Sunday, November 11, 2012

Curious about Opera?

Currently on my coffee table
I jumped at the chance to teach a three-week non-credit Opera Appreciation course. Concerned that my opera savvy might not be savvy enough, I immersed myself in the art. Opera has this reputation for being stuffy, serious, and elitist, but it really isn't that way. I find it to be escapist, accessible, and wildly entertaining. I have to figure out how to convince my students of this. Ms. de Niese here might be able to help:

That aria, or solo, is just a piece of a whole opera. How can I make an entire opera, usually more than three hours long, more interesting to my future students? Well, the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series has brought its productions into the ears, eyes and minds of thousands of people who wouldn't normally make the trip to New York to see the opera in person. Besides the fantastic productions, Live in HD patrons get to enjoy interviews, backstage tours, and inside information during intermissions, and close-ups of the performers onstage (no opera glasses necessary). I would dare to say that it is a more comprehensive opera experience than one experiences in the opera house. The following video, from CBS's Sunday Morning, describes the Met HD broadcasts and features an interview with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb, talking about making opera more accessible. But for some reason it sometimes vanishes from this blog. And then comes back I dunno. If it's there, definitely watch it because you will also get to see the elaborate backstage.

You may have guessed that I am enjoying these Met HD broadcasts. There are twelve in a season, and I am challenging myself to experience each. What I have found each week is a packed, excited house, and lots of conversation about the day's opera experience. After three HD experiences I'm starting to recognize folks that attend every time. During yesterday's intermission from Thomas Ades's The Tempest, I had an interesting conversation with the older gentleman next to me about whether this modern opera was in a major or minor key or some other tonal organization. (The poor guy got more than her bargained for--he had no way of knowing that many moons ago I earned a Master's degree in Music Theory. I spent lots of times with those "other tonal organizations.") The conversation in the row in front of us was about those kids sitting down in front. It turns out some of them were the children of the singer playing the part of the King in The Tempest. They were well-behaved throughout, but cheered with wild abandon during the King's curtain call. It seems Mom decided to bring them to the movie theater hi-definition production rather than schlepping them all the way to Manhattan. They probably enjoyed this more, and even got to see Dad the King walk by the intermission interview (did he do that on-purpose just for them?). Take a look at the trailer for The Tempest HERE.

Earlier this season I have enjoyed Donizetti's sparkling, happy L'Elisir d'Amore,

and Verdi's somber Otello.

December brings three Saturday afternoons in a row of opera escapism, and I'm especially looking forward to Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera since that is one I've chosen to study in-depth in my upcoming course. There are six more in the first half of 2013 including Wagner's Parsifal and Berlioz's Les Troyens, each over five and a half hours! (Luckily, the movie theater management doesn't seem to notice the snacks and almost picnic lunches the opera folks bring.)

That said, though, a trip to an opera house offers a different delectable opera experience one can only get by having their eyes and ears in the same venue as the performers. I try to attend at least one Opera Company of Philadelphia performance each season. This year it was their very clever La Boheme, the story of a girl named Mimi who has tuberculosis and very cold, small hands, and her on-again, off-again writer boyfriend Rodolfo, and his boho friends in the Latin Quarter of Paris. If there were an election for these kinds of things, La Boheme might get the prize for Most Beautiful Opera, but some might also vote it Most Sappy. I would vote for the first prize because I think Puccini got it all right here. The Philadelphia company added to the right-ness by adding a clever visual: paintings inspired by the art in the Barnes Foundation and Philadelphia Museum of Art projected onto the stage. Sometimes the art was contained to a collection of squares and rectangles on the stage, and sometimes it contributed to the scene. Some of the paintings were animated. I was concerned that this might be hokey before I saw it but the effect turned out to be spectacular. A video representation of this, even in HD, would have been lacking, I suspect. By the way, my ticket for this performance cost all of $10 making it accessible to all but those with vertigo or acrophobia.

I set out to convince you that opera is not stuffy and elitist, so maybe some tips are in order here:
  1. At the very least, read a summary of the plot before attending. Check your library or bookstore for a compilation of plots for almost anything that might be produced. I think I picked up my ancient 1940s Milton Cross compilation came from a used book sale and serves me well.
  2. Notice what year the opera was written, and this will give you a clue about what to expect. Before the 1800s, opera was more rigid and formal than the iconic romantic stuff  that Verdi created. From the second half of the twentieth century on, you may find yourself in one of those "other tonal organizations" I mentioned above. Those take a little (a lot) more listening energy, but as with yesterday's The Tempest can be quite satisfying. (And if someone asks you your opinion on tonality, just say, "Dunno. I'd have to take a look at the score." If it's a newer opera, chances are they won't have one to show you.)
  3. Try to find out how long the opera is, and how many intermissions there are. I mentioned there are a pair of 5+ hour opera experiences in my future, so I will pack sustenance (only because we'll be in a movie theater) and a shawl. My feet will be in shoes that can wiggle off easily. I will have visited the ladies' room before the curtain rises.
  4. If you opt to visit the Met in HD in your movie theater, plan for it to be packed and get there about an hour early. Bring a book or magazine for the extra time before and just chillax. Here is the schedule. Information about which theaters offer this delight are on the website, too.
  5. Message me if you are interested in my opera course, and I will let you know when I have exact dates...or tell your library or adult school to bring me to you!

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