Opera Is Fun
(Note: This was originally written for the City Opera blog, which will probably never see the light of day, now that the season's ended. Oh well.)
What is opera, anyway? Is it Music? Theater? Performance Art? Opera house directors around the world struggle to answer these questions every season, often coming up with decidedly mixed results.
Refreshingly, City Opera doesn’t seem at all conflicted about what opera’s role is supposed to be. If you want heavy, five hour-plus sagas, go across the plaza. But, if you want to have a relaxed, enjoyable evening out with better-than-average music and stagecraft, City Opera’s your place. That ethos is what, in part, drew Gerard Mortier to become City Opera’s next General Manager: in his remarks at the Morgan Library last month, he came down clearly in favor of opera as entertainment (though Mortier’s idea of “entertainment” may take some getting used to for conventional audiences.)
At the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide I attended last week, I noticed casually-dressed couples watching the opera with their arms around each other, acting as if they were at the movies. I wonder how long it’ll be before they let patrons bring refreshments to their seats (pop corn, anyone?)
It also helps if your opera
has memorable tunes, and Candide has
no fewer than three: “It Must be So,” “Glitter and Be Gay,” and “Make Your
Garden Grow,” all of which have emerged as standards. And, the brief,
breathtaking overture - which Bernstein orchestrated himself - is
unquestionably the greatest ever penned by an American: the New York
Philharmonic used it as an encore on their recent program in North Korea.
Bernstein, who would have
been 90-years-old this year, originally conceived of Candide as a Gilbert-and-Sullivan style operetta, and it was
initially produced as a work of musical theater. This landmark 1982 production,
by veteran producer Harold Prince, maintains the theatricality of Candide, casting Broadway stars Daniel
Reichard (Jersey Boys) as Candide and
the hilarious Richard Kind (The
Producers, Spin City) as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss,
along with a supporting cast of young, attractive singers. But, it goes deeper,
amplifying the music with orchestral magnitude which serves to drive home the
philosophical issues raised – and skewered – by Voltaire. It has been presented
almost exclusively in opera houses ever since.
Most importantly, Prince’s production keeps things fun. My friend and I sat in the third row of the orchestra, where we were surprised to see Candide sidestep through the entire aisle directly in front of us while singing “It Must Be So.” I can’t remember ever being that close to a singer in full voice: it literally sent shivers up my spine. The entire cast of principals repeated the move in Act II, while Pangloss tossed sheets of paper filled with axioms from a first tier box to our left. (As a fringe benefit, we sat too close to see the supertitles, which normally can aid apprehension but in this instance were an unnecessary distraction.)
Afterwards, my friend and I
were invited to a champagne reception on the Grand Promenade after the
performance, where we mingled with cast members and City Opera staffers for the
better part of an hour. The party came courtesy of City Opera’s Big Deal
program, which, if you haven’t
caught on yet, is one of the best deals in town for patrons under 40. And, with
a free Time Out New York subscription
and at least two parties every season, it practically pays for itself.
So, think about City Opera the next time you’re planning to bring someone to the movies or a Broadway show. Sure, it might not be as glamorous as the Met, but the price is right. Not to mention a lot more fun.