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McNally's nights at the opera

The three Terrence McNally plays that the Kennedy Center recently presented under the heading “Nights at the Opera” raised some interesting questions about classical music’s relationship to the rest of what we, for lack of a better word, term “culture.” I saw “Golden Age” and “The Lisbon Traviata,” the two plays I hadn’t seen yet (“Master Class” being the third) and was left, beyond the sense of a guilty pleasure experienced, with a sense of wistfulness at how odd, how very distant opera seems from the real world.

This surely wasn’t McNally’s intention: each of the plays is in its own way a love letter to opera. And one might think of them as doing a kind of missionary work in bringing opera to theater audiences who aren’t normally exposed to it. (Tangent: I’d love to know how many WNO subscribers went to “Nights at the Opera,” and how many of the play-goers are also regular opera-goers. My guess is that there would have been a lot more overlap forty years ago than there is now.)
(read more after the jump)

McNally certainly wants to make it all accessible, but he tends to do this with a steady stream of overeager jabs of the elbow: in “Golden Age,” set backstage during the premiere of Bellini’s “I Puritani” in 1835, the gags included a singer who kept stuffing his pants with fruit to create a suitably impressive bulge. The intended point seemed to be that it was all wacky and wild and wonderful. Unfortunately, rather than giving much new insight into opera, the play reinforced old stereotypes -- those dueling sopranos! -- and a hoary, romantic vision of an artist’s single-mindedness, genius, and human deficiencies. (At one point, the composer’s wish to listen to his own music rather than the outpourings of one of the characters -- who included the historical sopranos Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta -- was presented as a sign of his self-absorption; in real life, the composer would probably be listening even more keenly.)

Many classical music lovers do what McNally has done: emphasize the stereotypes of the field in order to bring it across to others who have no idea how to approach this strange beast. This has the effect of pushing away exactly what they want to bring closer. Conveying the idea, as McNally does, that opera is an elevated farce may work for laughs, or even for grand-guignol tragedy (the end of “The Lisbon Traviata,” when opera invades life). But I’m not sure it works to make people actually more interested in the form; rather, it’s serving the form up for laughs at its own expense, rather like someone making fun of her partner at a dinner party for the amusement of the assembled company, but not of the partner in question.

I’m curious how the plays work for people who know nothing about opera at all. For me, it struck a sour note that it was so obviously play-acted. The actors in “The Lisbon Traviata” didn’t know the correct Italian pronunciation of some words that true opera buffs would never miss (like “Pesaro,” Rossini’s home town) or the actual tunes of the opera arias they tried to sing -- small details, to be sure, but ones that made the characterizations more campy for me than revelatory. And then there was the question of technique: the actors’ declamation in “Golden Age,” rapid and unsupported and hard to understand, might have benefited from more classical training. Those may sound like insider quibbles, but I believe they're exactly the opposite. I think that classical-music insiders tend to overlook or excuse the kinds of small lapses that put off non-aficionados (like the shoddy-looking costumes in a small-time "Carmen"). I think the more attention you pay to detail, and the realer you make something, the more likely you are to reach people who aren't already captivated by the charm of your premise.

McNally did put some insider-only touches in both plays as well (I wonder if the final quote from “Carmen” in “The Lisbon Traviata” was meant to separate the opera buffs, who couldn’t help but recognize it, from the drama critics, who were less likely to note its provenance). There’s no question that he himself has a genuine love of opera. After seeing “Golden Age,” I found myself on a “Puritani” kick for a couple of days (“Credeasi, misera” became a new earworm). Part of what drove me to it was the fact that I couldn’t actually hear more than snippets of the opera during the play: in fact, a work written to highlight the opera turned it, literally, into background music.

Any contrasting thoughts on the McNally plays? Or -- throwing open the door -- nominations for books, movies, or plays that have effectively depicted the realities of classical music or opera?

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By Anne Midgette  |  April 21, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , opera , random musings  
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My sense is that in the U.S. opera is learned/appreciated either by listening to Met broadcasts (if memory serves, this is how McNally became acquainted) or through a mentor who provides an introduction over time.

For the appreciation to turn into a lifetime of opera-going, requires a corresponding response from the ingenue. Either it happens or it doesn't.

There may be millions of operagoers, mainly women, who attend La Boheme when they want a good cry, as someone once said to me. But these folks do not go beyond that experience. The most recent James Bond extravaganza had rather extensive scenes at the Bregenz festival's outdoor production of Tosca (the all-seeing eye, and all that). This may represent somewhat of an advance over most other Hollywood productions which rely on Boheme (or maybe snippets of Mozart) for atmospherics.

Anyhow, like any challenging medium, opera requires diligence as well as affection. It therefore will always remain something for a small segment of the population. And, of course, there's the issue of quality of performance. If a neophyte should visit the Washington Opera on a bad night, it's sayonara, I'm afraid.

Posted by: JohnRDC | April 21, 2010 6:25 AM | Report abuse

We saw all three plays and enjoyed them. We see a lot of opera and theatre and enjoyed the fact that we were familiar with the operatic terms used in all three plays. We were wondering what others who were totally foreign to the world of opera would get out of the plays. At the end of "Golden Age" I told the lady next to me about the latest "I Puritani" DVD from the Met. She was not familiar with the opera world and the play sparked the interest in her to see the opera. I suspect that at a minimum the plays will get a few novices more interested in opera.

Posted by: Mike-Klein | April 21, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

In the 1990s, Studio Theatre staged a "Lisbon Traviata", where the actors, including Floyd King, were alert to the nuances of Italian pronunciation, etc.

There are still a few "Lisbon Traviata"-type opera fanatics who post on blogs. But these hothouse (and hotheaded) opera aficianados are fewer in number in the U.S. (very sadly, quite a few succumbed to HIV-related illnesses). Nearly all of the people I see at the opera nowadays have little in common with the sterotypical characters of "Lisbon Traviata". With many other issues in the world competing for our attention, getting hyped up about opera is mostly a bygone indulgence (except for the loggionisti and other diehards).

Having seen the original production of "Master Class", once was enough.

As for accurate depictions of opera in other media, the film "Meeting Venus" with Glen Close is closer in spirit to the world of opera than any play I've seen. Plus, there are some impressive singers, Kiri Te kanawa, Rene Kollo, Hakan Hagegard, Waltraud Meier, on the soundtrack.

"Fitzcarraldo" is an interesting of one man's (Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald's) obsessive desire to raise enough money to build an opera house in Iquitos, Peru. The principal character's looniness might make for a compelling, "Sweeney Odd", opera.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | April 22, 2010 7:01 AM | Report abuse

My boyfriend and I went to "Lisbon Traviata" and "Master Class." He doesn't know much about opera or classical music. I don't think he noticed or cared about any of the details you mentioned. First and foremost, he was focused on the play as a play, about people dealing with issues and the themes surrounding those issues. The main thing that impressed him, at least when it came to classical music, was that people could be so passionate about music at all. He also kept asking me two questions: "What's 'La Traviata' about?" and "Was Maria Callas really that big a deal?" When we went home we put on Zeffireli's movie of "La Traviata," which he enjoyed.

Posted by: robertcostic | April 22, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

for classical music: amadeus & the one about beethoven. for opera: diva. it's a french new wave movie from the 80s featuring a gorgeous soprano and plenty of hip, manly men. also features the aria from 'la wally'. not about music-making perse but love of opera (and the people who make it) is the centerpiece.

here's a link. the clip shows the moment the young hero falls under the spell of the music.

Posted by: lschef | April 25, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

How about the movie Farinelli for baroque opera? or the movie Five Easy Pieces for a peek behind the scenes at the classical music world? Or the book "The Time of Our Singing," a magnificent novel that (among other things) looks into the modern early music performance world, by Richard Powers, who is a new inductee into the Academy of Arts and Letters. Those are my favorites.

Posted by: dfroom | April 25, 2010 10:17 PM | Report abuse

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