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Grumpy Old Men

As an avowed opera-goer, my preferred locale is Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I’ll readily admit that I have painfully little patience for the throngs of tourists that make the Theater District an ambling, sight-seen garish miasma on the order of a mid-town Ellis Island. (“Give me your fanny-packed, your Drakkar Noir spritzed, your huddled masses yearning for Olive Garden…”) Fine — I’ll admit it: I’m also a snob. But after a long workday, Lincoln Center’s travertine Plaza — even with its current redevelopment in full effect — can feel something like a Doric temple to the Great White Way’s Thunderdome.

Nevertheless, I’ll admit that it’s been a notably good season for theater of the non-sung variety. Wanting to make the most of a recently renewed TDF membership, I’ve partaken like a protein-starved marathoner celebrating at a Brazilian steakhouse. To have witnessed a few of the Theater District’s stunning dramatic coups over the past few months has given me some unexpected — yet appreciated — perspective about the opera stage’s own goings-on. Since it’s just after Easter, let’s make “ecumenical” the word of the artistic day as well.

Here’s my unsolicited advice: run, do not walk, to see Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, where Jim Norton’s character, Richard, takes to the stage like a blind, besotted Falstaff, and in the process confirms that someone can still qualify as “human” — ironically more so than some other characters — despite having 70% of their fluid body-weight comprised of Jameson whiskey. After that, get a ticket to The Homecoming, where Ian McShane, as the patriarch Max, offers up Pinter-pauses with enough causticity to tear a hole in the space-time continuum. Finally, head to the Met and catch Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto‘s genuinely masterful portrayal of Silva in the revival of the early-Verdi gem Ernani — a performance so truthful and detailed in its bitterness as to suggest that the opera should have been titled after Furlanetto’s puritanical vengeance-obsessed graybeard. Yes, it’s been a particularly good season for curmudgeons and the theatrical arts. Bah humbug.

Granted, all three of these performances seem to have little else in common than the grumpy old men at their respective centers. But seeing them all within the last few weeks has confirmed for me — in a way, I suspect, that is not necessarily a tautology for many opera goers — that good acting is simply good acting … regardless of the tempo at which it occurs. As someone who has often approached opera from a purely musical perspective, I’ve always thought of acting in the opera house with some necessary caveats. Firstly, that singers have more important things to worry about than suspending an audience’s sense of dramatic disbelief — that is, it’s their job to just sing, and any genuine thespiansim that results is something of a pleasant surprise. Secondly, that opera functions at a pace revolving around emotional, rather than purely dramatic exposition. Thirdly, that conveying dramatic subtlety in theaters the size of most American opera houses can be difficult without the use of semaphore flags.

I’d argue that, to some degree, tepid drama in American opera houses is symptomatic of this country’s fundamentally uneasy relationship with the art form itself. After all, opera isn’t ours — rather, the Broadway Musical is. So who are we to try to prod and poke and ferret out modicums of truth at the risk of exposing our ignorance? This sense of unease has the added pang of being reinforced by the fact that most operas simply aren’t in our language. American stage directors not fluent in Italian, German or French can very easily find their productions literally lost in translation, and — to say nothing of projected titles — their audiences left at a double-remove. So perhaps, for longer than we’d like to admit, opera audiences have buried our heads in the concrete realities afforded by the scores, treating these slightly alien works with kid gloves and, in the process, have upheld a hegemony of musico-dramatic-sans-drama. Meanwhile the Germans have turned Mozart into a Classical-era Bob Guccione.

Granted, I’m generalizing to a large degree. Maybe I’m just bloated with all the brilliant theater I’ve seen recently, and am experiencing something along the lines of the Heisenberg principle of operatic drama. But great theater seems to work in exactly the ways that bad opera doesn’t. All that being said, maybe — just maybe — the times, in Manhattan at least, really are a-changin’. Recently I’ve been taken with how seamless it’s felt to transition from the intimate Booth or Imperial Theatres back to the cavernous Met or City Opera. Whether it’s Deanna Dunagan‘s Violet Weston or Natalie Dessay‘s Lucia, Ciarán Hinds‘s Mr. Lockhart or René Pape‘s Méphistophélès, I can’t help but feel that there’s an entirely discernible point at which an audience member realizes that a performer has done their job and has sublimated a character, regardless of wherever we’re seated in the theater or what our sightlines may be. It seems as if there’s a profusion of these moments on New York stages this season — the kinds of instances that make you forget that you’re in the crummy, cheap seats.

Watching Sunday’s excellent performance of City Opera’s Butterfly reminded me of some of the inventive, yet deferential flourishes that the late Anthony Minghella — a film director who seemed to have a preternatural understanding of the workings of the opera stage and the capacity for telescoping drama — keenly imparted to his Butterfly production for the Met and English National Opera. The moment Minghella interpolated into Act III prior to Cio-Cio-San’s suicide — when Pinkerton reels back in horror after Dolore emerges rambunctiously from behind a sliding screen — remains particularly forceful in my memory. Not because it was offensive or musically unsupported — which it certainly wasn’t — but precisely because it was a genuinely shocking moment of musical theater, and doubly startling as it completely upended my expectations of a work that I thought I was familiar with. No matter that I saw it via the opening-night plazacast screen or in Standing Room at the Met: it was an effective dramatic moment nonetheless. It’s notable to consider how, even before his untimely death, the cavils that had initially been expressed about Minghella’s production so quickly faded into the background.

I can’t help but think that for all the ostensible reluctance of opera audiences to admit film directors into the opera house, for all the pablum over HD and movie transmissions requiring singers to act for the cameras instead of audiences of thousands, for all the beautiful sounds sacrificed for the sake of onstage verisimilitude, there’s something noble — if a tad Sisyphusian — about any attempt to fuse musical and dramatic nuances in equal degrees.

I previously thought that a park-and-bark revival performance made for nothing more than a theatrically boring — if occasionally musically satisfying — evening in the opera house, an unfortunate consequence of singers necessarily focusing on what they do best. Several seasons’ and a number of spoken plays later, I now think that these types of performances amount to something more along the lines of an operatic identity crisis. Which is why it’s a comfort that I truly believe these kinds of nights at the opera seem to be getting fewer and further between.

I still don’t like the relative bedlam that is the Theater District, but if its offerings help keep my tastes as an opera goer equipoised, perhaps it’s not such a hard pill to swallow. Just don’t expect to see me in a fanny pack.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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