Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Opera for Dummies (on Thursday)

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Also posted on the Our Word blog

Mitchell Hadley has been pestering me for over a year to contribute to the Our Word blog but I couldn’t think of anything that would come up to the high standards of the accomplished bloggers here. I have a blog, Stella Borealis, but it’s a Catholic news blog and while it has some worth, it doesn’t require that I bare my soul on a daily or weekly basis or expose my unorthodox lifestyle and idiosyncrasies to the world at large. Most of my soul baring and pontificating happens on other people’s blogs, internet news forums, and letters to the editor pages.

Mostly, I’m a dabbler. I’ve done lots of things, few of them really well. I have a long list of things that I should do at least once (getting my ticket punched before I depart this vale of tears), and now and then I do something about shortening the list. Going to an opera is one of those things

I used to listen to the Texaco radio broadcasts of the Met, not really understanding, but appreciating the marvelous sounds that came through the plastic speakers of my cheap radio. My best friend in high school was somewhat knowledgeable about opera because his dad, a firemen for the city and a regular guy, was a real opera fan and owned many vinyl disks. I thought to self, “Self, you too should go to an opera some day. They’re not just for rich people anymore.”

Back when I was at the U of MN I would note with approval when a dozen or so semis pulled up behind Northrup Auditorium, chock full of scenery, costumes and instruments for the annual springtime appearance of the Met, bringing a half dozen works of their just closed season to the upper midwest. People from hundreds of miles around would plan their annual vacations for those always sold out performances. The closest I ever got to attending one was peeking through a crack in one of the double doors, though. Actually, the closest I actually did get to any high culture was attending a movie showing of a performance by Nureyev and Fonteyn of the ballet, Les Corsaire, in a small town in Massachusetts when I was stationed there when I was in the Army.

Over time I have attended lots of theater performances and even some modern dance. I actually surprised myself by joining a Gregorian Chant schola a few years ago (They haven’t thrown me out). But I had never been to an opera. Then I read that the Met was recording their performances digitally and showing them live around the country on movie screens And during the Summer, they have encore performances of their more popular events.

I didn’t bite until a few weeks ago. Somehow I saw a reference to the encore presentations and decided to check the schedule. La Boheme was being shown in St. Louis Park on a night where I had no excuses. I’d heard of it, of course but knew virtually nothing about it. I read a few synopses on the internet and I liked the fact that it didn’t have very many characters. If it was going to be in Italian, I would need to be able to recognize who was who. I checked with Mitchell to see if I would need to have my tuxedo taken out a goodly number of inches. He assured me that opera and going to Mass were pretty much the same, couture-wise, these days: Come as you are.

[How many of you remember impromptu “Come as you are –right now!- parties” from the 50s? They were all the rage for a while. That was a time when all the men wore fedoras and people dressed up to go to the barber shop or the corner grocery store. It was revealing and amusing if people would dare show up at a house party wearing clothing they wore (or didn’t wear) behind locked doors. For better or worse, the beatniks and the hippies changed all that for us.]

On the appointed evening I drove out to the enormous megaplex, near Hwys 394 and 100. I suppose there were 75 or so of us there on that gorgeous Summer evening. Fortunately, the fellow sitting next to me (munching popcorn) was a real fan, of probably the same vintage as me, had been to the Met many times. He gave me a few tips and answered a few novice questions.

Well, Tuffy, it sure didn’t sound like Gregorian Chant, generally slow, low and controlled.

But with helpful subtitles and camera close-ups, it didn’t take me long before I was fully enraptured by the performances.

The 2008 Met performance (Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Production: Franco Zeffirelli; Angela Gheorghiu, Ainhoa Arteta, Ramón Vargas, Ludovic Tézier, Quinn Kelsey, Oren Gradus, Paul Plishka) was easy to follow, very enjoyable, surprisingly (to me) amusing at times, and at other times the performances were tearfully thrilling. I had forgotten that both Shakespeare and Mozart were not above using a little slapstick humor in their theatrical works to keep the attention of the peanut gallery in the cheap seats in the back. If this is opera, I‘ll need to see some more.

One of the great things about these digital performances is that there are no “cheap seats.” With the close-up camera, everything seem to be performed as if I was the only person watching. I would love to have seen Beverly Sills in a digital performance like this. She had an incredible ability to perform and personally communicate (and enjoy herself), all at the same time.

I’m kind of a geeky guy, logistically speaking. (One of my favorite books is “The Logistical History of the U.S. Army in World War II). I particularly enjoyed it when the camera would show a bit of the set changes between the acts and even of the camera that was on a rail below the performers that could follow their movements. In just a few seconds it showed how enormously complex it is to put on an opera of this size at the Met. The control room for the stage manager must be like that of a NASA shuttle launching or the NBC Nightly News. Occasional views of the audience confirmed that Mitchell is right, even there were a few casually dressed fans.

The second act, a street and tavern scene, must have had 400 performers on the stage, all exquisitely costumed, in motion, yet not being able to move very far, somewhat like you would see at times on the Midway at the Minnesota State Fair. Except carny barkers don’t sing like that. Although I must admit I am greatly amused and entertained by the carny talkers’ calls and cracks to get the rubes to part with some of their hard earned cash. It reminded me also of some of the beautiful street scenes from the movie, Oliver!.

The sound also was unbelievably pure. How those performers can fill the cavernous Metropolitan Opera House, unamplified, I don’t understand. Of course, they would have had very expensive boom microphones for the digital performance recording.

I once attended a performance of Peter, Paul and Mary in the Albert Hall in London (Army leave time), about 1967 or so. It’s probably comparable in size to the Met Opera House. The sound was great. We had good seats, probably in the front third of the huge theater. Then the sound failed for maybe ten seconds. We could just barely hear them while they continued to sing; and then the sound came back on, uninterrupted for the rest of the performance.

On a personal level, I totally approve of the casting of this performance. I didn’t see too many men with 28” waists. Very good for my morale! Another reason to like opera!

Here are the rest of the performances for few last weeks of the Summer Encore Season. (Turondot and Carmen, and if you want to go to Canada for that performance, Madama Butterfly). Go and enjoy yourself if you haven’t seen an opera before.

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