Monday, December 3, 2007

Pleasing the Audience

Frequently, when I listen to opera fans discuss the productions they have attended in various theatres, I notice that the one factor which they constantly fail to mention is the audience. Singers, directors, designers and conductors are routinely subjected to critical keel-haulings but, as any production gets discussed, dissected and diagnosed, the right of the audience to be entertained is one factor which is completely ignored.

Therefore, perhaps we should go back to basics. Opera is, by definition, an interactive art form. It is a style of musical theatre written to be performed before a live audience. I keep stressing this fact because a dramatically involved audience is the key to keeping opera alive as a dynamic art form which can stimulate, challenge and last, but certainly not least, entertain those who choose to show some interest in it.

In January I had the peculiar experience of visiting three of the nation's leading opera companies and observing how their audiences differed. For three consecutive nights at the Metropolitan Opera, I watched a disinterested and dramatically uninvolved audience keep nodding out and walking out on a regular basis. At the Washington and Houston Grand Operas I witnessed audiences that were involved, enthusiastic and seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves.

Much of the reason for their alert behavior (as opposed to the somnolence of those attending the Met) can be directly attributed to the use of Supertitles. However, I also think that the managements of these two regional opera companies are acutely aware of the fact that if they take their audience for granted, their audience might not come back.

Alas, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for live performances. Recordings enable millions of music lovers to enjoy the operatic literature in the comfort of their own homes. Videotapes of live performances are now allowing more and more people to become acquainted with the operatic art form with the help of their VCR machines. Although recent advances in technology have allowed for major breakthroughs in the quality of recorded sound, what worries me is that -- even as opera succeeds in reaching new audiences -- the rampant consumerism which has been spurred by the demands of the electronic home entertainment center is slowly but surely discouraging people from attending live performances.

Part of the problem is that people like to go shopping for tangible goods (it often seems as if the compact disc revolution is causing people to find new excuses to stay at home instead of attending live performances). In recent months, many of my friends have spoken so eloquently about the joys of their new compact disc collections that I've begun to wonder if someone shouldn't start a group called "CD's Anonymous." Who knows? There could even be a special subchapter for those who spend their weekly paychecks at Tower Records!


In 1985, when I attended the Washington Opera's delightful production of L'Italiana in Algeri, it was presented in the Kennedy Center's 500-seat Terrace Theatre (an arena whose intimacy is its greatest asset). This year, the company moved its "Terrace Theatre" season downstairs to the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theatre where, thanks to the addition of Supertitles, Rossini's comic opera scored an even greater success with the audience. Many of the people involved in the 1985 production (designer Zack Brown, director Leon Major, conductor Joseph Rescigno and two crucial lead singers) repeated their assignments for this revival. With the addition of Sonya Friedman's English-language Supertitles, the happy result was that a vintage production blossomed and became even better than before!

As the shrewd and feisty Isabella, Mimi Lerner's rock-solid coloratura technique proved to be a definite asset to the performance. There must have been some visual trick at play involving the color or style of her hair which made me feel as if this stocky mezzo-soprano had somehow taken on Ethel Merman's body language. I honestly can't tell whether or not the Merm is coaching her from the grave, but that peculiar style of butch femininity with which Lerner now holds center stage gives her a special type of theatrical authority which is reserved for very few artists.

Thanks to the presence of Supertitles, both Lerner and her rubber-faced Mustafa, Francois Loup (who continues to resemble Bert Lahr as he grows older) had the audience eating out of their hands. Their comic routines were delivered with great gusto, brilliant timing and, due to Leon Major's astute stage direction, scored strongly with an audience that was "with" them all the way through the performance.

New additions to the cast included an appealing young tenor named Marcus Haddock as Lindoro, soprano Pamela South as Elvira and mezzo-soprano Gloria Parker as Zulma. A major contribution to the proceedings came from baritone Jan Opalach's Taddeo. Opalach is not just a stunning technician; his artistic skills allow him to develop a completely new character -- and a completely new style of walking -- for each role I see him perform. This handsome young artist continues to amaze me with his dramatic and vocal prowess. There is a major career in this man's future.

Under Joseph Rescigno's baton, the cast delivered a performance which was distinguished by its solid ensemble work, superb stagecraft and the singers' willingness to reach out and please the audience without ever sacrificing the production's artistic standards. What impressed me most about this production was its unity of spirit and style. Who could ask for anything more?


Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that pleasing the audience is not a crime (especially if you want them to come back for more). Originally designed by Ralph Funicello for the New York City Opera, the Houston Grand Opera's production of La Rondine was a faithful recreation of the performance seen several years ago as part of PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" series. Under Lotfi Mansouri's direction, the principals and chorus moved well, neatly underscoring the dramatic thrust of Puccini's tender, sentimental score.

A strongly musical and visually appealing quartet of protagonists helped transform this production of La Rondine into a tremendous audience pleaser. I say this because conductor John DeMain's tempos occasionally seemed a bit too clinical for my tastes. The big Act II ensemble needed more breadth and there were moments during the opening night performance when DeMain seemed to be taking a curiously unemotional approach to the music. At the second performance, he loosened up a bit, allowing Houston's chorus and principals to sink their teeth into the music and sing the pants off of Puccini's music.

As Magda de Civry, soprano Frances Ginsberg revealed a voice whose timbre was surprisingly lush and pleasing. Franco Farina's handsome Ruggero was not only solid, youthful and very much in love; the tenor has the words "matinee idol" written all over him. In addition to David Eisler's familiar characterization of Prunier, I was especially pleased with Jeanine Thames' spunky performance as Lisette. Baritone Richard Paul Fink brought an extra measure of dignity to Magda's aging lover, Rambaldo.

Not to be taken lightly was the fact that Houston's audience had itself a damned good time During La Rondine. The show they attended looked good, sounded good and left them feeling good. That phenomenon is more important than we often realize.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 31, 1988.

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