WTO's L'Opera Seria Takes Opera Off Its High Horse And Makes It Fun Again

Was opera ever fun?  I know opera to be beautiful, affecting, and enriching, and some operas are amusing and occasionally elicit a laugh, but… is opera fun?  I honestly cannot say based on my experience that it is, but I have read that there was a time when it was more of a social event.  Wolf Trap Opera Senior Director, Kim Witman, made this point in her pre-opera talk.  In the baroque era, the lights were up during the performance and people chatted with their friends.  They brought in food and cards, and were sometimes rowdy, with ‘claques’ (fan clubs) cheering their favorite performers, occasionally shouting comments, and sometimes booing their competitors.  During the boring parts their attention strayed from the performance.  The performers sometimes reacted to what was occurring in the audience.  In my experience, attending the opera is more akin to attending a religious service these days: no talking, drinking, or eating for the audience, and no deviation from the canon for the people on stage.  The third act of L’Opera Seria gives the audience a taste of baroque atmosphere, and the laughter that frequently broke out in acts one and two of the night's performance, reached sustained levels in act 3.  It was fun and I want more.

Ok, what about, you know, stuff like the singing, the plot, the staging, the music, the individual performances and the refreshments at intermission.  Actually, intermissions could be fun, except for the pressure to get your refreshments and consume them before the next act.  The Barns actually helps with this - orchestra seats have cup holders.  Moving on to the story, I have previously discussed L’Opera Seria as a satire presenting an opera within an opera.  The plot is about what goes on between opera company members arriving, rehearsing, and performing an opera.  No one involved escapes skewering.   I give the performers high marks all around, as well as Ms. Witman and the WNO staff for bringing this opera to Wolf Trap for its U.S. premiere.  I predict it will soon be taken up by other U.S. companies.  Kudos to the director of this production, Matthew Ozawa, and his creative team, who trimmed a four-hour opera into a three-hour version with punch; the ending could have been shortened even a bit more – by that time I was sated with laughter, but that is the only critical comment I care to make.  Eric Melear led the orchestra well, especially in having to sound discordant and out of tune at times.  I do wonder if this opera would work better for American audiences if there was an English version; the one liners come very fast.

Let me say first of all that the talent of these young singers as a group is impressive.  And not only can they sing, but they can act.  I think we will hear much more from many of these people.  Previous comments on these singers can be found in my report on Aria Jukebox.  Here are my favorites from the night’s performance in order:

1.     Clarissa Lyons, who played Stonatrilla (out-of-tune), has a beautiful voice as noted by me before.  She can also act with a deft comic touch, easily provoking laughs with her expressions.  Acting for tv and the movies could be in her career path.

2.     Christian Zaremba, who played Passagallo, was a huge surprise.  I previously praised him for his role as Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia and his tender singing of a Russian folk song for Aria Jukebox.  He seemed to be the tall, serious hero type to me, but in his performance, as the effeminate dancing master, strutting and bouncing around the stage, he was hilarious.  Some smart tv producer should start working on the Clarissa and Chris show right away

3.     Kihun Yoon, who played Sospiro, showed off that big baritone voice in a significant role and nailed it.

4.     Amy Owens, who played Porporina (purple face) sang effectively in a comedic number, and the dancers who accompanied her contributed to making the tuna and dolphin aria a hoot!

5.     Richard Ollarsaba, who played Fallito (failure) has a strong, beautiful bass-baritone voice and showed his acting aplomb in this production.  Success is ahead for this young man.

6.     Mane Galoyan, who played Smorfiosa (smirk face), sang beautifully.  I thought she was quite impressive.

7.     Florian Gassman, the composer, must have been bold to put forward an opera that some might take offense at if they thought a character was about them.  He has given us an inside look at opera in his day and I suspect in ours as well.  I found his music to be delightful and fit the story beautifully.

Overall, this was a comedic ensemble piece which seems to work well in the Barns.  They also offered an outstanding production of The Ghosts of Versailles last year that was an opera within an opera.  It was also fun.  Now that I think about it, it was also fun to attend Madame Butterfly at the Filene Center last year and am looking forward to La Boheme on August 5.  The Filene Center itself adds a bit of fun to the proceedings; it is an outdoor arena, easily accessible with free parking, and lawn picnicking seats are available as well as other dining options. Last year I noted a much higher than average ratio of young people in the audience, I suspect due to the venue. 

The opera enterprise should take note about what is happening at Wolf Trap Opera.  Presenting something new or reviving something overlooked, removing the barriers between the opera professionals and the audience, making opera more easily accessible, and even making it fun on occasion, while insisting on a high talent level and commitment to the art form might be a winning formula for other companies as well.  And a personal plus is that I no longer have to feel guilty about eating my lunch while I am watching opera dvds on my big screen tv.  Eating during the performances used to be normal.  No one wants to abandon the great, grand opera that the major opera houses can do so well, but a little fun occasionally even there might be a good thing.  One of Ms. Witman’s comments in her pre-opera talk was to say not to worry about the details or the plot, that if by the third act this was important to you they had not done their job.  They had done their job and that is real involvement.

Oh, there is one more performance on Saturday night, but it has been sold out for several days.  You can’t say you weren’t warned.  Hopefully you also saw the Post review of the opening night’s performance.