OnSiteOpera: thoughts toward a paradigm shift

I had the pleasure of seeing On Site Opera’s Pygmalion at the Trimco Mannequin Showroom on West 25th St. I was sitting among – I would estimate – 75 people for the show that ran under an hour. In my short opera life I have only experienced grand opera in its fullest measure at The Met. I like that too but this was a vibe I could not have anticipated. I can only describe it as…well…personal.

I was an arms reach away from the performers – I could see the sweat on their faces – I could watch them working as they sang and drew bow over string – I observed their bodes rise and fall with breath – heard the clear, pure tones emerging instantaneously from their mouths and instruments washing over me in their freshly made sound waves. It was, ok I’ll admit, not breathtaking but it was sweet and charming and delightful and completely engaging.

I am used to and expect high theatrics from the Met. I go to get sucked into their vortex of awesomeness which sometimes is there and sometimes is not. I am not complaining about the Met. I love the Met & I want it to survive. I am also thrilled to discover an alternative to opera that allows me to be a participant, a witness, an up close and personal element to the performance. As the artists move, I move and I want more.
MMN

Where Opera Lives

There’s a profound line between thinking about doing something and actually doing it. There’s an even greater gap between doing something for the first time and actually “getting” what you are doing. It was a hell of a process simply going from the idea of attending the opera to physically putting my butt in the chair for our inaugural season subscription at the Met. Everything I went through to get to that point; the flurry of excitement, the phone calls, the planning, the fretting could not prepare me for the watershed, “Ah ha!” realization about the world that was waiting for me in Don Giovanni.

Imagine, if you will, Mozart’s overture beginning with the amazing chord that strikes fear into any listening heart. Now imagine this Opera Abecedarian – green as a length of sod freshly rolled out at the Bryant Park lawn with little signs stating “please stay off while the new grass is establishing roots” – sitting there ready to be opera’ed.

I was holding a great deal of reservation about my subscription. Had I been rash and impulsive? Was I taking my family on a crazy cultural ride to nowhere? I was excited and yet, truly feared boredom. Casting aside my doubt I surrendered to the music. As Act 1 progressed it was going well. I understood the story. The Don was pretty hot with his shirt falling off his shoulder; who cares that he was trying to rape that woman*, the music was pretty. So maybe this opera thing was going to work out. It would make a nice occasional family event – something I could post on Facebook. I felt smug as the story progressed through the Catalogue Aria and into the choral section with the vivid pastoral setting with a lot of business going on. Then everyone cleared the stage and Ramon Vargas, as Don Ottavio, was alone in the spotlight performing Dala Sua Pace. The world slowed down as I fell into empathy for this silly, somber man expressing love for the distant Donna Anna.

What stops my world from spinning; what slaps me hard across the face in the midst of this aria is the sudden and complete understanding that opera lives in the spaces between our relationship with other people and things. Opera gives voice and depth to the commentary we all have running through our head and in doing so, SHUTS THE COMMENTARY UP!
It’s Zen! It’s here and now, man! One pure thought can endure and unfold profoundly before hundreds of people if handled with care by the librettist, composer, orchestra and vocalist all working in concert. Fuckin’ Awesome!

I felt that I was being gifted with another human’s experience, multi-dimensionally. I could see and hear and practically touch the living desire of Don Ottavio and I experienced the depth of his pain and longing. I could taste it, I could feel it in my gut. We went way past empathy to psychic, full body link. Any bullshit chatter I had going on in my head was silent and I’m sure I sat there slack-jawed hanging on Vargas’ every note. This was the magic of opera. It shut me up when I wasn’t even saying anything.

Zen is hard. It’s not every time attending the opera that I get it. There’s still struggle. Preparation is key for I believe it is incumbent upon the audience to bring as much to the evening (or matinee) as the artists are expected to bring. What we bring is our understanding, our money and our listening. What we offer is our willingness to let go of what we understand. We give ourselves generously to the company so they may bring us to a place we cannot take ourselves to. They feed us their world and we love them for it.

Opera lives in the space between our relationships with other people and things.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

MMN

*I abhor even the idea of anyone sexually overpowering another. Rape is not something I take lightly.

A Note to Seasoned Opera Enthusiasts

I am three and a half years old, in opera years; a veritable toddler.

Knowing what I know of actual three and a half year old’s, having raised two of them, I know that toddlers are cute, innocent, reckless, manipulative and at certain times of the day impossible to handle (nothing that a bowl of Cheerio’s and a glass of wine can’t handle.) Mostly a toddler is capable of starry-eyed wonder and this best describes me when I attend an opera. I sit there up in the Family Circle of the Metropolitan Opera with my body squeezed into a seat I swear was designed for steerage on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Cleveland and I wait for my lollypop like a good girl. Even when I get bored and restless (and I do, yes, I do) I leave the opera house anticipating my next return. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a toddler or a puppy ‘cause puppies put up with a lot more discomfort than any toddler I’ve ever known. So, I sit, as I should, and try not to whine waiting to lap up the delicious mixture of music, song, story and sight about to be offered to me and I like it. I really like it. Even if I don’t always understand it, I like it. I want more and I rarely criticize the hand that feeds me because I have an enormous amount of respect for the hand!

I’m committed to learning opera and knowing the people who make opera happen. Public radio station, WQXR, launched Operavore right as I was getting into the art form and I reference the news and information on opera every day. I read and click and read some more. Fred Plotkin is like Uncle Opera to me now and Margaret Juntwait is my regularly scheduled Saturday afternoon play date. During the week I absorb the Operavore web log articles and then get to the dreaded comments section…I really should know better than to read them. I can’t believe the nasty, hateful, divisive comments many people post about something they love so much. It’s as if their opinions are more precious than the art. The snarky remarks about this performer or that director or the whole “opera’s dead” thing designed to write off an entire industry is, in my humble opinion, dog poop. Sure, you can say; “Well she doesn’t know anything. She didn’t even see Luciano Pavarotti in the Park!” (Actually, I did, before there was grass on the great lawn) but that’s for another time. I understand opera is filled with divas, but the audience need not be one of them.

My point is…I wish everyone would stuff their opinions in their back pocket and beaded hand bags and simply experience the opera in the here and now. Just once I wish everyone arrived as if it was their first time; a house full of opera virgins all dressed up and eagerly anticipating that initial taste of passion and abandon. Imagine what the performers would do if they knew everyone paying to be there was hanging on their every note in starry-eyed wonder. The pressure would still be on and I believe would drive an artist on to new heights: the pressure to provide the very foundation of love for this art form. Can we organize that – just for one time?

Yeah, I didn’t think so. So just do me this one favor then, stop hating on the people who produce opera. Honor them, support them, give constructive criticism (by all means) and give them the means to keep creating. Quit griping at the wind and polluting the sweet air for those of us who are currently breathing it in. I’m enjoying myself over here and you don’t want to make a toddler cry (or a puppy whimper.) Teach me, guide me, help open my ears and heart to the depths of the possibilities waiting for me in any given opera. Every time I attend the opera there’s a chance for transformation. Every recording I listen to and every libretto I study furthers my love and understanding of this complex and holographic expression of the human experience. Share with me your stories; the moments of awe and life altering arias that took your breath away and returned you to your seat a different person. Remember the glories of the past and look to the future for fresh stories to share. As a new comer to opera – that is the audience I want to be sitting in.

Three Generations
Three generations of my family attending the opera together – note, the teenager who got us into it all is behind the iPhone

Now, time for my nap.

My Literal Entry into the World of Opera – Documented

Not only does Susan Froemke document the recent iteration of Der Ring des Nibelungen at The Met but she also – unwittingly – documented my and my teenaged son’s literal entry into the world of opera. That is us at the end of the trailer. I recommend you see the full program…not for us but for the magnitude of what was accomplished regardless of your opinion of Lepage’s vision or the Ring Cycle in general. It’s a non-fiction movie on the current day process of making opera. Amazing. I am inspired to be part of the process.