AUSTIN, TX - Opera is an expensive venture, with administrators at even the most established companies struggling to find ways to make ends meet. This is especially true in mid-sized markets, which often need to resort to importing productions from other opera companies while somehow keeping ticket prices affordable.
The Austin Opera, which opened its 28th season on Saturday night at the Long Center with a new production of Verdi's A Masked Ball, has struggled to live up to it's namesake city's reputation as "The Live Music Capital of the World." Case in point: singers at a pre-performance reception on the Long Center's terrace were nearly drowned out by the blaring rock, metal and hip-hop from the Fun Fun Fun Fest, just 100 hundred yards away.
Fortunately, the music didn't penetrate inside the Long Center's Dell Hall, which looked to be about 2/3 full from my seat in the front of the orchestra. Surrounded by patrons in formal evening wear, I felt a bit out of place in jeans and a sweater that barely concealed my FFF wristband. Suffice to say, I didn't see any other wristband-wearing patrons in the house.
Among the principals, tenor Dominick Chenes exuded confidence as the Governor Riccardo; it was hard to believe that this was his professional debut. Baritone Michael Chioldi was brilliant as Riccardo's friend (and eventual assassin) Renato, his penetrating voice easily filling the 2,000 seat hall. Soprano Mardi Byers sang with passion as Renato's wife, Amelia, who engages in an illicit affair with Riccardo. And, coloratura soprano Sara Ann Mitchell was particularly engaging in the trouser role of Oscar. (Less impressive was Ann McMahon Quintero (Ulrica), her voice barely audible at times.) The orchestra, largely made up of musicians from fellow Long Center tenants The Austin Symphony, gave a tight, energetic performance under Artistic Director Richard Buckley.
But, the real star of this production is Wendall Harrington, generally regarded as one of the world’s foremost projection designers, with extensive credits in both theater and opera. Harrington, whose participation was made possible through a partnership between Austin Opera and the University of Texas' School of Theater and Dance, eschewed elaborate sets in favor of impressive 3D visuals that evoked everything from the interior of the State Capitol, to a Coney Island roller coaster. Assuming that Harrington's visuals were created for a fraction of the cost of building three-dimensional sets, this production could prove to serve as a new template for mid-sized opera companies around the country.
Later this season, Austin Opera will feature performances of Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and Mozart's Don Giovanni. But, there are far more ambitious plans for the seasons ahead, including world premieres and regular productions of American opera, such as Philip Glass' Waiting for the Barbarians, which had its U.S. premiere here in 2007. I can't think of a better way to get some more of those local indie kids to wander down to the south side of Town Lake.