was a wonderful four years, and it coincided not only with Europe coming forward, but it coincided with the growth of opera with the spread of this idea. And the odd thing is, the musical theater part of the Endowment: that was Hal Prince's idea. He was the one that pushed for that: to be included with opera. What he was thinking of, was of course, the Broadway musical, which began in its golden age with Showboat and went through the '70's or at least through when he was setting up the Endowment. But the great development was that it was musical theater that was developing, which had nothing to do with the Broadway musical and had everything to do with experimental theater that touched not only itself and whatnot, but opera. So that you had an amazing growth in the area, and we were funding it. We were funding this part, not the Broadway musical necessarily, which was a for-profit thing anyway. So that and when you had people like Julie Taymor involved, Lee Breuer - a whole bunch of people working in the field and being funded by the Endowment. And some of them came back to work in opera, and that of course helped out opera immensely.
Marc A. Scorca: And then there was the great program from the NEA, which I remember so vividly the New American Works Program, where the funding was available in various stages. And your funding mechanism was almost a tutorial in how to produce an opera, in terms of supporting workshops and supporting second workshops that the New American Works Program under your leadership taught people how to create new work.
Patrick Smith: That was a great help, because when I got down there to Washington, opera was not a dirty word, but composers did not think in terms of opera, (except for the quote 'opera' composers). But certainly by the time I'd left, it was becoming better known, and certainly 10, 20 years later, or now - everybody...I see these composers... Who are they? And they're all writing first operas, and they're all getting produced. They're all getting on stage. It's like mushrooms coming up after a rain. It's amazing. And not only do you have the mushrooms, but you have to have the mushrooms, because, as you know, the survival rate of an opera is one out of a hundred, if you're lucky,
Marc A. Scorca: If you're lucky,
Patrick Smith: Very low; so you gotta have a hundred operas. And if you only have 10 operas or five operas, it's not gonna work. I send it back to Hal Prince, and he never realized what he was doing, but by including experimental music theater under our umbrella in Washington, it helped out a great deal because it made it legitimate.
Marc A. Scorca: I see what you did, in your years at the agency with the New American Works Program, as the little initial snowball that has just gotten bigger and bigger as we see today, and it's really redefining what opera can be. But if we look back to those days, when you were at the agency, we think of David Gockley, who was a true visionary producer. David DiChiera, who in his position as board chair at OPERA America began the granting programs that we've continued ever since. John Ludwig in his work at the National Opera Institute, creating such a knowledge base for the creation of new work. You were the one who, when I first took over at OPERA America in 1990, who told me to go meet Lyn Austin, which I did so happily. When you think back to those incredibly fertile days, are there other people you looked to as real movers and shakers in this movement of new American opera?
Patrick Smith: Well, there were many of them. One of the people that I really liked was John Crosby. Now John was the famous Richard Strauss person, who always did a Strauss opera, but he did a lot of new work and he was devoted to new work, and he was the one that really opened up summer opera in a way that had never been done before. So I always felt a soft place in my heart for John. My wife and I did the programs for the opera company for several years, and I always liked that. But there were a number of people who became enthused with the idea of doing opera through the funding programs. And I think that was very true and certainly David Gockley was central to this. And certainly what I consider the finest opera of the whole shebang, which is Nixon in China, was his baby.
Marc A. Scorca: It certainly was. And you name Nixon in China, and I look back in the old index to The New Criterion for which you wrote, and you've written about Marvin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra, (which I will say - in my book - is one of the wonderful underperformed American operas). I just think it's a marvelous piece. You also wrote about Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking - just naming a couple of works that you have singled out in your own writing. You've just mentioned Nixon in China. Do these works continue to stand out for you among those that you think are some of the more important American operas?
Patrick Smith: Well, I think both of those operas that you mention are important, I don't happen to like the Heggie opera, particularly. I think it's an argument opera that is trying to persuade you. It works on the stage without a question. It's one of the top most powerful works I've seen on stage. But again, what I think is important here and which is being terribly neglected is the fact that we don't have any revivals of many of these works. And it's the one thing that I feel is crucial, if you are going to have a vibrant opera program in the United States. There are many operas that deserve another chance, and they need to be showcased around the country. And it's very wonderful to have new work all the time, but we need to know that these old works - some of them - deserve another hearing.
Marc A. Scorca: Are there particular operas that just are on the top of your list of, you think it should be produced again, soon?
Patrick Smith: Well, certainly I would go to the operas of Dominick Argento: several of those are worthy of revival and there's so many. My feeling is that it does no good if the person running the opera company doesn't believe in doing, because then they'll be done badly, and then it would be worse. We have to have American opera directors (that is managers in The Met sense) music or theater directors who know the field and say, "This is my favorite opera. I'm going to put it on. I don't care who comes and I'm going to give it the strongest production that I can," but as long as you have European people in those positions, - luckily we don't - and I think that I would love to see a greater number of operas that have been written in the last 50 years to be produced again.
Marc A. Scorca: And in many instances with living composers and librettists, an opportunity to adjust slightly, to make some improvements now that they have seen the operas on stage for a few times, and get to make some adjustments.
Patrick Smith: That is true. You see beforehand, you had to go back and see a Rigoletto to know how to write an opera. It was not a bad idea to study Rigoletto, but in any case, now there are so many: not only new operas, but ways of doing opera. It's the meta opera: avenues to telling the story are so open to librettists and composers.
Marc A. Scorca: You bring up the word 'librettist' and I've said to you before, but your book from 1970, The Tenth Muse - and long before I met you - was a book that was so formative for me in my thinking about opera: just your description of the history of the libretto. And I would say that if there's a particular evolution in American opera, it has been the amplification of the role of the librettist in new opera, where the text has taken on new importance compared to libretti of some of our inherited repertoire. And I just wanted to hear what you think about the role of the librettist today.
Patrick Smith: It's interesting you should say that. Certainly the telling of the story has been expanded in various ways by the librettist and the composer too, and in ways that were unknown to the previous generations. Of course, the history of the libretto goes in and out of phase with the importance of the libretist. In Metastasio's day, the libretto was everything. Then it was in the 19th century, less important, and yet it was more important than was believed. So it depends on the era and certainly today in a time where this singing, as such, is not as important. And the visual is very important, as we know. The role of the librettist, who can make the visual move on stage, is become more important. But the problem I find is that when you throw in the auteur who is the stage director, and he, or she starts to sit on the librettist, that's when you have your problem. And that's, what's been happening to the poor old librettists of the past, who find themselves in a production of an opera that is set on the moon or wherever it is, and it has nothing to do with what they wrote originally. I hope that the librettist today will not find that in 50 years, some auteur will come and sit on their ground, where they're carefully chosen words, and change 'em all, not change, but redo them.
Marc A. Scorca: Such an interesting point. And it hearkens back to what you were saying a few minutes ago, where the singer as singer isn't as central to the opera experience today, as it was in the '60's and '70's, as we were talking about it. Do you feel that the balance now is about design or direction? Or who is in the driver's seat today?
Patrick Smith: Well, anybody, but the singer, I am afraid. And that's an exaggeration, but still the problem is that everybody else is taking over the stage. This is good on one side, because it shows the vitality of the art form that it is now - instead of painted drops on a bare stage and some singer singing 'Vissi d'arte,' you have literally visual stuff; movies being done behind the singers; machines, as in the Ring Cycle at The Met; huge complicated machines. You have a whole bunch of stuff that takes away from the singing that necessarily detracts because the minute you do anything visual, since we live in a visual world, after all everybody drives, and in order to drive, you have to look, so the visual is omnipresent, and takes over everything. And that I think is a real problem. I think that whenever there are visuals in an opera, it detracts from what should go on at the opera.
Marc A. Scorca: You were distinguishing a moment ago about operas that are advocating for something, that are with real agendas, and yet opera has in the history of the art form, occasionally been very political. How do you see the intersection of current events, current issues, current people as subjects for opera and this 400 year old art form?
Patrick Smith: It's now open to anything. I think that once you start to open the art form...take an opera that was current in terms of 20th century, but old-fashioned: Vanessa, by Sam Barber. That was part of the past. Whatever it is as an opera, it was part of the past. But now everything has opened up. Once you opened it up with so-called CNN operas or whatever, anything is game, and you can work anything historically: stories from today or whatever, and then work the form into whatever you want to talk about philosophically and whatnot. So that opera now I think is in much better shape, because nobody needs to be worried about whether it should be an opera or not. Anything can be an opera, as far as I can see.
Marc A. Scorca: I have sometimes spoken about the fact that the 20th century reduced opera to an auditory art form, because suddenly you could listen to recordings, and that became LP's, and it became CD's. And the radio broadcasts from The Met starting in the early 1930's, that was auditory. And that for a good part of the 20th century, opera stopped being as theatrical as it once was, because people were able to just listen to it. But that in a way today, opera has regained its footing as a theatrical art form. Would you agree with that?
Patrick Smith: Absolutely. I think that as there are fewer and fewer great voices, let us say, you've got to put something on the stage in order to do an opera. So you either train singers to be theater people first, and singers second. You emphasize that in the training, either that way, or you fill the stage with something different that allows people to think that it's a new approach, which it is, but it may not have anything to do with the opera that is underneath all this stuff. But I think there's no question that you can make theater seasons of opera with people who don't sing that well, but can act, or can do what the director wants them to do. And that will bring the people into the house at the very best of these things.
Marc A. Scorca: Now you mentioned about underlying meaning of operas, and you wrote for New Criterion about Don Giovanni, a musical masterpiece, and today the story is a very challenging one, in which in the first scene, where Don Giovanni, 'the hero' (I'll put that in air quotes) commits rape against Donna Anna and Leperello's catalog aria of Giovanni's conquests, lists 1,003 women in Spain. So it's a challenging piece in light of the sensibilities and sensitivities and reality of today. So, what do we do with these pieces that are based on the ill treatment of women or people of color, or that reveal a colonial attitude about China as in Turandot, or others? Patrick, how do we deal with these works today?
Patrick Smith: Well, it makes things a little more difficult, but I think that they can be dealt with, because within the specific opera, you have the story being told at that time, by those people. And if you decentralize the negative aspects, which you would do in staging these operas, they can still work. You cannot cut them, and you cannot make them what they're not. I think some directors do try to make them what they're not by covering up, or getting away. And some, by emphasizing it. After all, to take Don Giovanni, yes, rape is there, but most commentators say she wasn't raped. Now, she was raped in the sense that he had that idea, but he didn't succeed, and he never succeeds throughout the opera. And he's given the punishment at the end of the opera, which many operas do not have, and the punishment he is given is pretty awful, if you like Mozart's music, because Mozart knew how to do it, if anybody did. It so depends upon us realizing that history is history and whatever happened for good and bad, did happen, but we must preserve the art that we have, which includes some questionable stuff.
Marc A. Scorca: So from libretti and singing to technology. You and I probably heard a lot of Saturday afternoon broadcasts in our day, and in the late '70's, when The Met telecast La bohème with Renata Scotto, Luciano Pavarotti, we were probably both watching the television. And in 2006, when The Met HD transmissions started - almost inventing an art form of itself, suddenly every opera company has done live streams or film projects, or other kind of digital material for their patrons and they've won new audiences. How do you feel about this entry of technology into our opera world?
Patrick Smith: Well, I've always felt and it's absolutely true, there's a technology of the visual on camera. Opera is a totally different thing than what you hear in the house. And it's obvious. In the first place, you'll have people who are larger than life on the screen, and you can have closeups and you can have a certain amount of acting that you don't need when you are in the opera house. So as a result, there are different kind of singers that are hired to do the roles. Also, you have a difference in getting a far shot and a close-up, as in the movies so that everybody is accustomed to that. It is not the way we were brought up seeing opera, and it is not the way in which I think opera should be seen. Ideally, obviously, if you can't get to an opera house, it's better to see it on the screen. And some people just love it on the screen. Fine, but it's not the same thing. Because if you hear a voice...I used to sit in the family circle at The Met, which is up, up in the gods. And I used to hear Nicolai Gedda, and you'd hear every note he sang. Every note he sang.
Marc A. Scorca: And with Nicolai Gedda, you heard every word he sang.
Patrick Smith: And every word as well. It was a magic time. That you will never get in a visual. And indeed, unless you have very good camera work, it won't be as striking in that sense, but it will have its own values by being able to tell the story in a much more direct way. And so it's a different aesthetic experience. That's all I can say and for many people, it's the only way they can see opera, so good luck to them and fine.
Marc A. Scorca: And not unlike the Saturday afternoon broadcasts, which for so many years were cited as the way people discovered opera. They listened on Saturday afternoon and they developed, although it was only auditory, an affection and a knowledge about opera, thanks to this electronic dissemination of radio.
Patrick Smith: Absolutely. There's no question. And so it's just a new way of looking at opera. The important thing is if there were no operas, you wouldn't be able to see them. The only way you can see them, is if people come into the opera house.
Marc A. Scorca: Yes.
Patrick Smith: 'Cause these are not being filmed in a studio or in a movie backlot, they're being filmed from actual performances and you've got to have an audience in the theater, and therefore it is absolutely imperative that opera keeps its theater audience.
Marc A. Scorca: Patrick: imagine your conversation with that 25 year old opera enthusiast who wants a career in opera management, or an artist who wants to perform or direct or conduct, what advice do you have for those aspiring opera leaders of the next generation?
Patrick Smith: Well, as with everything: network. Network is paramount to any career, I would think. But, certainly in the opera field, it's defined in a certain way. In other ways, it's open. If you look at the works that are now being presented, the stuff that Beth Morrison does and whatnot, there are huge opportunities out there in the field and the best way is to get into the field and stay in it however you can, which is difficult, as always, because it's not that large a field. You know better than I do, whether it's growing, but it seems to me to be growing at least in certain aspects, and so therefore it's a field that can attract new people into it.
Marc A. Scorca: It is so true. And if you remember Patrick, in our good old days, it was hard to start an opera company because you needed so much money to do direct mail brochures, and to do fundraising, let alone to put on a production. But today where tickets are sold online; where people enjoy opera in warehouses and churches and lofts, so many young people are able to start their own opera company. We now have about 185 professional company members at OPERA America, and about 100 of them have budgets of under a million dollars. More than half our members' budgets are under a million dollars, because so many enterprising people have started their own companies.
Patrick Smith: Doesn't surprise me at all, because that's what I was trying to say with the mushrooms. You've got to have plenty of mushrooms, and the more the merrier, because as one or another go under, or go out of business, go into something else...if you have three or four coming up, then it will replace them. I think that these people want to tell a story in music and they don't want do it with the old Broadway musical. They want a different approach. And they think in terms of opera. I remember when opera was a dirty word. It's no longer a dirty word. Now, you ask them, "What is this thing that you're writing, which has this aspect and this aspect? "Well, that's an opera," they'll say. I've been told that several times. And I said, "Well, it's a new idea to me that it's an opera, but I'm glad you think of it as an opera." And that's the thing. Opera is such a catch-all. It is a huge tent and for many years it was only Aida, Bohème and Carmen, but now it's much more than that.
Marc A. Scorca: You know, a general director said to me, and I've thought so much about it. She said "In Europe, they update the art form by these radical reinterpretations of the inherited repertoire, but in the United States, we are updating opera by doing new work." And I think that is a very interesting distinction about how the proliferation of new work enables opera to have a 21st century profile, even if we also may enjoy some traditional productions of the inherited repertoire.
Patrick Smith: That's right. That's absolutely correct. And I just think that in the future, it's got to be that kind of an inclusive art form, because I would love also truly to see that some of the fine works of the past are on the fringes of the repertory: works like Regina, Susannah. They're not great works, but they're worth retelling and reseeing, and they should be seen on a semi-regular basis. But if you look at the new works that are done in Europe, they're mostly by established old-line composers. As far as I can see, there's very little experimental work. Maybe there is some, but I don't know, not that much.
Marc A. Scorca: There is some interestingly, but we don't hear very much about it. It has not inhabited the big companies the way it has inhabited some of the big companies here in the United States.
Patrick Smith: I'm glad to see more and more new operas being done, particularly by The Met. Personally, were I in Peter Gelb's position, I wouldn't do new opera. I would do revivals, but I'm glad he is doing it, because it's gotta be done, and this does focus attention on new work and God knows that's very useful.
Marc A. Scorca: It is. And our leadership companies do have to be a part of it, to just show the way. Back in the 1980's, when Ardis Krainik embraced new work with Philip Glass at Lyric Opera (of Chicago), and then some other pieces, she paved the way for much of the field.
Patrick Smith: She told me, (and she meant the Endowment), "When you would put up that any opera company would get a million dollars, if they do new work, I said to myself, I'm gonna get that million dollars." And if you knew Ardis, if she said that, she was gonna get it, and she got it. Ardis was one of the greatest.
Marc A. Scorca: A grand and great lady, both. Absolutely. Well, Patrick, I think of you as one of the great people of opera and I so appreciate your time today. It is wonderful to see you, to hear your voice and to have the benefit of your observations of this great career that you've had. So thank you. Thank you for being with us, for your memories. And I just hope you stay well and we'll look forward to seeing you out of doors and in person.