Carren's Pitch

Life by Design


An Opera Virgin’s First Time

Posted by Carren |

I didn’t think I’d touch opera with a 10-foot pole. Opera meant pompadours and pomp. They were big voices spouting unintelligible words to an audience bored to tears, but chained to their seats for fear of being viewed as uncultured. Expensive tickets didn’t help get me into the seat either. But finally, the day came when I was seated in $103 seats, waiting for the black curtain to signal the start of Glimmerglass Opera’s production of the tragic romance, “La Traviata.”

I was at an opera as part of my Arts Journalism studies at Syracuse University. Luckily, I didn’t have to shell out the money to see this opera, it was probably indirectly financed by our tuition fees. Nevertheless, I was one of the four fortunate few with seats that lined up with center stage. From where I was seated, I could see the action at a reasonable distance. I would not, as I would later find out from my classmates, be distracted by cast members out of character reflected on the large mirrors onstage.

Up to that point, the only opera I had seen were clips from Franco Zeffirelli's movie version Teresa Stratas, Plácido Domingo and Cornell MacNeil, which my class screened in preparation for the live performance. In the few clips we saw, we were told the story of Violetta, a courtesan who gives up her ways to be with Alfredo, a naïve somewhat slow young man in my opinion.

Then, like in all stories, conflict arises. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, comes to Violetta convincing her to leave Alfredo for his own good. Heartbroken, Violetta leaves her lover hurt and confused by her sudden change of heart.

In the end, Giorgio confesses everything to his son. Alfredo returns to Violetta and they are reunited, but only for a short time before Violetta finally dies in his arms. After two or more hours of this playing, I already had my fill of extravagant sets and Italian singing, and I wondered if the live performance was going to be similarly alienating.

Back inside the opera house, the lights dimmed and conversation between my classmates and me stopped. One lone spotlight shone brightly onstage, the dust particles floating gently downward within it. Despite myself, I could feel goosebumps rise.

Something tugged at my heart. The memory of being in theater myself bubbled up unexpectedly. I remembered how it felt to be a cast member waiting in the wings minutes before the curtain rises. Those minutes were always the most exciting. It was there that everyone stood on a figurative precipice, ready to jump into his role for the night. How it would turn out? Nobody knew, and that was part of the thrill.

The audience held their breath waiting for the music to begin. They too felt the excitement of the unknown. The meandering music began slowly, winding itself around the house, as if casting a spell on its audience, taking them back more than a century in time.

The music then picked up the tempo and the curtains rose to reveal a party. It hopped and skipped over notes and bodies in ball gowns assembled. Gaiety was the name of the game and lights were on full blast. A few minutes into the show, I was surprised to hear familiar strains of music from the mouth of Alfredo Germont, played by tenor Ryan Machpherson.

Libiamo, libiamo ne'lieti calici…,” he sang. And I was delighted. I knew this song. I could not sing it, but I heard it often enough, perhaps from the radio or in the background of a movie. The sudden gush of familiarity was enough to make me sit up and pay better attention. Perhaps I wasn’t in such a strange territory after all.

Then, Violetta Valery, on whom the whole opera revolves around, enters the scene. American soprano Mary Dunleavy played Violetta. She not only does a credible job, but shines onstage. I had nothing to compare her performance to except Stratas’s crazy-eyed interpretation of Violetta, but in the first few minutes, I could tell Dunleavy knew every nook and cranny of her role.

What’s more, she could humanize the role of Violetta. She acted subtly, engaging the whole of the intimate theater. Her smile radiated as Violetta fell bit by bit for Alfredo’s advances. The panic in her voice was evident, despite the operatic singing, when Violetta realizes she had to give Alfredo up. Finally, my heart went out to her as she climbs the heights of jubilation at Alfredo’s return, only to come crashing down again when she realizes she does not have the strength to even get out of bed.

Dunleavy’s voice was even more impressive. Her voice continued effortlessly while standing up, sitting down, and amazingly while lying in bed. It was hard enough to sing, but to act and move seemed almost an inhuman feat.

The other principals held their own with Dunleavy, but unquestionably this production stood on the talent of the Violetta character. Baritone Malcom Mackenzie was Giorgio Germont, father to Alfredo and sometimes villain-sometimes ally in the story. This time, I enjoyed Cornell MacNeil’s tenderer rendition of it in the movie version. While Mackenzie’s voice carried strong throughout the house, it never wavered, it never molded to the emotion of the character. It didn’t soften to sympathize with Violetta as he urges Violetta to vent out her emotions in “Piangi, piangi (Weep, weep).”

Macpherson as Alfredo wasn’t as memorable, most probably because of the character’s flaws. The Alfredo character was written really as a device to move the plot along. Macpherson stays in my mind only because he sang “Libiamo ne'lieti calici” at the beginning.

Aside from these principal performances, what drew me to the opera were two very different aspects. The choral singing and the silences.

When the chorus sings, it is always in harmony. I’ve been in theater productions with amateur voices, and to hear such voices moving in unison always takes my breath away. I know my high school theater group was always scraping by, but you never really understand how far you have to push yourself to even come within 6 feet of beautiful harmony until you hear the professionals do it.

Strangely, the frequent silences also added to the opera. Rather than to jump in with a new song as quickly as possible, the orchestra and cast allowed the audience to sit in the quiet for a while. Not one dissonant sound could be heard and only the night wind whistled softly. It was those moments of silence that allowed the last strains of music to be savored.

Now, I won’t lie. I wasn’t wide awake at all times of the show. I can’t shake the fast-paced culture of life in the 21st century in just two hours. There were times the singing would put me to sleep. The task was made easier by a warm blanket provided by the opera house to ward against the cold night air. I felt better though because the man beside me was fast asleep as well, and I know for a fact he often went to the opera.

At long drawn out scenes, I found myself looking around the audience. I looked at the faces of senior citizens and I wondered if they found themselves transported to a different era, perhaps to a slower pace of life most of them would have grown up in.

When Violetta finally dies and the curtain fell on the stage. I heaved a sigh of relief. The night was magical, but I was ready to get back to the real world. The staging was appealing, and I was grateful for the chance to fight through my biases. It turns out the opera wasn’t too hoity-toity at all. It was just enough to get you in mood for the finer things in life.

In the end, what drew me was not the preconception of taste and sophistication attached to being an opera-lover, but the palpable passion and artistry that goes into any theater production—only this time set to impossibly complicated music.

I would consider going to an opera again, and this time, I’d leave the 10-foot pole at home.

Photo credits:
Photo 1 by: Carren Jao, onstage at the Glimmerglass Opera
Photo 2: Screen capture of Ma
ry Dunleavy, playing Violetta at Metropolitan Opera's La Traviata from artist site


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