A Cutting-Edge Impresario Leaves BAM: What Was His Best Work?


Five critics for The New York Times share some of their favorite moments of the Melillo era:

A Circle of War, Cataclysm and Art


Peter Brook’s “Battlefield” in 2016 was an epilogue of sorts to his fabled “Mahabharata” (1987). From left, Sean O’Callaghan, Ery Nzaramba and Carole Karemera. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Last September, five performers of uncommonly concentrated stillness appeared at the Harvey Theater, and a circle seemed to have been rounded into something like eternity. They were appearing in the great international director Peter Brook’s “Battlefield,” an epilogue of sorts to his fabled “Mahabharata” from 1987. For that truly epic work, Mr. Lichtenstein had restored a decrepit movie palace to Mr. Brook’s very exact specifications. Then called the Majestic, it was later renamed the Harvey.

Of extravagant length and spectacle, “The Mahabharata” (adapted from the Sanskrit narrative) became one of the defining events of Mr. Lichtenstein’s tenure. “Battlefield,” in contrast, was a short, stark work, as concise as a proverb. It was also a near-perfect distillation of the aesthetic practiced and refined by the Mr. Brook, now 92, during six decades, and a resonant portrait of the echoing silence that succeeds war and cataclysm. Mr. Melillo’s presentation of “Battlefield,” on the very spot where “The Mahabharata” had unfurled 30 years earlier, became a deeply powerful testament to Mr. Lichtenstein’s legacy and Mr. Brook’s deathless genius.


Pop Music Memories


Paul Simon, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, at the academy in 2008. Credit Stephanie Berger for The New York Times

To raise money to fight AIDS, the Red Hot Organization has produced high-concept albums and concerts since 1990, often devoted to a place, a musician or a style, with new, border-crossing, collaborative versions of cherished songs. Its concerts at the Brooklyn Academy — among them “Red Hot + Cuba” in 2012, New Orleans in 2010, Rio 2 in 2008 and Arthur Russell in 2015 — have been genuine all-star events, assembling (and smoothly wrangling) gatherings of major figures for new audiences.

Paul Simon was no unknown when he played three retrospective programs at the academy in April 2008. But the concerts focused on specific pockets of Mr. Simon’s catalog: “Songs From ‘The Capeman,’” — salvaging the strong songs from Mr. Simon’s Broadway misfire; “Under African Skies,” which paired Mr. Simon and his band with African and Brazilian musicians; and “American Tunes,” storytelling songs in which Mr. Simon was joined by Grizzly Bear and the Roches.


The Brooding Black Box


The intimate, flexible BAM Fisher, which Mr. Melillo worked to create, was the site of Ted Hearne’s WikiLeaks oratorio, “The Source,” in 2014. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The academy has long had two of the most distinctive performance spaces in the city, but what it lacked for years was something tiny, a theater designed for the 21st century’s explosion of intimate dance, theater and music. When the BAM Fisher opened in 2012, the first addition to the academy’s campus since 1987, it included a flexible black-box auditorium that seated around 250. In 2014 it hosted the premiere of a work that has stayed with me ever since: Ted Hearne’s WikiLeaks oratorio, “The Source,” a brooding, bursting reflection on Chelsea Manning and her epochal revelations that fully inhabited the space, making it seem looming and claustrophobic.


Brooklyn 90-90-90


The climax of the academy’s long association with the choreographer Merce Cunningham was the premiere of his “Nearly Ninety” in 2009, three months before his death. He is shown at the curtain call. Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

In 2009, the Brooklyn Academy brought its long association with the choreographer Merce Cunningham to a climax on his 90th birthday, giving the 90-minute world premiere of his “Nearly Ninety.” An abundant outpouring of pure dance, featuring strings of exceptionally vivid solos and trios, it showed Cunningham in rich vein; he died three months later.


An Operatic Hat Trick


Mr. Melillo brought a staged Monteverdi cycle to Brooklyn, including “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” performed by Les Arts Florissants and featuring Marijana Mijanovic, right. Credit Stephanie Berger for The New York Times

In 2002, Mr. Melillo, in an act of decidedly BAM-ian chutzpah, cobbled together a rare cycle of Claudio Monteverdi’s three surviving operas, borrowing from around the globe: “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” from the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France, “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” from Dutch National Opera, and “Orfeo” courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater. Together the productions were a high point in the academy’s decades-long commitment to Baroque opera. At the same time, these three works by the same composer were thrillingly different: grandly stark (“Ritorno d’Ulisse”), slouchily modern-dress (“Orfeo”) and loopily galactic (“Poppea”).


A Commitment to an Ailing Choreographer


A farewell to Trisha Brown’s “Proscenium Works” in 2016 included a performance of “Present Tense.” Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The choreographer Trisha Brown died this year of vascular dementia; it had been announced in 2012 that she had choreographed her final pieces in 2011. During those twilight years, the academy regularly honored her work. I single out the January 2016 season in which the Trisha Brown Dance Company danced a program of her “Proscenium Works” for — as it announced in advance — the last time. The program included “Set and Reset” (1983), with its designs by Robert Rauschenberg and score by Laurie Anderson, the most sensuous and beloved work of her 50-year career.


Realpolitik Onstage at the Perfect Time


Ramsey Nasr in the director Ivo van Hove’s “Kings of War,” which telescoped five Shakespeare history plays into one concentrated package. Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Among contemporary experimental theater artists, few directors scale the heights or brave the depths as extravagantly as Ivo van Hove does. He is probably best known for his intense Broadway productions of the Arthur Miller classics “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible.” But for experiencing Mr. van Hove at his most grandly audacious, it’s hard to top his “Kings of War,” staged at the academy in November. This pulsing four-hour work (performed in Dutch with supertitles) telescoped five of Shakespeare’s history plays — from “Henry IV” to “Richard III” — into one concentrated package of all-too-realpolitik and reset them in what felt like a contemporary surveillance state.

That this group portrait of image-manipulating politicians and their pawns was presented only days before the latest American presidential election gave Mr. van Hove’s production a searing timeliness. This was an example of Mr. Melillo’s scheduling the right play in the right place at exactly the right time, and audiences left “Kings of War” highly stimulated and equally scared.


The High (and Low) Point


Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” (2016), with Linda Bassett, was an important new play by a lion of contemporary drama. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

In February, Mr. Melillo imported Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” from the Royal Court Theater in London. It was a no-brainer booking for the Harvey: an important, scary-hilarious new play by a lion of contemporary drama. But if the M.O. was reminiscent of Mr. Lichtenstein’s — valorizing the avant-garde by presenting it in a movie palace — it also couldn’t help demonstrating, by counterexample, what had happened to the avant-garde at the academy in the meantime. Admittedly, I’m rotten-cherry-picking, but in September, the ludicrous “Phaedra(s)” from Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe, starring a very brave Isabelle Huppert, stunk up the place, following on such recent cliché-ridden lowlights as the Robert Wilson-Rufus Wainwright “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” and the Ivo van Hove “Antigone.” Ms. Churchill’s chilling play stood out as a beacon but also as a warning about the way next waves become last waves.


Correction: May 4, 2017

An earlier version of this article included a paragraph and a photograph that were published in error. The 2010 Yoko Ono concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, “We Are Plastic Ono Band,” was a rental performance. It was not programmed by Joseph V. Melillo or BAM.

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Source: New York Times



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