Go see “Marnie” at Met in HD

I may be an opera blogger, but I was a fiction writer first, so for the purposes of this post, I have fabricated five well-intentioned but naïve followers of my blog, and engaged in a little Q&A with them. I’d be delighted to engage in dialogue with real followers of the blog. Please consider posting a response!

I’m dying to attend an a great opera, but I live in a rural area, and we don’t have an opera company here. Whatever can I do?  –Sally B., not too far from Topeka

I’m so glad you asked, Sally. The Metropolitan Opera, one of the world’s great opera companies, has for more than ten years broadcast part of each season live in movie theaters all around the country and increasingly around the world. It’s simply amazing. The program, which has grown to include ten operas each year, has made opera widely accessible to such an unprecedented degree that I have to believe it’s cultivating a whole new wave of opera fans. As for me, the Met in HD experience has single-handedly fanned the flames of my love for opera from a very slow burn over a 25-year period to an inferno of passion over the past five. Check it out!

Sounds good.  I’m tired of watching all the shouting and bickering on my TV, and I’m going to need somewhere to go when 2020 hopefuls start invading my state.  What’s up next?   –@IKeepAmericaPurple, Ames, IA.

Hey there, Keep.  Thanks for your question.  Do you like Hitchcock films? You’re in for a treat! The prolific young American composer Nico Muhly has created a brand new opera based on Marnie, the story of a young woman who makes a living by  embezzling from her employers, moving on, and changing her identity (Wikipedia).  Though Marnie is best known based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film adaptation, Muhly based his opera not directly on the Hitchcock film but on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham. Nonetheless, the set and costuming sure have the feel of a classic film, and the actress who brought the character to the screen, Tippi Hedren, now 88, took a curtail call with her operatic counterpart on opening night on October 19.

Mulhy’s Marnie will be broadcast live on Saturday, November 10 and encored on Wednesday, November 14. 

Wait a minute. Puccini died in 1924. People aren’t really writing new operas, are they? –Roberto D., San Juan, PR

Oh, Roberto, don’t be silly. Of course they are! In fact, all of the major opera companies in the US have commissioned new works over the past few years (I attended the world premiere of Bel Canto, based on the novel by Ann Patchett,at Lyric in 2015). And festivals of new opera works abound, from the Cleveland Opera Theater’s New Opera Works Festival to the Prototype Festival in NYC, and beyond. This is actually Nico Muhly’s 2nd commission for the Met. His first Two Boys opened in 2013.

Isabel Leonard as Marnie
Isabelle Leonard in the title role.

What can I expect if you go to the Met in HD screening of Marnie?

–Hakim A., Pocatello, Idaho

Good question, Hakim. First of all, expect high quality performances both by world class singers and by arguably the best opera orchestra in the world. Expect close ups interesting camera angles, good sound quality, on screen subtitles just like in a foreign language film.

I haven’t seen this opera or heard this opera yet. Here are a few insights from Anthony Thomsasini’s October 21 review in the NYT:

  • “ With his keen ear for unusual harmonies and eerily alluring sonorities, Mr. Muhly painstakingly tries to use his imagination — and his proven skill at orchestration — to flesh out Marnie’s inner life.”
  • “Mr. Muhly opted, it would seem, to maintain mystery through whole stretches of the score, to suggest emotions rather than making everything explicit. He may have held back too much. The music sometimes seems like an accompaniment to the drama, rather than a realization of it.”
  • “The best scenes in ‘Marnie’ come when Mr. Muhly, in sync with Mr. Wright, takes creative chances. Rather than providing Marnie with any sort of tell-all aria, the opera gives her short transitional ‘links,’ as Mr. Muhly calls them, disoriented soliloquy-like passages where in broken bits of restless, leaping lines she voices bitter, confused ruminations.”

But wait, there’s more. One of the best things about the Met in HD experience is a lot of cool behind-the-scenes material during intermissions. While the crowd in New York is waiting in line for the restroom or the opportunity to pay top dollar for plastic cupful of rum and coke, the evening’s host will treat the cinema audience to backstage interviews with the prinicple singers and previews of upcoming productions.

Oh, and popcorn.

Are there any downsides to seeing an opera in a movie theater as opposed to live? –Michelle O., Washington, D.C.

Sure, Michelle. Consider the analogy to watching sports in person vs. on TV. On TV you get the benefit of replays, close ups, and commentary, but you’re beholden to the camera’s eye. Usually that means following the ball or puck. In person, you can look where you want to. The same holds true at the opera. On screen, you’re stuck looking at whatever the camera wants you to see. The folks at the Met have gotten more sophistocated over the years, so you’ll get a variety of camera angles, but there are still times I’d like to be able to look elsewhere or be able to scan the entire stage at once. That said, the view of the Met stage from the Cedar Lee Theater is a lot better than it would be without the Met in HD. That’s where I’ll be next Weds at 6:30. You?

See you the at the opera!

Tim

 

 

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First Impressions: First-time Opera-goer Rachel Elson

On Saturday, February 24, I had the pleasure of taking Rachel Elson, a family friend, to her first opera.  We attended the live Met in HD presentation of Puccini’s La Bohème, featuring the amazing Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi.  Afterward, I asked Rachel to share some of her impressions.

Rachel Elson NYC Photo
Rachel Elson, mere blocks from the Met, in September 2017.

The Opera Evangelist:  This was your first experience of opera. What did you think?

RE:  What a cool art form!

I was fascinated by how intimate and emotional the performances were. Every scene was packed with intense feeling, positive or negative, in a way that radiated from the screen and through their voices. Because people express and perform emotions differently, I couldn’t help but feel that each actor was bringing their own unique qualities and interpretations to the role. This makes me think that it would be awesome to see the same operas performed with different singers or produced differently.

OE:  Many people don’t realize that operas today feature supertitles (or in the case of the cinema presentations, subtitles) offering simultaneous translation. Some people find subtitles off-putting. Did you have any difficulties following the story or getting used to the subtitles?

RE:  I occasionally ignored the English captions in order to construct meaning solely from the singing, body language, and facial expressions. This proved to be a surprisingly reliable way to follow the narrative, and it helped immerse me in the story, because I was able to create the story for myself as it progressed.

OE:  That’s really cool. I’m glad you gave yourself that opportunity. I like to do that sometimes, too. I wonder if that aspect of the experience was even more satisfying during the live HD broadcast, because camera work allows you to get a closer up view than at the opera house.

RE:  It was definitely worth seeing the Live Met in HD broadcast! I was surprised to discover how intimate the Met in HD experience was. I’m accustomed to the in-your-face nature of live, in-person theater performances, and I assumed that seeing a broadcast performance (although live) simply wouldn’t be the same. However, I felt no sense of disconnection between myself and the characters and narrative of La Bohème while I sat in the Cedar Lee Theater. With the screen occupying almost my whole field of vision, I felt deeply embedded in every scene and touched by the intense emotions of the opera; the impressive sound quality placed me right in the front row at the Met.

The incredible behind-the-scenes features during the intermissions of the live broadcast were another unexpected treat. Rather than removing me from Puccini’s Parisian landscape, the interviews and set backstage explorations brought me so much closer to the work as a whole. I gained insight into the process of production and added a huge amount of depth to my appreciation of the narrative itself. Much like reading about the plot and history of the opera in advance to its showing strengthened my understanding, these features were enlightening in a way I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

OE:  Was there anything you didn’t like? Were there aspects of the production that seemed weird or old-fashioned?

RE:  The pacing of the production seemed so strange. The first act was heavy on exposition, and accordingly very lengthy. The second act, however, I feel like nothing much happened and it was over very quickly (although I did really enjoy the vast set and chorus). Same as well with the third act. These were very, very dramatic scenes but it seemed like the story didn’t progress very much! In summary—much ado about nothing.

I felt that the opera was awash in “grand” feelings and lacking in complexity. I think that this might be the nature of opera itself (very grand, awesome), and for me it’s both a good and bad thing. I wanted more nuance to the narrative and feelings, as this would’ve brought the production more into the present, which would make it easier to relate to, but maybe that’s a difficult balance to strike when the narrative is full of such strong emotions (happiness, love, despair, jealousy).

OE:  These observations, I think, may be particular to La Bohème, which is structured more as a collection of scenes rather than along the lines of a traditional plot. (In fact, the novel on which Puccini drew inspiration for the opera, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, is comprised of a series of vignettes of the artistic life in 1830s Paris.”  I don’t think you’d have that feeling with every opera, especially most operas written after the height of the bel canto era in the early 19th Century.

So, will you come back?

RE:  Definitely. Overall I really, really enjoyed it.

OE:  What would you tell someone who’s never been to an opera to encourage her to attend?

RE:  Opera is a worthwhile challenge. It feels unusual in the powerful intensity of the emotions being performed on stage, and this moving quality is a huge draw that is hard to achieve in film or theater. Whether you see it live on stage or on the screen, the artistry, craftsmanship of the set, and strong narratives create a completely immersive experience and ease the introduction to a new kind of art. Most of all, it’s rewarding to see a relationships develop and a story slowly emerge from such beautiful music.

A (Mostly) Puccini Quiz

Test your knowledge of opera with the following short quiz (answers below).  I’ll send a prize to the first three (3) subscribers who let me know in the comments that they got 5/5 correct.

1.  In Puccini’s Tosca, which was broadcast live in HD in cinemas last month, the line “the kiss of Tosca” refers to:

a.  The moment when the painter Cavaradossi musses Tosca’s hair in the church

b.  Tosca’s jealousy of the beautiful blonde woman Cavaradossi has used as a model for Mary Magdalene

c.  The stab wound with which Tosca slays the evil Scarpia

d.  The passionate final embrace Tosca and Cavaradossi share at the end of the opera

2.  Which of the following operas, composed by the 19th Century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck–based on the Grimms’ fairy tale–will be performed at the Cleveland Institute of Music from February 28 to March 3, 2018?

a.  Hansel and Gretel                  c.  The Twelve Brothers

b.  Rapunzel                                 d.  Cinderella

3.  The 2017-18 Met in HD season features at least one opera by each of the big three major 19th Century bel canto composers.  Which of the following, though in Italian, is not from that period?

a.  Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore              c.  Rossini’s Semiramide

b.  Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte                     d.  Bellini’s Norma

4.  Which of the following operas by Giacomo Puccini was the basis for the wildly popular and critically acclaimed musical Rent:

a.  Turandot                              c.  La Bohème

b.  Tosca                                    d.  Madama Butterfly

5.  Which of the following operas by Giacomo Puccini was the basis for the wildly popular and critically acclaimed musical Miss Saigon:

a.  Turandot                                 c.  La Bohème

b.  Tosca                                       d.  Madama Butterfly

Answers. 

  1. C     Ouch!
  2. A     Hansel and Gretel.  Order tickets at the CIM box office or at www.cim.edu.
  3. B     Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte, which, while not usually lumped into the bel canto operas, certainly features a lot of “beautiful singing.”  Catch it at your local cinema on March 31 or April 4, 2018.
  4. C     La Bohème, which will be broadcast to audiences worldwide this Saturday.  If you’re in Cleveland, please join me at the Cedar Lee 12:30 P.M. Saturday or 6:30 P.M. Wednesday.  (First timers are always on me!)
  5. D     Madama Butterfly, which the Cleveland Opera Theater will be bringing to the stage at the Maltz Performing Arts Center on April 27 and 29, 2018!  Order your tickets today!

The Elixir of Love

How to Fall in Love with Italian Opera in Five Easy Steps

  1. Get the Elixir of Love on your calendar.

Figure out which local movie theater is screening the Met in HD presentation of Donizetti’s romantic comedy, L’Elisir d’Amore, the perfect alternative to fighting the restaurant crowds on Valentine’s Day. (Or, if you’ve already got set plans for the 14th, check out the live broadcast this Saturday at 12:55 PM.)

Kittie and I at the Met, 2018-01-16
At the Met with my love, Jan. 2018
  1. Get familiar with some of the music.

Go to YouTube and listen to several great tenors singing “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (“A Furtive Tear), one of the most famous opera songs ever written. The aria, which appears near the end of the opera, celebrates the moment when the peasant Nemorino realizes at long last that the woman he loves loves him back. If you don’t find yourself stirred by this showstopper, you are at low risk of falling in love with Italian opera. If on the other hand, you find yourself drawn to the music and the emotion it conveys, dig around and find a few more of the opera’s famous songs: “Quanto amore” or “Vogilo dire” or “Prendi, prendi.”

  1. Get cozy.

Grab a date and rub his or her feet or back while playing a few of these lovely songs in the background. Add some flowers, candles, a little Amoretto… use your imagination. Encourage your amour not to fret about understanding the lyrics at this point. Getting familiar with some of the melodies will give you a few familiar spots on game day, which will help to pull you in and make you feel like part of what’s going on.

  1. Sneak some mini-bottles of champagne into the cinema.

Or, if popcorn and diet coke is more your thing, make time to hit the concession stand on the way to you seat. If the idea that opera is snooty is one of the things that’s been putting you off, the opera-in-cinema experience is totally different. Grab your favorite movie theater snacks and munch away!

  1. Sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Don’t be thrown by the subtitles. Within minutes you’ll be drawn into the music and the story, and you’ll forget you’re reading.

Bonus step: Repeat frequently, varying the dose as needed. Puccini’s La Bohème is coming up next on the Met in HD, Saturday 2/24 (live) and Wednesday 2/28 (encore).

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.

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.