Thursday, November 22, 2007

Second Tier Audiences

During OPERA America's recent annual conference, I spent some time talking with Martin Feinstein, General Director of the Washington Opera, about the fact that many opera lovers can no longer afford to purchase tickets to performances by major opera companies. For a variety of reasons (economic pressures, family responsibilities, their lack of time, geographic isolation or a sheer unwillingness to commute back and forth to the theater) these people have been priced out of the opera house.

That hasn't diminished their love for opera, however, and many happily attend performances of what some people in the business call "second tier" attractions. These offerings can range from free events (such as the Merola Grand Finals or Summer Opera in Stern Grove) to relatively inexpensive performances by Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera and Opera San Jose. Or they can take the form of touring performances by Texas Opera Theater, concert readings by Eve Queler's Opera Orchestra of New York, and rare works from the chamber opera repertoire being performed by young artists in the San Francisco Opera Center.

Whenever one attends such performances, one quickly realizes that the audience's expectations and the dynamics of the event are quite different from what one encounters in the opera house. The audience, as a rule, tends to be older, sometimes gayer, and decidedly more educated than those who visit the Opera House for vicarious thrills and a quick society column fuck. Instead, their enthusiasm for the music is real; their willingness to be more lenient in their criticism genuinely well-intended. Occasionally, when sparks fly on the stage -- and they do -- this audience feels as if it has discovered a budding young talent before the "big guys" of the industry descend to snatch up some fresh meat for a commercial killing.


In January, I traveled to Santa Rosa with some friends to attend a Western Opera Theater performance of Carmen which was staged before an enthusiastic audience in the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts (a former church). WOT's traveling unit set and skeleton cast included singers who were in last year's Merola Finals and are now working their way up the ladder in hopes of becoming Adler Fellows. Some were obviously new at the game; others were already showing signs of the professional wear and tear that accompanies touring. Some (like comprimario tenor Bill Saetre -- whom I first encountered at Canada's Banff Summer Opera Festival) were making the most of their performance opportunity; others were not fully "there."
Although I was less than impressed with Dennis McNeil's Don Jose and Pamela King's Carmen, Angela Randell's Micaela (although cursed with the wig from hell) displayed a promising lyric soprano. Conductor David Abell's spirited work on the podium, combined with the newness of the experience for many people in the audience, made me realize that while I may have experienced more performances of Carmen than I care to remember, a great deal of discovery was happening for the people in attendance that night.

What got my juices flowing was watching a young singer named Cherie Caluda who, single-handedly, walked off with the performance. Although that night Caluda was singing the role of Frasquita (one of the minor gypsies in Bizet's opera), she is such an intense stage animal -- and was so theatrically "into" what she was doing -- that she reminded me of what it was like to watch the young Barbra Streisand performing the role of Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. While Caluda's intense focus and concentration threw the rest of the performance out of whack, there is no denying the fact that this girl has charisma. I'd be very curious to see where she ends up in five years.


While Caluda is, by professional standards, a mere babe in the woods, San Francisco's Lamplighters have been going about their business for thirty-eight years. As the unofficial keepers of the Savoyard flame, this volunteer troupe usually does a stunning job of performing Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas. Like many other "second tier" attractions, the Lamps have developed a loyal and knowledgeable audience that supports them with a great deal of enthusiasm and love. That special kind of devotion was evident on their recent opening night of The Mikado, when several costumes came apart and other minor flubs (the kind that might have sunk less professional performers) were handled with a great deal of skill and stage savvy.

Dan Gensemer's Nanki-Poo and Karen Tesitor's Yum-Yum offered appealing romantic leads. However, David Lamm's Pish-Tush was no vocal match for J. Geoffrey Colton's sneering and well-sung Pooh-Bah. While this year's Mikado offered truly fabulous costume work by the ever resourceful Beaver Bauer (and some really incredible make-up designs by Jaymes-Mark Williams) there were times when the performance suffered from much too much "busyness." From Rick Williams' animated portrayal of Ko-Ko right down to the antics of the Mikado's two bodyguards, there was too much nervous energy on the stage.

In such situations, the dramatic energy gets too scattered and the actors portraying the Mikado and Katisha usually walk off with the show. That's exactly what veteran Lamplighters William Neill and Marcia Hunt did on opening night. Neill's voice and authoritative stage presence fit the title role like a glove; when clad in Beaver Bauer's exquisite Japanese robes he is a sight to behold. As Katisha, Hunt was a delicious mezzo-soprano fright: wonderfully pathetic and touchingly bloodthirsty as the pushy old spinster who has spent too many years as the Mikado's self-proclaimed "daughter-in-law elect." Ms. Hunt lived and breathed her role with the kind of lust to perform that quickly centers a performance. It is always a joy to watch this talented artist work the stage, especially when she is exploring the dramatic territory that suits her to a musical comedy T!

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 22, 1990

No comments: