Not all musical institutions are entering the twenty-first century biting their nails and fighting off a sense of impending doom. Looking forward to its centenary in 2005, the Juilliard School has just announced a $100 million campaign that will bring the total endowment up from $101 million in 1984 – the year that the school’s current president, Joseph Polisi, took office – to $525 million. The major portion of the money will go to student scholarships, but faculty salaries, educational development in nonperformance fields, and building renovations will also benefit. Best of all, $10 million is slated for a “creative process initiative” that will develop up to ten works annually in all disciplines, ranging from string quartets to operas and dance works. The first project, scheduled for performance in 2000, will be an opera, Heloise and Abelard, by Stephen Paulus to a libretto by Frank Corsaro.
Corsaro, of course, has been the artistic director of the Juilliard Opera Center since 1987, and he generally stages two productions there each year. The quality of opera performance at Juilliard has improved beyond recognition during his tenure, and this season’s offerings have been choice. I especially enjoyed last winter’s The Italian Straw Hat, by Nino Rota, the favored composer of film directors Fellini and Visconti. Perhaps Italian opera buffa’s last gasp, this inspired piece of lunacy depicts the adventures of a bridegroom on his wedding day as he frantically searches for a replacement Florentine hat similar to one accidentally eaten by his horse. Directed with wit and a light touch, the production flew like the wind, but never so quickly that the zany personalities got lost in the rush. The orchestra played with polished elegance for Randall Behr, a cast of talented students relished every opportunity, and Franco Colavecchia designed an enchanting Art Deco set – what a shame that such a delightful presentation disappeared after just three performances.
Kurt Weill’s Der Kuhhandel, planned for this spring, has been postponed until next year, the composer’s centenary. In its place, Corsaro dreamed up an elegant potpourri entitled Liaisons … , an evening of romantic, heroic, and humorous encounters taken from operas and musicals by Barber, Hoiby, Kern, Lehár, Menotti, Moore, Mozart, Porter, Rodgers, Sondheim, and Tchaikovsky. A seamless sequence of 27 selections in contrasting but complementary musical styles, the entertainment was put together so that each number cleverly suggested its successor, exactly as in a carefully balanced vocal recital. Seventeen Juilliard voice majors gratefully seized the moment to excel in a repertory, mostly by Americans, that brought out their best, both as singers and actors.