Monday, December 3, 2007

Picking Pockets

Opera companies come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the grandeur of the Met to the bare-bones dimensions of Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera (a group which specializes in concert renditions of rarely-performed works that have faded from popularity). While most subscribers flock to performances by the more traditional opera companies -- events which take place in major civic auditoriums or easily identifiable opera houses -- there now exists an entire substrata of opera companies whose basic function, as touring units, is to bring opera to the masses (no matter where those masses might be).

Throughout the year, groups such as Western Opera Theatre, Eastern Opera Theatre, Texas Opera Theatre and the New York City Opera's touring ensemble bring fully-staged productions (on a reduced physical scale) to many small and sometimes remote communities which could not hope to support an opera company on their own. Because such groups must function on a shoe-string budget, their sets and instrumentation are often minimal; their productions frequently resemble a stripped-down bus-and-truck touring version of a Broadway show.

The young artists engaged by these organizations tend to be singers who are working their way up the professional ladder; aspiring young artists who understand that these touring gigs offer them a chance to delve into a character's nuances while gaining invaluable stage experience in a work environment removed from the slings and barbs of the mainstream musical press. In May, I was able to attend performances by two such touring European opera companies while I was traveling in Great Britain. Each of these companies (although slightly different from the apprentice touring arms of their American counterparts) had artistic policies geared toward reaching people outside the mainstream operatic audience. Each had some noticeable problems.


Based in Glasgow, Scottish Opera-Go-Round has been touring the United Kingdom for nearly ten years. Its scaled-down production of Jenufa (adapted for a mini-stage by Matthew Richardson with an English translation by Otakar Kraus and Edward Downes) was first performed in Glasgow's Tron Theatre on August 28, 1986. Although Janacek's opera did not strike me as a logical choice for a semi-educational touring production, ever since its premiere the Scottish Opera Go-Round's version has been a steady hit in the British Isles. It was presented this year as one of the featured attractions at both the London International Opera Festival and the Brighton Festival.

What Ashley Martin-Davies's sets capture so well (in a way that many larger productions cannot) is the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia that dominates Janacek's opera. However, when one considers that Scottish Opera-Go-Round must work on a postage stamp-sized platform -- which has barely enough room to contain the principal artists, a piano, an accompanist and a drawstring curtain -- that's not too surprising.

I found the artistic product to be quite rough around the edges and most of the singing of a decidedly lower artistic standard than one would find in companies which are the American counterparts of Scottish Opera-Go-Round. Soprano Virginia Kerr fared best with her sympathetic portrayal of the title character; Paul Strathearn's Laca and Colin McKerracher's Steva were vocally and dramatically much too raw for my tastes. Norman White doubled as the Mill Foreman and Mayor of the town; soprano Mary Clarke sang the roles of Barena and Karolka quite nicely.

As the dominating Kostelnicka, Linda McLeod made a noble attempt to sink her teeth into the character but ran into trouble when it became apparent to the audience that she was approximately the same age, if not younger than the woman singing the role of her daughter, Jenufa. Thus, the intensity of the drama did not stem quite so much from the story or stage direction as from the proximity of the audience to the singers and the fact that there was nowhere else for the principals to go.

This performance of Jenufa was staged in Brighton's Pavilion Theatre (a large attic space filled with uncomfortable plastic chairs which reminds me of the "cafetoriums" used by Western Opera Theatre on so many of its tour dates) and, although the audience applauded enthusiastically at the conclusion of each act, my own reaction to the production was far less generous.


Twenty years ago, when I saw Marguerite Ruffino's tiny opera company perform a stripped-down version of Aida on the stage of Rhode Island's 200-seat Matunuck Theatre-By-The-Sea using an op-art set for The Boys in the Band, I thought I had had my rock-bottom experience with Verdi's opera. I didn't imagine that anything could be worse than the sight of Amonasro, clad in a leopard-skin bathrobe, attempting to hide behind a plastic palm in Michael's bedroom. I was wrong!

While in London I caught a performance of Pocket Opera of Nurnberg's execrable interpretation of Aida -- a production which gives just the teensiest hint of what might happen if John Waters ever decided to focus his perverse creative energies on grand opera. With Manfred Blosser's unit set (a mock-up of a computer circuit board) and Andrea Riedel's outrageous costumes, Pocket Opera of Nurnberg hawked its dramatic concept of Aida to the public as a struggle between the 1 and 0 of digital electronics; a war between the rival systems of modern digital sound and old, analog recordings.

Thus, the Ethiopians were costumed to represent the fiercely nostalgic followers of the 33-1/3 rpm cult while the Egyptians represented the kingdom of the compact disc. Aida's slave necklace was a circular disc nearly four feet in diameter onto which numerous long-playing records had been glued; Amonasro's cape was covered with old vinyl records which (during a bizarre confrontation with Amneris following the shattered musical remnants of Verdi's triumphal scene) were smashed to bits as the Egyptian princess wielded her royal scepter -- a piece of military equipment resembling a giant phonograph arm.

Amneris's jewelry included earrings made of compact discs and a headdress sporting bits and pieces of gold compact discs. Meanwhile, a man dressed in black tights, a codpiece that he obviously could never have hoped to fill, and a Darth Vader helmet (who was supposed to double as Ramphis and the male chorus) kept sashaying back and forth across an elevated plank while performing mock Egyptian poses.

Pocket Opera of Nurnberg's performers -- I won't call them artists -- struck me as coming from the lower-middle class of provincial German opera singers. This being a pocket opera production, Amneris dutifully doffed her royal headdress whenever the need for a female chorus arose. Although one might have pitied soprano Ute Ruppel (Aida), tenor Sigurd Karnetzki (Radames) mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Kingdon (Amneris) and bass-baritone Lorenzo Jordan (Amonasro) for being forced to participate in such low-life artistic bullshit, I've always felt that, with some kind of perversely divine justice, God oppresses those who oppress themselves.

Neither the singers nor the composer were helped very much by the fact that Pocket Opera of Nurnberg's backstage orchestra consisted of a piano, synthesizer, celeste, harp and vibraphone. While there were brief moments when the cast showed vocal promise (let's not forget to give some dubious recognition to Nandor Tomory's King and Claude Arias' Ramphis) the performances remained, at their very best, barely professional.

Since I was still experiencing severe pain from a badly sprained foot, this was one occasion when I didn't hesitate to flee the theatre at intermission. Unlike Queen Victoria (who stuck to such mild forms of criticism as the oft-quoted "We are not amused,") my vocabulary as I attempted to hail a taxi featured a string of royal expletives which I'm sure that old queen never heard during the course of her reign!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 30, 1988.

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