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Demand Excellence in Art!

A look back at 20 years of opera, classical music and theater in the Old Pueblo

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Although I spent a year and a half as editor of the Tucson Weekly, it's the arts that have dominated my initial and current contact with the publication. Before my first brush with the Weekly--aside from a couple of uncharacteristically positive mentions in The Skinny--I covered the arts for the Arizona Daily Star, and before that, I had my fingers in a number of things when I toiled at KUAT radio. So for the nearly 30 years of my adult life, I've been an arts guy in Tucson.

We've certainly had more exciting periods in our arts community, but what the current theater and classical-music scene lacks in passion, diversity and sheer hormones, it almost makes up for in its uncustomary stability and quality.

In some ways, the same could be said of the Weekly.

In February 1999, on my first Monday of freedom from the Star, I called up then-Weekly Editor Dan Huff and offered my services as a free-lancer. The Weekly has long been a refuge of sorts for Star émigrés--not just Huff and me, but people like Chris Limberis, Renée Downing, Leo Banks, Gene Armstrong and others. We've all wrapped ourselves in the pages of the Weekly, maybe felt a little dirty, but tried things we'd never get away with in a mainstream daily. Tabloid pages expose more than broadsheets.

Anyway, Huff turned me over to staffers Margaret Regan and Mari Wadsworth, who soon were offering me a steady stream of assignments. Unfortunately, the payroll stream was a mere trickle. Payments to free-lancers fell months behind as the paper cracked under financial pressure, and my enthusiasm for the work cooled.

Publisher Doug Biggers' solution to his ongoing money woes was ultimately to sell the Weekly to Sierra Vista-based Wick Communications, which brought in its own publisher, Tom Lee, a fellow with lots of management experience in the Gannett chain. The loosey-goosey ways of the Tucson Weekly staff--not so different from the culture at any other old-style alt weekly--soon got squeezed by Lee's by-the-book management style. Sensing an imminent staff walkout, Lee started looking for a new editor. Apparently, enough people turned him down that eventually he called me.

I took the job. But 18 months later, I'd had enough of contending with budget cuts and serving as a buffer between upper management and staff (much of the reason I'd left the Star). Hey, diddly-dee, the free-lance life for me.

Now, things have apparently settled down at the Weekly. The paper is actually turning a profit, and if some friction remains in the newsroom, that's standard in the journalism biz. At least on my quarterly visits to the office, I don't sense nearly as much paranoia.

So much for my fond reminiscences of life at the Tucson Weekly. Now, as for what I've seen over the years on the other side of the office door ...

During the first Bush Administration, most of Tucson's major arts institutions flirted with financial disaster, just like the Weekly. First, the Tucson Museum of Art found itself in a mess, then Arizona Theatre Company had to undertake an emergency million-dollar fund-raising campaign, and the Tucson Symphony trimmed administrative salaries and re-tooled a couple of seasons to require fewer extra musicians. But once they all got their books in order, responsible fiscal management seemed to become a way of life.

Even during the second (and, with luck, final) Bush Administration's dismal economy following Sept. 11, these organizations have been able to cope with reduced donations and ticket sales without hitting the panic button.

Meanwhile, Arizona Opera, which had nearly collapsed several times during the 1970s, got through the crisis around 1990 unscathed. That was the positive aspect of general director Glynn Ross' motto, "Don't spend a nickel unless you've got a dime." The negative aspects of Ross' tightwad tendencies were shabby sets, cheap but inept stage directors, an under-rehearsed orchestra and a near-strike by chorus members intent on unionizing. The solo singing during this period, on the other hand, tended to be reliably good.

Ironically, when no-red-ink Ross retired in 1998 after 15 seasons, he left the company with a small deficit resulting from his Flagstaff productions of Wagner's Ring cycle. His replacement, David Speers, got the financial house in order again. He ditched over-ambitious projects like the Ring, and immediately upgraded all the theatrical elements that had languished during the Ross era. Oddly, it was the solo singing that then became unpredictable.

Frustrated by the pressures of post-Sept. 11 fund-raising, Speers left the company last year. His successor, Joel Revzen, has yet to make his mark here.

Occasional financial difficulties aside, classical music in Tucson has gotten steadily better during the past 20 years. When the Tucson Weekly's first issue hit the street, William McGlaughlin, host of the public radio show St. Paul Sunday Morning, had revitalized a Tucson Symphony that had been demoralized by its previous artistic head, George Trautwein. McGlaughlin was eagerly exploring new corners of the repertory, too.

In 1987, McGlaughlin passed the baton to the more artistically cautious Robert Bernhardt, who had a tremendous knack for public relations and making a personal connection with the audience, even if some members of the orchestra dismissed him as a "boob" who was still learning the standard repertory. Whatever his shortcomings may have been, Bernhardt did at least lead the orchestra in the best Mahler and Tchaikovsky performances it had given until that time.

Upon assuming the music directorship in 1996, George Hanson brought a new discipline to the orchestra, but his manner didn't sit well with some longtime members. Many of the principal players quietly retired during the early Hanson years; the conductor has tended to fill vacancies with excellent young musicians whose tenures will inevitably be limited by their ambitions to move to more prominent orchestras.

The quantity as well as the quality of TSO concerts has risen over the past two decades as well. During McGlaughlin's term, the group spun off a chamber orchestra of roughly 30 players for a series of its own. From an inauspicious debut before an audience of no more than 12, the chamber-orchestra series has expanded to four pairs of nearly sold-out Tucson concerts per season, with each program also taken to Oro Valley.

Other classical-music organizations that were founded shortly before or after the Tucson Weekly's birth and have done well, despite periods of adversity, are the semi-professional Catalina Chamber Orchestra and the Arizona Early Music Society. And the venerable Arizona Friends of Chamber Music (of which I'm a board member and therefore can't write about objectively) launched two new initiatives in the 1990s: the "Piano and Friends" series, presenting fairly young musicians (like pianist Lang Lang) in a series that's very slowly building an audience, and the immediately successful Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival, which is in its 11th incarnation this week.

Tucson's classical-music sphere has suffered few significant institutional losses, aside from the disintegration of a valued concert series at Christ Church United Methodist and the instant failure of the UA's overreaching Festival in the Sun in 1991. (Silver lining: Ken Foster later took over the sponsoring organization, UApresents, and developed the entire regular season into a vast multicultural festival.)

Tucson's theater scene, in contrast, is a veritable graveyard of little companies that couldn't.

The early-to-mid '90s were a thrilling time to be a theater fan in Tucson. Small groups were springing up and putting on provocative shows in intimate venues. But few survived. Emblematic was the risk-taking, lower-case a.k.a. Theatre. For eight years, Meg Nolan guided the company through intense, hard-edged productions of gritty little plays--early Sam Shepard was a specialty--but when Nolan burned out in 1995, a.k.a. went down in flames with her. The Congress Street theater is now a tattoo parlor.

Not every little company suffered a.k.a.'s colorful flame-out (at one point, a staff member's boyfriend reportedly showed up at the box office waving a gun around--not good for business). But most of them died away when their founders moved or withdrew, and all of them struggled constantly for money.

They haven't really been replaced. Live Theatre Workshop arose on the eastside, but it focuses on mainstream plays. Other small groups sneak into a theater once a year, put on an interesting production and then essentially disappear for another 12 months. Without continuity, there's no real scene.

There is hope, though. Live Theatre Workshop is trying out a late-night series of edgier material, and downtown's new Wilde Playhouse shows promise, if it can just build an audience and a financial base. And if other worthy ensembles, like Beowulf Alley, Quintessential Productions, Green Thursday and Nathalia, can ever launch full seasons, local theater will become a lot more provocative again.

Meanwhile, what we've got is certainly worthy. Borderlands Theater has a strong ongoing commitment to plays centered on Hispanic and Chicano cultures, and lots of other things, too; Invisible Theatre lost its original guerilla-theater mentality more than 20 years ago, but it offers good productions of a wide variety of material. The University of Arizona routinely puts on surprisingly fine productions, and usually does exceptionally well with a jaw-droppingly big, complex production every year.

And then there's Arizona Theatre Company. The bad thing about ATC is that it's the only fully professional, Equity house in town. Phoenix has several, and so should we. The only other negative thing you can say about the company is that it's a bit too willing to produce a flimsy musical revue to pull in a big, not necessarily sophisticated, crowd. And you can argue the merits of some of ATC's script choices, and you can complain that the directing of comedies is often a bit off.

But during the past 20 years, only one show (The Seagull) has been done in by awful acting across the board, and only one production (the dreadful La Malinche) has had the dubious distinction of trotting out bad acting, writing, directing and set design, packing two decades' worth of failure into a single evening. The other productions, by and large, have fallen on a continuum between agreeable and astonishing, tending to cluster toward the high end. As long as ATC's status as Tucson's sole Equity theater doesn't lull the company into complacency, there's no reason for us to expect, or tolerate, anything less in the future.

And that's the key to nurturing the arts in this community. Don't make allowances for half-hearted performances and clumsy management because this is "only Tucson." Sure, we have our share of flakes and goofs on both sides of the footlights. But this town also abounds with talented performers and sophisticated audience members. All of us must demand the best from one another, because this is Tucson.

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