The Metropolitan Opera is more than a village, as opera star Susan Graham has said. It’s a zip code. And it’s now a zip code that will be empty until New Year’s Eve. The Met announced last week that the first few months of its upcoming season are canceled.
Smaller organizations that don’t need so much time to rev up their engines maintain wait-and-see hope, including Opera Philadelphia, whose Festival 020 is still in play, according to a spokesperson.
There’s no lack of great opera online, of course. But as much as I’ve loved dipping into the world’s great opera archives, there are essential missing ingredients that we never fully appreciated before live opera went on pause. Chief among them: grandeur — and the act of sharing the experience with nearly 4,000 people who momentary feel like family, even though you’ve never met them before and may never see them again.
The starting point of grandeur, oddly enough, is molecules (not to be confused with droplets). Not discussed publicly but commonly held among performers is the idea that audience rapport comes from the music’s ability to rearrange the molecules in the air so that everyone is, as they say, on the same page. And thanks to its lack of artificial amplification, opera commandeers a lot of molecules.
Singers also talk about accessing energy beyond themselves. So there’s something spiritual going on there. That’s one explanation why humble, impromptu operatic recitals given in recent weeks on the sidewalks of Brooklyn by baritone Peter Kendall Clark and friends had a power that left many bystanders in tears.
And then there’s time: Opera takes up a lot of that, and the mere act of spending a substantial part of the day in the company of great artists has its own power. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was conveniently cut down to manageable length for a Broadway revival in 2012. But the box office success of the full opera’s return to the Met earlier this season, in a production headed by Philadelphia’s Eric Owens, suggests that Broadway’s cut version only primed audiences for the real thing.
Operatic scale is perhaps best beheld from the Met’s nosebleed seats, at the top balcony, when you feel like you’re halfway to Connecticut but can hear in ways that suggest that singer and orchestra are only a few feet away. A few years ago when attending an opera I don’t especially like (Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West) to hear a singer who wasn’t in his best form (Jonas Kaufmann), I still marveled — no, I was gobsmacked — by the force that comes with several hundred soloists, choristers, instrumentalists, and backstage personnel making this thing happen.
This is not to say that opera is like sex (even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good) because when it goes wrong, it does so on a scale that’s achievable in no other art form.
And the operatic experience is more than the performance. There’s the intermissions, for example. No art form has as many self-appointed experts. Some analyze vocal tone and trills, others recall hearing the divas of old, and others debate character interpretation, especially since the stalker pathology of Carmen’s Don Jose eludes a clear-cut diagnosis.
The Met’s top balcony is particularly good for that. The cheap seats is where you find the true opera geeks (yes, even ones from Philadelphia) who are there as often as financially possible. And the Met’s half-hour intermissions (often needed to change the gargantuan sets) offer plenty of time for caffeine-fueled debate.
And oh, yes, the sets. You may have noticed they’re getting increasingly grand and provocative in Philadelphia. At the Met, they’ve been high-tech marvels for years. The sets for Wagner’s Ring cycle weighed 45 tons, and demanded that the stage be reinforced. The Franco Zeffirelli productions border on being tourist destinations, with the glittering Chinese throne room of Turandot and Christmas Eve-in-Paris street scene in La Boheme.
But as much as one loves opera for offering much-needed vacations from the current century, the art form has guts — thanks to its universal themes. Just before the lockdown, I saw the Met’s simulcast of Handel’s Agrippina at the University City Cinemark, with its story of ancient Rome transformed into a modern-dress political power-grabbing parable. And because it was on a large screen, these themes were still writ extremely large.
The limitations of relaying opera from stage to online are subtle. It’s the difference between an experience that’s mesmerizing and one that’s merely impressive. This is not to downgrade the impressive part, especially since recorded performances offer cinematic close-ups. That counts for a lot, and productions created specifically for online consumption truly capitalize on them.
In Heartbeat Opera’s recent video of the sleepwalking scene from Verdi’s Macbeth, soprano Felicia Moore was her own, at-home cinematographer, shooting herself doing the singing at close proximity with, of course, lots of blood and handwashing — and modern drains that recalled the famous shower scene from Psycho. A chamber reduction of the original three witches orchestration skillfully went to the musical heart of scene.
The video was presented in “LADY M” soirees between May 11 and June 6 with paid admission — all 32 were sold out — with suggestions that viewers dress for the occasion and maybe prepare a plate of cheese and crackers. Viewers were greeted before and after via videoconferencing, with post-performance conversations. So you had the intermission effect. “They really appreciated being seen and heard,” said co-artistic director Ethan Heard in an email. But can the whole of Verdi’s opera be encompassed in this medium? We’ll see.
Among opera administrators, it’s widely agreed that watered-down grandeur isn’t going to work, and not everybody can be expected to be as clever as Heartbeat Opera.
The all-absorbing magnetism of grand opera is underscored in what’s left of the Met’s 2020-2021 season. One survivor is the Jake Heggie opera Dead Man Walking, which has been making the rounds since its 2000 premiere.
It’s based on the story of the real-life Sister Helen Prejean, whose work with death-row criminals in Louisiana was dramatized in the 1995 film and who has reemerged in recent days as a major voice in solidarity with protesters. “The story is very American but universal,” said Heggie this week in an email. “The big themes … are central to everything we are and have been dealing with in our country — social justice, who decides who lives and dies, who gets what … Are we for forgiveness and redemption, or damnation?”
Heggie gives a lot of credit to librettist Terrence McNally, the playwright who died of COVID-19 at the beginning of the lockdown. But who ever thought that opera would come to the nation’s rescue? Maybe it has — in its own expansive way — all along.