During the summer, opera finds itself on stage in some of America's most interesting dramatic venues. Instead of being presented in auditoriums designed to hold a minimum of 3,000 people, opera can be experienced in arenas ranging from Santa Fe's dramatic 1,775-seat semi-outdoor theater to the Des Moines Metro Opera's summer home in the 488-seat Blank Performing Arts Center. Whether one attends performances at the Opera Theater of St. Louis's 950-seat Loretto-Hilton Theater, with its thrust stage and three-quarter in-the-round seating, or travels to Central City's historic 800-seat Victorian Opera House, the operatic experience is framed within excitingly different physical dimensions.
Each of these theaters lends an exceptional sense of intimacy to its productions by bringing the audience closer to the performers and reminding those on both sides of the footlights that opera, as an art form, finds its greatest strength in the power of communication. Last fall, while attending a performance of Tosca at Opera San Jose's 535-seat Montgomery Theater, I was pleasantly surprised to observe a well-heeled audience actually hissing Scarpia because he was the villain of such an obviously melodramatic work.
My experience in San Jose reminded me how frequently we are prevented from enjoying opera on such intimate levels because of our fanatic concerns with size and technology. Even though videotapes allow for closeups (and can bring a great deal of opera into the privacy of our homes), when viewed on a television screen the most exciting live broadcast still lacks the musical intimacy and dramatic immediacy experienced with an audience in a theater.
It's true that opera is a grand form of artistic expression, but when experienced on a smaller scale its dramatic impact can be incredibly stimulating. More and more American companies have begun to experiment with presenting opera in alternative environments. On July 8th, the Houston Grand Opera will present the world premiere of a new Philip Glass work, The Making of the Representative from Planet 8 in the Wortham Arts Center's 1,100-seat Cullen Theater.
Prior to the opening of the Wortham Center, the physical limitations imposed on HGO by the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts forced the Houston Grand Opera to perform in a severely compromised situation. "Acoustically and visually, our audiences were not getting the full impact of our work," recalls HGO's General Director, David Gockley. "Every premiere we did prior to 1987 -- whether you look at Philip Glass' Akhnaten, Carlisle Floyd's Willie Stark, or even Maurice Sendak's production of The Magic Flute -- would have knocked people right out of their seats if they could have experienced it in a smaller theater."
The quality of an operatic experience remains of paramount importance. Despite the pressures of box office economics, many impresarios now understand that when it comes to producing exciting opera, size isn't everything.
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This article originally appeared in the July 1988 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.