Fred Plotkin

Fred Plotkin is well known in the world of opera and classical music. He was Performance Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has directed opera at La Scala, coached singers, and delivered lectures for the Smithsonian, Juilliard, Columbia University, and major opera companies. Fred is the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera (the standard text on the subject) and Classical Music 101. He has also written numerous books on Italian cuisine and finds that good food and superb opera are the perfect ingredients for an inspiring musical journey. By the way, if you want to hear Fred before your tour, listen to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, where he is a popular guest speaker. His Italy for the Gourmet Traveler receives its 5th edition in May 2010.

Study Leader Fred Plotkin is an expert on music, food and wine, and everything related to Italy. Opera is his great love—he has worked for Milan's La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera—and he's passionate about sharing opera with others. Fred is the acclaimed author of Opera 101, Classical Music 101, and six books on Italy. Now he's at work on a biography of Michelangelo. You've heard him on National Public Radio, and you may have read his articles in the New York Times and Gourmet magazine.
Q: What is it that continues to captivate you about opera?
A: Opera is the greatest of all art forms in that it encompasses so many others: vocal and orchestral music, drama, dance, visual arts, lighting, costume design and even, on occasion, film. It is the way that these elements combine that make each opera—and each new production of that opera—unique. An opera lover always has something exciting to look forward to. The ability to sit for three hours and be bathed in gorgeous music that helps us examine what it means to be human is an incomparable gift.
Q: How did your passion for Italy develop?
A: Very early on I was captivated by the idea of the Renaissance man and all that entails. While most people I knew sought narrow specializations, I came to cherish the interconnectivity of different arts and sciences and the way politics, religion, and philosophy had impact on them. Opera, which was born in the late Renaissance, was an effort to bring all of these elements together in one art form. We see the Italian ideal carried everywhere in the world: rational architecture, humanism, respect for nature's gifts, and a keen desire to understand the mysteries of the world and the soul.
Q: What makes the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle Production unique?
A: Many opera companies with more limited budgets present spare productions of the “Ring” cycle that are sometimes innovative and tend to reflect the philosophical point of view of the stage director. What is singular about the Met’s cycle is that it is probably closer to what Wagner might have envisioned than any other production now in the world’s opera houses. With the Met’s superb orchestra led by the brilliant James Levine, and scheduled artists including James Morris (in his signature role of Wotan), Gabriele Schnaut (Brünnhilde), Plácido Domingo (Siegmund), and Matti Salminen (Hagen), there will be a lot of extraordinary music-making.
Q: What are the advantages of viewing the four operas in succession?
A: Seeing and hearing the "Ring" over a period of days, as Wagner intended, is the summit of the opera-going experience. The individual operas --Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung--are wonderful on their own, but they are really four installments in a very intricate saga in which characters, ideas, and themes return at important intervals to deepen the overall narrative. In the time we spend together, from the E-flat chord that opens in the depths of the Rhine to the ecstatic immolation scene six days later when the river overflows its banks and extinguishes the fires of Valhalla, we will be immersed in the ideas and implications that Wagner presented in this masterpiece.
Q: What do you enjoy most about traveling with Smithsonian?
A: I love the sense of enthusiasm and informal discussions prompted by the operas and my lectures. Also, the opportunity to meet some of the key individuals involved in the presentation of the operas gives a broader sense of what goes on to make every production a success.
Q: You are also known for your love of food and wine. How will Smithsonian Journeys travelers also benefit from this expertise?
A: As you might know, when I am not doing opera work I write about food and wine. For the "Ring" journey I took part in the selection of the restaurants, menus, and wines we will enjoy at the opening and closing meals of your stay. The itinerary is organized to give you time to rest and reflect while you are immersed in the "Ring" cycle, and also affords you the chance to sample many of New York’s rich cultural treasures and restaurants in your leisure time.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our travelers?
A: Birgit Nilsson was once asked what the secret is to being a great Wagnerian singer. Her answer: “Comfortable shoes.” With that in mind, I encourage you to read and listen to Wagner in preparation for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and come to New York with an open mind, opera glasses, and comfortable shoes.