Atlanta Opera is set to open Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” and close its 31st season on a company high — or at least with a newfound stability. The show opens April 9 and will run for just four performances at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
Several years into the Great Recession, with only a glimmer of growth on the horizon, Atlanta’s performing arts groups are tottering. Actor’s Express is under threat of imminent closure if $200,000 can’t be raised in the coming months. Tiny arts groups around the region struggle to make payroll. As we’ve reported, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra suffers a debt approaching $9 million while the much smaller Cobb Symphony has issued its own urgent plea to bridge an almost $50,000 budget gap.
As I mentioned in the AJC, Atlanta Opera was in financial hot water, too, until an unexpected bequest from the late Barbara D. Stewart, a corporate economist, arrived in February. Soon after, the opera sold out its run of “Porgy and Bess,” which caps what might be remembered as the best month in company history.
By the terms of Stewart’s will, half of the $9 million must go to endowment, which brings the endowment to $5.4 million. (If the opera gets 5 percent interest off the endowment, that means $270,000 is added to the budget annually.) The rest, General Director Dennis Hanthorn told me, will go into the checking account. “We haven’t actually received the money, but we’ll need it to replenish our cash reserves,” he said. “Our balance sheet has been weak, and we were known as a pay-as-you-go organization. These funds will help us cover the bills when cash is low, to cover the months between when a grant has been announced and when it’s actually paid.” In essence, you’re not spending the money, you’re lending it to yourself.
“The funds won’t allow us to add another production — each costs about $600,000 — but it gives us stability,” Hanthorn added. “Her gift legitimizes the organization. Before, we’d be asked [by foundations and individual donors], ‘How long you gonna stay in business?’ Well, now we’re not going out of business.”
In addition to the opera’s $9 million, Stewart left $1.5 million each to the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Although Stewart had been a steady patron of the arts over the decades, and had served on the opera’s board, Hanthorn was surprised — shocked, actually — by the size of the gift.
“Barbara was a very modest person,” he said. “She wasn’t on any of the fund-raisers’ radar screens for this kind of gift. The Woodruff Arts Center wasn’t aware she’d give that much away. I suspect no one knew she had that kind of money, and no one was suspecting that level of generosity for the arts in Atlanta. I’m humbled by it, and the best way we can honor her memory is to double or triple her bequest.”
The other way to honor Stewart is to produce great opera. “Così fan tutte” is the third and most subtle of the trio of operas that Mozart composed with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Like “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” the comedy “Così” is, on the surface, about sex that is risqué or coerced. The Italian title translates imprecisely to “all women are like that,” a bit of barbed male chauvinism that sets the plot into motion. On a bet, two young soldiers test their finacees’ fidelity. The girls are sisters, and to trick them the guys appear in disguise (as “Albanians”) and woo the other’s bethrothed. Shockingly, each seems to have more sexual chemistry with his best friend’s gal than with his own. Their seductions are successful.
“ ‘Così fan tutte’ is a statement about how we lie to each other but really lie to ourselves,” says Carter Joseph, who has taught an Evening at Emory class on the opera. “Historically, it opens the door to the end of the Enlightenment, where we’ve tried rational thought and it doesn’t work. Everyone is disillusioned at the end and it’s our passions that have won out.”
What’s more, many elements of the plot would fit the trashy pop culture of our own time. By classical convention, da Ponte’s brilliant libretto has all the action take place in a single day and in (mostly) one location, including spontaneous dual weddings at the end. “That sounds far-fetched and decadent, but Britney Spears got married for just a day,” Joseph points out. “The whole plot could be the premise for a reality television show. But the music is by Mozart, and he doesn’t pass judgments. It’s genius.”
True enough. Mozart never wrote more sublimely bittersweet music than the Act 1 trio “Soave sia il vento,” even if “Così” is a little less ostentatiously hummable than “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” where almost every number is a hit tune. Still, like Henry James’ novel “The Wings of the Dove” and other stories where play-acted love leads to genuine attraction, “Così” shows that it’s impossible to go back again — despite the forced “happy” ending — which makes it Mozart’s most cynical and psychologically revealing opera, and thus the one that seems the most contemporary.