Opera is anything but boring. Over the past couple decades Broadway producers have been mounting a string of theatrical extravaganza’s each trying to outdo the previous on just pure stage values — Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Les Miz, Lion King and now Spiderman. Rock producers have been doing the same in their efforts to lure audiences through offering more engaging cultural experiences. Opera has been presenting over the top productions for a couple centuries now and not only do they know how to do it right, the subject matter is way more diverse than common images of large spear-toting women wearing horned helmets or Italian princes weeping over lost loves.
Take La Fanciulla del West, aka The Girl of the West, by Puccini, which was broadcast live this past Saturday in High Definition digital by the Metropolitan Opera and screened at the LPCA and other theatres across the country and world. This is a wild west shoot ‘em up that takes place in a mining town in the High Sierra’s filled with bar fights, card cheating sherrifs, vigilante justice and a woman saloon owner who preaches from the bible on one hand, sells whiskey and settles disputes with a rifle with the other, and still finds time to fall in love with a desperado whose wicked ways she hopes to change. You might say it was the original spaghetti western in that it was written and scored by an Italian, sung in Italian, and two of the leads were Italians.
Puccini, perhaps the most beloved opera composer of all time, is best known for such mega hits as Madame Butterfly, Tosca and La bohème. However, 100 years ago he was in Manhattan for the first world premier ever held at the Met — an opera set in the west featuring one of the best score’s he ever penned. Had you been at the Art Center you too could have taken it in with the growing band of affectionados along with some recent converts to this remarkable art form.
Viewing opera in HD provides one the ability to see the performers singing and acting close up, catch all the nuances of their craft, and watch them being interviewed immediately as they come off stage while the stage hands swap sets that included an interior of a bar every bit as big and brassy as any found in a John Ford movie, a cabin and corral up in a snowy mountain pass, and a street scene where the barmaid-loving villain was about to be strung up. Not to mention sets complete with live horses, camp fires and miners being tossed over the balcony.
The current series of broadcasts is so diverse that it includes beloved classics such as Verdi’s Don Carlo on Jan. 22, contemporary themes such as Nixon in China – meeting of Nixon and Mao, by composer John Adams and collaborator Peter Sellers on Feb. 12, Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, a comedy which contains some of the most beautiful love music he ever wrote; Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, about a innocent young woman driven to madness, and the rarely performed second installment of the Ring Cycle, Wagner’s Die Walküre, best remembered by movie fans as the music blasted from loudspeakers attached to helicopters flown by Robert Duvall in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
“I never had much of a chance to see opera,” said Shirley Twichell as we waited for the performance to start. “I like the music very much. I listen to it on public radio when I can. These shows at the art center in High Definition make opera so much more accessible. I’ve been impressed. Today I will have a chance to see an opera that is very new to me. Louise told me that the first presentations here where not too well attended, but that as word has gotten out the audiences are getting much better. This is a great theatre. There isn’t a bad seat in the house.”
“I have been listening to opera on the radio since I was a kid, and seeing it here is far superior,” said Louise Gregg. “Anitra Pell told me about the screenings in Burlington and we went there. Then you told be about Middlebury, and now they are at the Art Center, which is terrific.”
“I sing as you know,” said Sam Fisk. “The voice, when it is really sung out and sung well, it is like it is streaming through you. It is very sensual. Opera is so much an exercise in extremes coming together. The music. The singing. The acting. The sets. My parents loved Mozart. They took me to the Old Met. There is something about opera. When it is done well there is nothing like it. These broadcasts are fabulous. You see so much more. In some ways they are better than the real thing.”
“I have always loved opera,” said Caroline Welsh. “My parents took me to the Old Met. I can still remember my first, Der Rosenkavalier. I think it is the combination of the music and the theatre.”
“I grew up in New Jersey,” said Joyce McLean. “When I was 12 years old a music teacher took all the students who wanted to go. We went to the Old Met and we saw La boheme. We went to a Wednesday matinee and sat in the orchestra seats. It was a fabulous experience. I can remember every opera we saw. It hooked me on classical music. This fall I took my 15 year-old granddaughter to see the Ring here at the Art Center. I said, you are old enough, let’s go. We had a great time.”
“So what did you think?” I said to Shirley Twichell at the end.
“That was good,” said Shirley. “It was fabulous. It did take me a while to get used to a western in opera, but once I got through that it was just great.”
“I want to see it all over again,” said Ursula Trudeau. “That was just great fun.”