Monday, November 24, 2008

Opera, in a Cornfield, With Popcorn

When I lived in Chicago, I was lucky enough to have annual subscriptions to the Lyric Opera. On performance evenings, my husband and I would take the train downtown to the Metra Station, and walk across the river to the opera house. We would linger as long as we could in the mezzanine, people-watching. I liked surreptitiously guessing the cost of ladies' purses and spying Hermès scarves. Then of course we would settle into our seats and be treated to a unforgettable performance at one of the world's best opera houses.

When I moved downstate to go to grad school, I caught a couple of productions at the university, but it wasn't until I moved to Los Angeles that I discovered the Met's Live in HD series. If you love opera but either live far from an established opera house or balk at the price of opera tickets (uh, yeah!), I encourage you to check this out! Here's what happens:
  • About once a month during the season, the Met streams live performances in High Definition to movie theaters all over the world. Originally, venues were limited, but they've expanded to the extent that I was thrilled to find, moving back to Central Illinois from LA, I could even catch a production surrounded by cornfields!
  • Tickets run about $22.
  • Thanks to the camera work, you have the best seats in the house. You can see the actors' expressions and catch details that you would miss from Row ZZZ.
  • In between scenes and during intermission, cameras go behind-stage following cast and crew, and famous opera stars [not involved in the current production] interview the leads about their roles and philosophies.
  • You can feast on popcorn and soda while you watch the performance!
On Saturday, my husband and I saw the Met's HD production La Damnation de Faust, by Hector Berlioz, in our local theater. First performed in 1846, it's rarely staged as an opera--typically it's performed in concert venues--because of the odd musical structure. (In fact, this is the first Met theatrical production of Damnation since 1906!) I was unfamiliar with the music and the opera, although of course I knew the basic story line of Faust and Mephistopheles. I always do my homework before I see a new opera, and happily the Met's website gave a good synopsis of the plot as well as an intriguing video on this particular production. Here, the producer uses video technology to smooth along the long musical episodes that originally made Berlioz's creation so difficult to stage. It's very new and, in my opinion, I found the video special effects + dance sequences stunning. I also adored the music. I already love Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique; I found the score of Damnation incredibly satisfying as well. The performers were...okay. Aside from Mephistopheles, who was captivating with his deep voice and red leather costume, I wasn't too excited. No hotties (see below).

More stuff about opera.

Homework: opera can be overwhelming, so you will enjoy it more if you prepare ahead of time.
  • Opera companies almost always will provide a plot synopsis online, which is especially helpful when the opera is performed in a foreign language. If you already know what's going on, you are less of a slave to the surtitles.
  • Borrow a CD from your library of either the full opera or one with the highlights, and listen to the music beforehand.
  • The Lyric Opera seasonally produces commentaries on each of its productions; most likely other companies do too. In these recordings, an opera expert presents an insider's view of the history of the opera, the plot, the composer, and the music. For example, the Commentary for the Lyric's production of The Magic Flute pointed out all the musical and lyrical Masonic symbols that Mozart, himself a Mason, hid within the opera. I was able to check out these CDs from my local library, or they're available for purchase.
  • Read books on opera. I recommend Ticket to the Opera, A Night at the Opera, or Opera 101. Written for the opera novice, these guides include plotlines, historical facts, and often suggested recordings.
  • Become familiar with the Opera stars. Let's face it: too often when we think of an opera singer, Elmer Fudd in a horned helmet comes to mind. And there are a lot of overweight, unattractive but talented performers out there--maybe better if you can't see them too close. But there are some really hot divas right now: Renée Fleming (did you see her spread in the October 2008 Vogue?!), Angela Gheorghiu, and my own favorite, gorgeous Anna Netrebko.
The next Met Live in HD production is Massenet's Thaïs with opera heavyweights Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson, on December 20, 2008. Check here for theaters and times near you. If you've never been to an opera, and want to see a live production, I recommend starting with Carmen, The Barber of Seville, or any Puccini (my favorite!--you can seePuccini's famous Madama Butterfly via the Live in HD series on March 7, 2009!).

Okay, so don't go thinking opera is all serious business. In fact, while my husband and I were thoroughly entertained by the action on screen this past Saturday at La Damnation de Faust, there were plenty of high-jinks in the seats too. Like what, you ask?

Well, first of all, when we stepped into the theater, the average age dropped from about 85 to, well, maybe, 83 (and we're over forty, so do the math). People were saving space for their friends by draping their canes across the seats.

My husband sat on my right and, on my left, sat a Birkenstock-and-wool-sock-wearing elderly woman. She prepared for the opera by opening her lunch. In a baggie she had brought some ciabatta bread, cut into slices. In another bag, a hunk of cheese.

She handed the bread around to her friends. Then, brandishing a knife, she called down the row, "If you need to CUT THE CHEESE, I have a knife! [emphases mine]" (It was a sharp knife, too!) She kept yelling, "Do you need to CUT THE CHEESE?" which of course my husband and I found childishly hysterical. Finally, she offered around her lone water bottle. "We each get ONE DRINK," she ordered.

She fell asleep during the first act and started to snore.

Intermission was a riot. A lady in the front row passed around Christmas cookies. "I brought in contraband, so you all better finish it before we get caught," she announced to the audience. I chatted to the lady next to me about opera star (another hottie) Nathan Gunn, who lives locally. "I know he's an artist, and this shouldn't affect the way I feel about him," she confided to me, shaking her head, "But I just don't think of him the same way since I found out he voted for John McCain!" (This is why I love living in a liberal college town. I love how she just assumed that I would find this rumour as abhorrent as she did ;-) !)

Quite different from the last time my husband and I went to the theater, to see Quantum of Solace. The entire University of Illinois football team sat behind us, and there were no knives nor snores that I could tell. But damn, could those boys eat popcorn.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! Opera is definitely one of those cultural opportunities that I've been missing out on, just for lack of knowledge, but I'm interested in making it more of a habit!

The last time I went to an opera I was 14 and on a school trip with, amongst others, the boy who is now my husband. We almost got thrown out for laughing at an obese baritone dressed in a cape...

Oh, and at first I thought your title said "Oprah eating popcorn!" :)

M.Lane said...

Thanks for this GREAT post! I know little of opera and it was a great primer.

And...the perfume piece was lovely also. How can you go wrong with Chanel or Guerlain? One of my favorite colognes is Guerlain Coriolan, discontinued here now. And Imperiale is often called the Prince of Colognes for men. But I love my Gucci pour Homme also....

Great work!

Sea Angels said...

I'm no lover of Opera, but give me Ballet, or Music and I am your girl....but I still very much enjoyed reading your really interesting post.
Have a lovely week
Hugs Lynn xx

Susan said...

Great post! I've been to a few of the HD performances and, like you, am usually one of the youngest, unless someone brings their grandchild along. When I saw Magic Flute, the guy next to me wore this noisy nylon jacket and kept reaching over to his companion's lap for popcorn, which he ate with his mouth open in between taking large slurps of soda. There's something to be said for plunking down the extra money for a seat in the opera house...

At first I misread this and thought that the football team was there too. That blew my mind for a moment.

Now I'm just trying to convince myself that the woman next to you would have no idea who Nathan Gunn, or anyone else for that matter, voted for...

CashmereLibrarian said...

Susan: I know--I laughed, and asked her how she knew about Nathan Gunn's politics. She replied, loudly, "Well, I MAY BE WRONG; he didn't TELL me!" Who knows??!
City Sage, M.Lane, and Sea Angels: thanks for your comments! LOVE getting to know you through your blogs...

Drammy said...

Ah, I take the train [all the way from Naperville] to get the Lyric as well, and I'm usually the target of aforementioned people watching. Because of course if one is decked out for the opera house, one sticks out like a sore thumb on the train, and in the train station. The "What's wrong with her mind?" - stares stop as soon as one hits the streets, thankfully.

Not to be contentious, but Anna Netrebko?! Diana Damrau, please :-P

I'll need to catch HD sometime; possibly going to see Madama Butterfly and Cav/Pag at the Lyric, but who knows? HD will be much less of a stretch, considering my parents, who are always dismayed upon learning that I actually want to go to more than one opera per season...

Paul Pincus said...

the barber of seville! my personal favourite. i love anna netrebko. she's gorgeous and so gifted. terrific post. cheers, -p.p.

Kelli said...

Looks amazing! Thank you for so much information on the Opera and more! My hubby and I went to Opera Garnier one evening, and wow, what an experience!

Bee said...

I've never heard of this Met Live series. What a good idea: Bringing opera to the masses! (I wonder what the Quantum football crowd would have thought of it?)

So many delightful details in this! I laughed, snorted and chortled. We often go to music concerts, where we are definitely the young'uns in the crowd, but they never bring food . . . although I do remember an elderly nun drawing furious glances when she (very loudly) unwrapped her candy.

vicki archer said...

I am pretty much a novice on many operas but have to say I do love it when I get to go. I think your tips are excellent and I always read up and listen before a performance. I agree there is always as much action in the auditorium as there is on stage!
Thank you for your lovely comment on French Essence and yes, the harvest was great success. xv

Susan said...

I thought of this post today when I taught my 4 year old son what "cut the cheese" means.

Bart Boehlert said...

Hi Cashmere Librarian, what a great name you have! Thanks for visiting my blog. I am learning about opera and try to get to the Met once a year-- The Glimmerglass Opera House in Cooperstown, NY is great

Petunia said...

How cool! I had no idea that the Met streamed live in HD!!! I am going to check out my local availability.
I am laughing at the old ladies and their snacks!