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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Thing 64: Opera on the Mall

In DC, opera is for the masses.

Last Sunday, the Washington National Opera telecast Puccini's La Boheme on the Mall, at the foot of the Washington Monument. Under a perfectly clear, sunny sky, a couple thousand people gathered with blankets and sunscreen to watch a free performance of the famous opera. A large screen was set up on the north side of the grass and we watched the performers as they performed the show on the Kennedy Center stage just down the road.

It's a really nice idea. Bringing opera outdoors, for free, at the foot of a national symbol like the monument. We all know that I'm a big proponent of outdoor movies and performances. But somehow, this idea falls flat when put into practice. For one, it loses a lot by being broadcast. A free live performance on the Mall might still capture the magic and sparkle of the opera, just by virtue of watching live artists and the give and take between performer and audience. The act of applauding performers who cannot hear you feels futile.

Second, it loses a lot by being outside. Opera is hard to sit through for many of us (as evidenced by the mass exodus of people at the intermission), and it is harder still to sit through when you're sitting on a blanket on the ground, squinting from the glare and afraid of getting sunburned. The mystique of opera is that it is a luxury, to be enjoyed in your finest dress clothes and followed by champagne. On this point however, I am torn. I like the idea of breaking down that mystique and presenting opera as an art form for everyone. I don't think this is the way to accomplish that though.

As for the opera itself, again I think it fell flat between the idea -- an update to the classic, allowing it to reach a larger audience by making it more accessible -- and the realization of that idea. Turn-of-the-19th-century Paris becomes a nondescript, modernish any-city, where the artists shoot footage on a cam corder, but write out their stories by hand, without backing them up on a PC. Mimi hand embroiders delicate flowers, but wears a vinyl trench coat. The Cafe Momus looks like Studio 54 and Mimi's tuberculosis becomes some modern, nondescript illness (AIDS? SARS?). While I understand the director's intention to re-make an opera that was once a near documentary of the time in which it was written back into a near documentary of artistic life today, it doesn't work.

I was also completely saddened to find out that the musical Rent has ruined my enjoyment of La Boheme. I can't help but compare the two as the opera progresses, playing Rent simultaneously in my head. This is no fault of the Washington National Opera's, and frankly, I'm pretty mad about it. La Boheme is an exquisite piece of music, and it does not deserve to have me thinking "this is the 'light my candle' song" as it unfolds.

At intermission, Placido Domingo, the General Director of the Washington Opera, made an appearance to speak to the crowd. He told us how happy he was to see so many people out to enjoy opera, and said he hoped that for some of us, this might be the first opera we've ever seen, and that it might inspire us to see more and learn more about the art form. It is a noble wish, and I hope it comes true, but from where I was sitting, I think it's doubtful.


GFD said...

I think I disagree with you. I have sat through many many many an opera in a stuffy theatre... all four acts and up to five hours of the performance. Sure it's dark and cool, but sometimes you just need to wiggle, discuss with your friends and drink Seagrams 7 and Coke. I love opera a whole lot, and I think this was a nice twist on it.

dc365 said...

You know, GFD, I wrote that review with some reluctance, because I'm certainly no opera expert. I wanted to like it, but it just wasn't happening for me. For others, I really hope it did. I like the idea of egalitarian opera.

I welcome differing opinions and more debate. Anyone else care to disagree?

caroline said...

You know, I was going to go to this, but the prospect of squinting at a screen in the bright sunlight on a hot day in a crowded environment just didn't appeal to me. Also, this adaptation got bad reviews (like the critics, I generally don't like it when someone tries to modernize an opera). Most importantly, you really lose a lot in sound quality with a broadcast. I'm going to wait until the $25 ticket nights for Generation O memebers.

When I was in college the Metropolitan Opera had a "Met in the Parks" program where the opera would come and put on live performances in small local parks during the late summer. I think this worked better because although there were no subtitles, you got to really hear the music, which is the main thing people come to see an opera for. Also, the performances were at night which had advantages-- cooler, fewer kids, easier to see the show, etc. The smaller parks made it a more intimate setting than the Mall.

dc365 said...

Caroline - thanks for chiming in. You totally nailed what I disliked about the experience. Met in the Parks sounds much more like what I was hoping Opera on the Mall would be!