Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Confessions of an Opera Lightweight




The gorgeous new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opened this year in Kansas City, and it is spectacular. Striking from the outside, it houses two concert halls, the Muriel Kauffman Auditorium and Helzberg Hall. It cements Kansas City’s position as at least a second-level cultural venue. The funding wa all private, and fortunately secured before the recession hit, or it never would have happened. This year, for its first season in Kauffman, the Lyric Opera planned a gala season. We renewed our season tickets, although for the same cost as our row 8 in the left orchestra in the old Lyric Theatre, we are now in the balcony of the Kauffman Auditorium, on the left. First row of the balcony, to be sure, but not as good as the second row would be; the guard rail which curves in front of us slices the left-hand third of the stage off unless you lean way forward.

For its first opera, the Lyric chose Puccini’s Turandot, mostly famous for the aria “Nessun Dorma”, popularized by Luciano Pavarotti. I have read and am told that it was grand grand opera, with elaborate expensive staging; quite the production. I had to read and be told about it because we were out of town that week, and gave our tickets away. The next opera was apparently a significant change, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti, in a modern setting. Unfortunately, despite Mozart’s music, we found the plot thin; indeed, found it kind of boring, and left after the first act. 0.5 for 2.

For its third opera, the Lyric did a new version of John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China. If you have never heard of it (as I hadn’t) you might think “Really? They make operas about that? I thought they were all old and in Italian!” Well, no. Some are new, and some are in English. As well as in German (like some Mozart – not Cosi or the wonderful Don Giovanni which are in Italian, but like the tremendously fun Magic Flute), French (Carmen) and other languages. Nixon is grand. And the music is impressive. But not to my taste. Kind of atonal. Like a lot (but not all) modern opera. I didn’t enjoy it, though I was able to appreciate that the music was impressive.

For me, kind of like Wagner. Grand, impressive music that might be fine to listen to in a concert if you like that sort of thing, but not exactly melodic. I like melodies. I like Italian opera – Verdi, Puccini, especially. When we used to live in Evanston there was a coffeehouse called “The Verdi and Puccini Opera Café” because the owner was also a fan. It was fun; a limited menu, but great pastries, and the waitstaff were all voice students from Northwestern. Every hour or so, they’d roll out a piano and two or three of them would sing, an aria or two each. Sometimes a duet. Not only Verdi and Puccini, but pretty much melodic songs. Not a Wagner in the bunch, nor any Schubert lieder or other art songs (which I also do not like); I assume the “art” is in the challenge to the singer, and I am equally sure that there are many people, maybe even some who are not music experts, who enjoy listening to them, but I am not one. I mean, I do like opera; we have had subscriptions to the Chicago Lyric when we lived there and to the Austin Opera when we lived in San Antonio (San Antonio didn’t have an opera company, but I liked to say we had season tickets to it – which meant we went to the one performance each year done by the New York City Opera traveling company!)

I don’t mean to be hard to please, but we also left after the first act of Nixon. Despite the fact that the plot involved real events that actually happened in my lifetime and the characters were real people (Nixon, Pat Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, Zhou Enlai) the plot was just as boring as a lot of the old operas that are about myths, heros, kings, and other stuff. I am a fan of democracy and regular people, so the Greek model of making stories about larger-than-life heros puts me off; however, I am willing to put up with operas about these kings and dukes and  if I like the melodic arias. Not, however, Wagner, and not Nixon.  This will not make my “fave” list of American operas in English, which, by the way, do exist. There are even many that are not atonal and are melodic and fun; Bernstein’s, for example, especially Candide. And Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley, another one about regular people. Or Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

I might have like the spectacle of Turandot if we had been able to see it; I did like the spectacle of Aïda (Verdi) when they did it a couple of years ago, and it is Puccini. However, it is one of my least favorite Puccini, and it is about kings and princesses and heroes. The opera I really like most, mostly because it is just full of lovely melodies but also because it is about regular people, is La Boheme (Puccini). Once we even saw it done at Northwestern, and it was really fun because it was the only time I saw it when the singers were about the actual ages of the characters they were portraying.

So I am looking forward to the last opera of the season, which will be XX. More melody, I expect. And, while I like Verdi, especially La Traviata, and Mozart, especially Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro and I like Puccini, the fact is that Madama Butterfly is getting old, and Turandot is mostly boring. And most of them are about heroes and kings and dukes.

Maybe I should just stick to La Boheme.