OCEAN GROVE, N.J. - The irreverent old nickname for this sleepy Victorian-era camp-meeting site - Ocean Grave - was anything but true Saturday. Lines of people snaked around the Great Auditorium for Destination: Opera, a weekend festival that could change the complexion of this area of the Jersey Shore.
Inside the vast, buzzing auditorium, a TV light-and-camera crew that spends cold-weather months at the Metropolitan Opera was preparing to shoot a high-def video of the Verdi Requiem performed by the resurrected New Jersey State Opera, an organization that's been battling uphill for so long that one board member looked at the near-full main floor and inquired, "These are paid admissions?"
Well, two-thirds of them were (the rest were free to senior-citizen groups) - and getting 3,200 people into the auditorium for a classical-music event was notable in itself. Years of high-crime reports in adjacent Asbury Park also affected Ocean Grove. But a boom in beach attendance this year - 600,000 by some estimates - suggests that cloud has lifted, and radio personality Elliott Forrest from New York's WQXR, who introduced the Requiem, predicted "a lot more in the years to come."
The concert will be telecast on New Jersey NJN (Channels 23 and 52) in November, though patrons were encouraged to make a $50 donation to the opera company on the spot in exchange for their own DVD of the performance. Though staged grand opera has yet to happen, there's a definite sense of critical mass: The Verdi Requiem is an imposing, limits-testing work that demands attention. The festival concluded Sunday with staged chamber opera, Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, across the square at the Youth Temple.
A panel on Friday brought together civic leaders who needed no convincing about Destination: Opera's impact on the entire region, most especially bigger, noisier Asbury Park. "The question is, how can we expand on this," said Tom Gilmour, Asbury Park's director of commerce. "We're embracing the arts. This is what we see our recovery coming from."
In fact, Asbury Park - which, like Ocean Grove, has a large gay, arts-supporting population - is also the new home of the ReVision Theater, transplanted from New York into a circular carousel building that's a short walk from the Great Auditorium.
The standard summer-festival model - a desirable non-urban destination with good performing facilities and close proximity to major population bases - fits Ocean Grove so well that Jason Tramm, who was music director of the Great Auditorium before also landing the New Jersey State Opera last year, couldn't believe that so much potential was unrealized.
"People didn't make a big deal out of it, but I said, 'This is a big deal,' " says the wild-haired 34-year-old conductor. " 'Why isn't there more classical music here?' "
The 115-year-old Great Auditorium, which seats 6,000, is a majestic wooden structure with a curved roof and dramatic support beams that musicians describe as "Noah's ark turned upside down." Leonard Bernstein reportedly compared its acoustics to Carnegie Hall's.
An exaggeration? Not when you're sitting so far from the stage that you can't see which singers' lips are moving but their sound seems to be coming from right next to you.
As with many great halls, this one has its quirks: Percussion instruments pop like gunshots. When upper-level windows are opened, seagulls can be unwanted gate crashers. Lacking a proper proscenium, the auditorium presents challenges for staged opera. Reconfiguration would be necessary; opera company officials are logistically optimistic on that front.
In other respects, quaintness is rampant. The town's architecture suggests a Victorian time warp. The conductor was introduced as "Dr. Tramm," a respectful Old World mode of address used with musicians whether doctors or not. Prior to the concert, a prayer, thoughtfully written for the occasion, was offered up.
A more Presbyterian town might have a problem with something as secular, loud, and potentially vulgar as opera. Not here, says Tramm. "The Camp Meeting Association, the organization that runs the auditorium, has been nothing but cooperative. Culture is part of their mission. We've always had famous opera singers in Ocean Grove. Caruso sang here. And that history is helpful: They see the value of great art."
The New Jersey State Opera threatened to disappear after the 2006 death of its longtime artistic chief, Alfredo Silipigni, under whom Tramm apprenticed. The company long specialized in presenting grand opera to the Newark area with up-and-coming stars such as Placido Domingo - thanks partly to cultural spillover from the rich resources of New York.
In its new incarnation, Tramm & Co. have discovered the nearness of Philadelphia to Ocean Grove, which is 90 minutes by car (as opposed to two hours by train from New York). Some of the chorus members came from Philadelphia. The NJSO's return to staging grand opera - Porgy and Bess at Newark's Symphony Hall next year - has sets from the Opera Company of Philadelphia, plus its leading man, Gregg Baker, who sang his first Porgy in Philadelphia. Imagine what a partnership with Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts could yield.
And partnerships are in order. Though the company's underdog comeback has great sentimental appeal, a recently reawakened opera organization didn't take on Verdi with the bulletproof authority of a seasoned company. The chorus has its share of chinks, specifically among the mezzo-sopranos, and more generally in the group's ability to handle Verdi's tricky counterpoint.
Similar pitfalls in the orchestral writing were skillfully skirted. The Judgment Day trumpets positioned in the Great Auditorium balcony played with laudable refinement. The casting of the vocal soloists - as crucial as in any Verdi opera - was solid second string. There was one exception: Tenor Franco Tenelli, who began his career at the Tbilisi National Opera but seems to have been hidden away in Canada since the mid-1990s. The auditorium acoustics, in particular, adored his sound and phrasing. Use of words was superb. Might there be a place for him next year?