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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Night at the Opera: Getty, but Not Gold

Certainly it was well intentioned, and undeniably it was for a good cause. But the Moscow premiere by the Russian National Orchestra of scenes from an opera by the American oil heir and composer Gordon Getty could only be described as, well, awkward.

Getty, 60, son of the late oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, had given more than $150,000 to support the orchestra, which is led by master pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnyov. In return, the orchestra invited him to present his opera, "Plump Jack," at a gala performance Saturday night.

Getty, a baritone, sang the title role, a character based on a tragic version of Shakespeare's Falstaff.

A host of Western firms lined up to support the orchestra during three days of black-tie fundraising leading up to the concert. The oil giant Exxon sponsored the gala itself, giving more than $25,000 to the orchestra.

But grand ambitions often fall short in reality, and in this case Getty's composition was not of the same caliber as the disciplined Russian National Orchestra, nor was his dignified but amateur baritone equal to the professional singers who joined him. In the stately, 1,500-seat Great Hall of the Conservatory, he was simply overwhelmed.

As the first of three scenes from "Plump Jack" came to an end, at least 50 members of the audience walked out. Two scenes later, the concert complete, scarcely more than half of the packed hall remained to applaud the performers.

At a wake-like reception afterward, one of the soloists quietly asked, "Tell me, do you think the Russian audience saw this as a rich guy coming in and buying an orchestra to perform his opera?"

He later answered his own question: "I probably would have walked out, too."

"Plump Jack" premiered in San Francisco in 1985, and has only been performed with full orchestra two or three times since. Phrased in dramatic bursts between solos, the opera sounds a bit like the soundtrack to an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. And indeed, Getty confided afterward that he was influenced by "movie music" when he composed the score.

The performance Saturday may have suffered by comparison to the first half of the program, which featured works by Verdi, including scenes from his "Falstaff." The rollicking Verdi opera, based on a comic version of Falstaff drawn from Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor," was warmly appreciated by the audience.

In contrast, Getty's Falstaff meets an unhappy fate. In a contest of wills with Prince Hal, based on Shakespeare's Henry IV histories, Plump Jack is the loser. He is banished in disgrace for his gluttony and coarse attempts to seduce married women.

This might work were the right man to play the part. But unfortunately for verisimilitude, Getty is a tall, angular man who, as Plump Jack, failed to convince.

In program notes, Getty says that the opera is drawn from Shakespearean texts focusing on "the theme of impulse against responsibility." The theme of a playboy who falls victim to his impulses perhaps appealed to Getty, whose father's excesses are well known.

The older Getty built his fortune drilling for Saudi Arabian oil, married five times, and is said to have kept a yacht in California so that he could escape quickly if the Communists took over the United States.

Gordon Getty, by contrast, spent most of his life consumed with music.

The chilly Moscow reception to "Plump Jack" could perhaps have been averted by a professional singer singing the lead and a written, Russian-language explanation of the plot for the audience.

In the end, those who walked out seemed quite offended by this Western charity event -- the opposite of what sponsors like Exxon had intended.