The Opera Evangelist’s Mission

TraviataWhen I started this blog two years ago, I was nervous even about the idea of writing about opera. I’ve never had any formal musical training, and I wondered if I could speak with any legitimacy about this complex art form. My progress in developing the blog has been halting at best, but as we head into 2018, I have renewed energy for the project and—at long last—a clear sense of the blog’s mission and purpose: to help those people who might really come to love opera if they gave it a chance to get past some of the barriers that make opera seem off-putting or intimidating to them.

How I Got Here

Most of what I’ve done to date has been just me sort of journaling online. “Oh, I saw this opera, and here’s what I really liked (or didn’t like) about it.” That’s fine as a way of sharing my experience, but it’s not what blog set out to accomplish. Looking back over first dozen or so posts, I realize that my very first post actually hit the mark, so in some ways, after wandering in the weeds for a while, I find myself with renewed energy and focus right back to where I started.

My first ever post was a preview of a live opera in Cleveland. In the post, I introduced some real readers, my wife and two friends, to the opera that we were about to see together by giving a little summary of what to expect, providing some historical context, and offering a list of “a few of the things I’m going to be looking out for on Saturday.” I think that was a pretty helpful post, and it’s the kind of post I’d like to write more often.

What You Can Count on in 2018

If you choose to come with me on this journey into 2018, look for a lot fewer “I went to see X and here’s why I loved it” and a lot more “I’ve researched X, which is coming to a stage (or screen) near you, and here’s why I think you will love it.” In the first months of 2018, you can expect:

  • Previews and invitations to help you get ready to enjoy every Met in HD screening, because those available all over the US. And when I say invitation, I mean that literally—I attend the Wednesday evening encore of almost every Met in HD screening, and I’d love to have you join me. In fact, for first timers it’s my treat.
  • Introductions and invitations to upcoming performances in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.
  • Occasion reporting from further afield, including the Prototype Festival in NYC in January and Festival O in Philadelphia in September.
  • Thoughts from this passionate amateur about what what to expect, what to look for, and what to listen for to get the most out of your time at the opera.
  • Interviews, profiles and guest posts with composers, librettists, performers, conductors, and students to learn from them about their entrée into and journeys in the world of opera.

The Opera Evangelist’s previews, interviews, and reflections are all designed to make opera more accessible and more inviting, not just in the abstract, but right in your back yard. This blog is a non-snooty, welcoming place to learn more about and experience opera for potential opera lovers of any age. Follow The Opera Evangelist this year, and discover the opera lover inside of you.

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The Pleasure of Introducing a Loved One to Opera

At Chicago Lyric Opera with Sarah

One of the things I do as The Opera Evangelist is to drag friends and loved ones who have never seen an opera to experience one for the first time. Sometimes it’s a Met in HD presentation at the local cinema, as when I took my parents to Dvorak’s Rusalka or one of my tutoring colleagues to Romeo and Juliet. As wonderful as that experience is, it’s even more magical when we can get to the opera house in person, as when I took my son to Carmen in Pittsburgh. Attending an opera at a gorgeous, historic opera house is not just a performance—it’s an event. Last Thursday, I had the great pleasure of taking my college-age daughter to her first opera, Puccini’s Turandot, at the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

Determined to plant the seeds of a long-term romance with this art form, I splurged and got fantastic seats. Beyond talking through how the supertitles work and encouraging her to keep an open mind about some of the more artificial aspects of the experience that I know can be off-putting for first time opera goers, I didn’t do a ton in advance to prepare her for this opera, relying on Puccini’s gorgeous melodies carry her along.

That Turandot was to be Sarah’s first opera was dictated by timing, not preference. I had absolutely dreaded the opera when I attended the Met in HD version in January 2016. Story seemed silly to me; as amazing as Nina Stemme’s voice is, I had a really hard time believing the whole love at first sight thing; and Ping, Pang and Pong seemed to embody the worst of European stereotypes of “the Chinaman.” So, as the curtain rose—the curtain still literally rises at the Lyric—I was a little worried that Sarah might find the whole thing just over-the-top silly.

The Lyric’s production, which had an amazing set featuring an enormous dragon that formed the backbone of the entire, did a cool thing to help me (and I imagine others) make sense of the lead tenor’s sudden smittenness with this cold, angry princess: When Turandot is first introduced, at the moment when the most recent of her failed suitors is to be executed, all we can see is a single, penetrating eyeball filling the full moon with her rage. Thus, Calaf falls in love with the idea of Turandot, with the challenge of Turandot, before he even lays eyes on her. It worked.

This opera, which had seemed so silly to me twenty-three months ago, slayed me this time. Tears began rolling down my cheeks from the moment Calaf kissed Turandot and music stopped dead. “I am lost,” she mutters. “What shall I do now?” Then the “Nessun Dorma” melody swings into high gear, guaranteeing that my cheeks would be all wet by the curtain call.

Afterward, on the way to meet her friends for dinner, Sarah said, “I wouldn’t say it’s my new favorite art form or anything, but I’m really glad we came.” Later she added, “I’m not sure I’d want to see one in a movie theater, but I’d attend another live opera sometime.” Mission accomplished!

Hansel and Gretel in HD

Hansel and Gretel in HD

I’ve been skeptical about self-driving cars, but last Saturday, instead of driving me to the hike I’d planned, my car somehow found it’s way to the Cinemark at Valley View just in time for the Met’s special “holiday” encore presentation in HD of it’s 2008 production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.  The opera was well done–delightful even–but other than scenes of children stuffing themselves with sweet baked goods, I’m not sure what makes this opera holiday fare.  Here are five thoughts I had while watching Hansel and Gretel in HD:

  1.  Suspending my disbelief.  As so often happens for me–I assume at least in part because it takes a while to pull my mind out of the outside world and into the world of the opera (although Mozart can win me over in a few notes at the opening of Il Nozze di Figaro) the first half was a little bit slow going, and there were some lulls, long stretches of pleasant enough singing that simply wasn’t moving the story along in any way.  But once the hungry children find themselves out front of the irresistibly yummy house made of sweets, the pace picks up and doesn’t let up until the witch is dead.  Oops–spoiler!
  2. It’s really creepy.  I’m really not sure why it’s billed as holiday fare, or for that matter, as appropriate for kids.  Sure, the good guys win in the end, but at it’s heart, the opera is a a messy, chilling reflection on child abuse, deprivation, and predation.  I remember a Cornell professor who had survived the Holocaust explaining that fairy tales weren’t meant to entertain children but to teach lessons about some of life’s scariest stuff in a way that kids could get it.  Maybe that’s true here.  Either way, bass-baritone Alan Held gave an amazingly creepy performance as the witch.
  3. Awesome tag-team in lead roles.  Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer are brilliant and worked brilliantly together, surprisingly convincing as young kids–a wonderful tag-team carrying the storyline on their backs.
  4. In and out in two hours.  The screening started at 12:55, and I was in my car by 3 PM.  I appreciate a lot of the behind the scenes interviews that have become the hallmark of the Met in HD live presentations, but as I mostly attend the Wednesday evening encores, I’d welcome some trimming back of the intermissions.
  5. Children’s chorus.  The children’s chorus at the end was very affecting.  The chorus including Renée Fleming’s daughter (as the proud mama shared in introducing the piece for cinema audiences).  Reinforced for me how much I’d love to see Scott Little, my composing partner on “The Story of an Hour,” use a multi-age chorus of female voices to  manifest Louise’s dream of a freer, fuller life.