Eyebrows were raised when Welsh National Opera announced that it is getting a $2 million grant from the wealthy Getty family for the forthcoming world premiere of “Usher House” by one of the family members.
So I put to artistic director David Pountney the obvious question: What first attracted you to the music of billionaire composer Gordon Getty?
Pountney’s answer, as he speaks on the telephone from Wales, has an unexpected twist.
“I heard the opera being recorded in Lisbon,” he says. “I found it a nuanced and atmospheric telling of the story (of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’), so I wanted to do the premiere in Wales. It was made extremely clear to me beforehand however that Mr. Getty never gives money to fund his own pieces. So I thought: let’s be imaginative.”
Pountney had to overcome Getty’s fear of being seen as a vanity-project merchant. His idea was to ask for support for a series of five U.K. premieres over four evenings, of which Getty’s one-act piece would be a part of a double-bill. The whole series is called British Firsts.
“After a lot of discussion,” he says, “Getty and his family agreed, on the basis that by putting so large a proportion of what they were prepared to give into other people’s works, it would be unreasonable for anybody to turn round and complain that Gordon was simply paying for his own works. It hasn’t stopped people making that accusation.”
Perhaps because it’s still partly true. One eighth of the total grant, that is $250,000, is earmarked for the staging of his own piece.
“If Mr. Getty had wanted merely to buy a staging of his own opera,” Pountney says, “he could have done it anyway.”
The fortune of Gordon Getty, 77, is about $4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He is the fourth son of oil tycoon John Paul Getty, and a philanthropist and patron of the arts.
The Getty family has given $1 million to WNO. Gordon Getty has matched their efforts to bring the total to $2 million.
He has had a long career as a composer, and once studied to be a singer. He has written songs, orchestral works and cantatas, and his opera “Plump Jack,” based on the character of Falstaff, was recorded on the Pentatone label. He completed another opera based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost.”
Judging from excerpts on his website (www.gordongetty.com) his general style is tonal, pastoral and easily accessible. The climactic passage from his cantata “Joan and the Bells” has enjoyable pomp and grandeur. The recording of “Usher House” itself, conducted by Larry Foster, hasn’t yet been released.
The most important question is: is his opera any good? Or has filthy lucre triumphed over artistic integrity?
Conductors Larry Foster and Ulf Schirmer (the intendant of Leipzig Opera who conducted the “Plump Jack” recording) are prepared to stand up for Getty’s music on its own merits, says Pountney. To those who have suggested Getty has only a mediocre talent, I would say it’s wiser to judge on a case-by-case basis.
Great composers have been capable of churning out mediocre pap, such as Beethoven’s tedious potboiler “Wellington’s Victory.” Might not a second-rater (even if Getty is such a thing) rise to produce something decent once in his life? Much more sensible to wait and see.
The opportunity to do so will arise in 2014, when the world premiere of “Usher House” will be paired with the U.K. premiere of Debussy’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (an unfinished work, completed by Robert Orledge.)
“I think it’s important to say that Getty is an American composer, setting a very American story, and capturing the atmosphere precisely,” says Pountney. “I’ve chosen to put it with Debussy’s French version of the same tale.”
Other works in the British Firsts series are by Unsuk Chin (in 2017), by Jonathan Harvey (2013), and by Richard Ayres (2015). All of these have already had premieres elsewhere.
“These are operas which are being performed, and yet which have never been staged in Britain,” says Pountney. “It’s a real service to bring them to the public.”
Finally I ask if Pountney was prepared for the brickbats.
“Who’s the loser here?” he says. “WNO gets to present an adventurous program. Our public gets to see it. Gordon Getty wins too. If there’s no money there’s no culture, and there should be more recognition that in the climate we all face, enlightened philanthropy should be applauded.”
British Firsts runs at Welsh National Opera 2013-2017. “Usher House” will receive its world premiere in the summer of 2014, and will then be presented at San Francisco Opera the following year. http://www.wno.org.uk
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Greg Evans on TV, Craig Seligman on books and Jason Harper on cars.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)