Opera Performances in English: Genius or Blasphemy?

Every opera house I know of, save huge houses like the Met, is struggling. There is very little money to be made in opera right now, and the little that is there is vastly dwindling. The main audience for opera is still mostly older white people, and goodness knows that’s not a sustainable audience.

My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle

Not that I’d EVER complain about seeing an opera with Eliza Doolittle.

One of the most controversial moves by opera houses to get more people through the door is putting on productions of different works translated into English. This isn’t to say that the operas have English subtitles projected above the screen — these are guts-out, fully translated works from the original Italian, German, or whatever. These translations also usually imply a modern English interpretation of the original text. “Cankerblossom” becomes “slut,” and “jest” becomes “joke.” But surprisingly, I’ve never seen an English translation version of an opera also have a modern setting. In my own experience, they’ve tended to have the most by-the-book settings and costumes, more often than not.

Who are these performances for? They’re often touted as “starter” operas, i.e. more popular and timeless operas often used to introduce people to the traditions and tropes of opera. The idea is that by removing the language barrier, going to the opera will be less intimidating for people who have never done so. The elitism sometimes associated with speaking multiple languages (warranted or not) can be bypassed, and you have a whole new crowd coming through the doors.

prom, prom dresses, people leaving for prom

Yeah, we’re heading to “La Traviata.” And totally sneaking flasks past the security guards.

Naturally, opera purists can get very upset about translations of the original libretto. Something is slightly unsettling about translation in general, because the original feelings and ideas that went into the writing of the text are filtered to a certain degree. It’s not like backwards compatibility in video games, where exact duplications of the original work are displayed in new ways. The end result is not as in-your-face as the original, because there’s a silent emissary between you and the author. The most sacred principle of fine art, Original Intent, is sacrificed for the sake of accessibility.

I would feel like a traitor though, if I condemned English translations completely. My inaugural opera was an English translation of The Barber of Seville, translated so much that it even used contemporary slang (i.e. “My love, we’re toast). It makes me cringe now, but it definitely fascinated me as a middle schooler looking for a beacon of culture in her small town. That’s the tricky thing — when it comes to attracting new opera fans, should we really be complaining about anything that draws them in? There is a clear and respectful argument (sometimes said very eloquently) for presenting operas in the native language of the audience at hand. And with luck, people drawn in by what they hear in an English translation of an opera will stay for the non-English productions.

Twilight, Twilight fans, fans waiting, waiting in line for a movie

If there were “Team Siegfried” and “Team Wotan” shirts being printed and purchased somewhere, opera’s problems would be over.

But then again, maybe they won’t. By introducing English translations into the ethos, the temptation to dumb operas down for common consumption grows ever stronger. This isn’t the same as modern-day stagings of classic operas — those are wonderful treasures that (with luck) appease both opera purists and people looking for something more fresh and exciting than what they watched with their grandma on PBS back in the day. When you translate an opera into another language, you’re creating a completely different product. And people may not like the original after they’ve had the second version.

I understand the urge to produce translated operatic works. Opera houses hardly have any money, and it’s perfect incentive to try and fight the most troublesome stereotypes opera has accumulated over the years. When you’re in a pinch, it helps to repent your sins. But is overcorrecting a true solution? Probably not. As someone who owes her interest in opera to an English translation, I can say with confidence that the art form can do better than that. We can do awesome new takes on opera, making them visually appealing for people who aren’t accustomed to seeing a classical performance in an opera house. If directors insist on producing something in English, there are plenty of wonderful operas originally written in English. People can (and will) come to the opera house if there are splendid productions to see. Whether or not it is in their naive language may not be as important as once thought.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Review: Mock Crest Productions’ “Die Fledermaus”

Gabriel von Eisenstein, Rosaline, Adele, and Dr. Falke in Mock Crest Productions' Die Fledermaus

The four merry leads of “Die Fledermaus.” (Image originally from OregonLive.com)

Operettas are a rare treat for an opera company. They are a chance to go outside the confines of tradition, really let loose upon a play and have a merry time with music. But they are also blisteringly difficult to do well, precisely because they straddle the line between opera and straight play down to the tiniest hair. The best of the genre embrace both sides of their legacy with open arms, even at times mocking the intersection between the two genres. But it is that careful navigation that makes or breaks an operetta.

Due to travel complications, I was not able to see Mock Crest Productions’ take on Die Fledermaus opening weekend. Instead, I attended the show (with a press pass, gotta be honest) on June 15th, and was immediately struck by the 1920’s theme of the show. This was not just because it was incredibly appropriate but because of how closely it mimics Baz Luhrmann’s recent take on The Great Gatsby. But the cast was completely at ease within the set and costumes, putting even my doubts about the modern English take on the libretto at rest.

Without a doubt, the singer of the night was Catherine Olson. She was not only one of the most clear and lovely voices on the stage, but she is a rare treat in that she is also a compelling actor to watch. Also of note was Thomas Prislac, who gave a role that could have been dismissed (a prison governor) style and weight. His brief moments singing with Gabriel von Eisenstein (played with Gatsby-like panache by Wesley Morgan) were some of the most beautiful musical moments in the production.

That is indeed the problem with Die Fledermaus: As an operetta, the music and the acting must be equal in strength. Among the leads, it felt like hardly anyone knew what to do during the moments of straight drama. They’re all brilliant singers, but that translates dialogue scenes feeling like a sudden brake slam taken to avoid a speeding ticket. One of the worst offenders was Lindsey Cafferty, cast as the wily and amorous Rosalinde. Her acting did not even begin to match her beautiful (and prominent) voice, and her scenes suffered as a result.

But then I saw her in Act 2. As the disguised Countess, Cafferky was… lovely. She was seductive, and a perfect diva. That’s when I realized, this lady is not meant to play stock characters. She is meant to play beautiful, deep characters that change and progress over time. Her warble positively demands it. As a single-minded Colombina, she falls flat.

Overall, this production is a disappointment. The singers are so clearly talented, but they have no idea what to do in this show. Is it a straight play, or is it an opera? The show feels segmented, with the opera performers literally switching voices depending on the scene. They are all talented, but Die Fledermaus does nothing for them. And dear bats and butterflies, it is a shame.

What Happens When Opera Is Bad (Because, Frankly, It Can Be)

I talk about opera a lot with my friends, and even more with my romantic partner (he of all people deserves to know why I spend so many hours cooped up in my office watching DVDs of musical fairy tales).

For the most part, we all have excellent discussions about opera and the arts in general. But there’s one big problem: We can’t agree on what exactly constitutes a bad opera performance.

Before we discuss this, let us establish that bad opera performances indeed exist. A bad version of anything can exist. We’ve all met people who love something so badly, they believe that no version or tackle on it has the ability to be bad. My first thought is that of Sonic the Hedgehog fans, but the same could also be said of fans of Quentin Tarantino films or DIY blogs. To these people, everything is sacred. And as a result, mediocrity is tolerated for far too long.

Screen shot from Super Mario 3D World

WHAT? You know of what I speak.

Here’s an anecdote about the worst opera performance I’ve ever seen. It was Don Giovanni, performed by an opera house that will remain anonymous for the sake of the careers of everyone involved. Because honestly, the singing was fine. It was. What bothered me more was the fact that the performers were stiff as all hell, running around the stage during their numbers as if they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Not that that was even their fault — the staging was outrageously avant-garde, far past pretentious. As in there was no curtain, and most everyone was on stage most of the time (except for maybe during the final death scene. But goodness knows there was probably someone under the dinner table). That may have all been fine, but the actors were so stiff that the whole production suffered. And after a while, it felt like the director was ardently trying (and failing) to reach “those dang artsy Portlandia kids.”

Cast of Portlandia

You know, the ones who will pay to see Robert Downey, Jr. mock Wotan while wearing a metal suit.

This is absolutely not to mock avant garde opera productions. I firmly believe that s**t should happen way more often than it does. That’s how we keep opera fresh, and that’s how we reign in new fans of the genre (that and Final Fantasy opera concerts). But this production was overreaching to the point of lunacy. And perhaps most damning of all, the opera felt like it was three hours in length. If you’re checking your watch every forty minutes, something went horribly wrong somewhere.

That company went on to impress me with other productions, but I feel it is my sworn duty as an opera fan to talk about horrible opera performances I’ve attended. That gives people who are less experience with opera the freedom to say they don’t like something, and for everyone to have the opportunity to not attend something they don’t want to attend. Imagine, attending opera because you think it really looks entertaining! And not having to lie about it afterward, without fear of looking unsophisticated!

But that performance of Don Giovanni was bad in a way that a bad performance of Gianni Schicchi may not ever be. And anyone who’s ever seen a Monty Python movie knows that you don’t have to be pretentious to be bad entertainment. It’s some untraceable thing that somehow makes a performance un-fun, that causes you to check your watch every forty minutes.

Which is why i’m opening this question up to the public: What, in your opinion, makes an opera performance un-fun? If you’re resistant to seeing opera, what makes it not fun for you? Let’s talk about this and re-hash it again in the future. All future opera depends on it!

L.A. Opera and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries

As well as the fate of lightsabers being used in non-“Star Wars” entertainment.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Review: Vanderbilt University’s “The Marriage of Figaro”

I have to start off this review with complete disclosure: I was originally going to watch a Youtube screening of this opera performance. I fully believe that people should review filmed screenings of operas, because that is slowly becoming the new normal. More people will likely be exposed to opera through film than through actually seeing an opera live. The Met certainly has adapted for that, so I feel it is my duty as someone who writes about opera to write about filmed opera productions. Especially if, like this production of The Marriage of Figaro put on by Vanderbilt University, they are placed in such a way that people who would probably not be looking for opera may come upon it. Even if that production isn’t stellar, I still feel compelled to expose them to the world. So here is the first of these pieces.

Knowing that, imagine my surprise upon discovering that not only is there a pirated screening of this opera up on Youtube (which actually turned out to be incomplete), but there is an actual legitimate video of this opera on the university’s website. Go ahead. Try both links. And please notice, the university uploaded the Youtube version themselves. How cool is that? It’s as if they actually wanted people to access opera for free!

Sherlock GIF saying

I will occasionally use GIFs to describe opera. Strap in.

But let us begin. Despite my searching, I could find no solid cast list for this production. Quite a fascinating thing for the Internet age, but there you have it. I would truly love to be able to see what happened to these singers after college, because they all have such unique ways of singing. In this production, Susanna (intended wife of the utterly charming Figaro) is pretty near perfectly cast. Her energy never seems to run out, and she keeps the rough edges of her English in check just enough to be a sexy, but still earthbound, servant character. The Countess, conversely, shines early on but fades with time. It’s not a matter of skill — the Countess simply looks tired from being on stage so much. It’s quite sad.

The Countess, Count, and Susanna from "The Marriage of Figaro"

But to be fair, the Count and Countess lose steam in the second half of the show, and it appears to be out of pure exhaustion. The Duke’s aria is truly disappointing, because unlike Doctor Bartolo he does not give into his own stereotype. The singer appears too afraid to dive into his part, when to have a successful opera you must be prepared to go the full Pagliacci. He does later on, when the character has more to do with a scene. But Cherubino is somewhat less afraid to immerse her/himself in the part (it’s a drag role, I don’t know what the f^%k protocol is) on a consistent level. But again, I wish I was able to find out what these singers were up to now. I would have loved to have heard them all now, when they were more season and less afraid to look ridiculous.

One complaint I’ve read in the comments for the Youtube version of this performance concerns the fact that the performance is in English. It’s not Le Nozze de Figaro, it’s The Marriage of Figaro. All I have to say to these people is: Pick your f%^king battles. This university saw fit to make an opera, and it appears to be cast mostly of college students who know how to sing opera. Their vowels are very pure, and vibratos are great all around. I feel it is much more worrisome if the singers cast could not treat the music with as much respect because it was in English, or if their operatic phrasing skills did not extend to English. This cast sinks into the latter at times, but in general they have a very good handle on the music’s direction and on the plot itself. It is believable as an English adaptation of the original score and book, as opposed to a translation.

Marcellina, Basilio, Doctor Bartolo, and the Count from "The Marriage of Figaro"

A word on the video production: It is very very grainy. It helps drastically to heighten the light settings on your laptop if you are using a Mac like me. But even then, I had to watch the opera with a blanket covering my head in the same manner as I would if I were eating ortolan. The incomplete Youtube edition also goes up to only 480p, but the sound quality is substantially better. The quality of the filming also chopped  Considering the production was filmed in 2010, this is highly disappointing But there you are.

This production bears many marks of a low-budget opera production, for good and ill. The set is minimal, and the pieces are originally moved out by members of the case themselves. The costumes are limited in scope, and the actors are forced to work within a very intimate set. But the overture mostly consists of the characters moving the set pieces over to their desired position, interacting with those they meet entirely in character. It’s a splendid way to establish who is who, and that feeling of intimacy can be harder to duplicate with a more costly show. As for the costumes, there are occasional moments of humor only possible through simplicity. Basilio the gossipy music teacher carries around a small dog that counters colorblocked garb, and it was funny because it looked more alive than the character himself.

Overall, I would recommend this production purely as a “starter opera” — a production to show someone new to opera what it’s all about, and to show what some of the symbols and stock characters are. Seasoned opera fans may be frustrated by the English phrasing, but it’s all well and good for newbies. I strongly believe that not every opera production has to be perfect, so long as it’s not trying to mimic past performances of it too much. This production feels so self-contained, so cozy, that I would send it to others as a starter any day.

 

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Why I Don’t Care About Opera Singers

Very sorry about not reviewing an opera like this week — work and video games unfortunately got in the way. But I definitely have a few lined up, so some reviews will be on the way soon!

But this week has forced me to think more and more about opera as a medium. And I’ve come to this conclusion: It’s a really really weird medium. Sets have gotten more and more extravagant, partly due to the fact that opera has moved onscreen. People know less and less how to handle classic operas, because they’re afraid (legitimately so) of scaring off younger potential patrons by showing stuffy works. Operas written in the last ten years are either extremely classical or would make Puccini shake his head in bewilderment.

Einstein on the Beach

These are all signs of opera in transition, and are in no way bad things. I’m actually very excited to have stated writing about opera during this time, because a lot of really cool stuff is happening. But there’s one characteristic of modern opera that has ripened in recent years that I absolutely cannot stand: The worship of individual opera singers.

Luciano Pavarotti

Yes, yes, I know he’s a legend. He should still put his f**king arms down.

All the weirdness that comes with working as an singer, from having your own website to selling CDs of yourself with awkward cover art, has not only leaked into opera culture but has created a heinously awkward culture of singer worship. And I say awkward because nothing else in the arts really resembles it. For the most part, I don’t see people deciding whether or not they should attend a local play solely based on who’s in it. If they are, it’s because it’s their family. And you can count on those tickets even if the play sucks.

That’s the problem with modern opera: No one’s willing to say anything sucks. It’s always “fabulous,” “astounding,” or that a performance is a f**king “masterpiece.” Such a culture breeds complacency, and eventually no one other than the compliment distributors attending shows. And once those people die, what are you left with? Art that has lived in a bubble, and diva singers to match.

Prima Donna song from Phantom of the Opera

Don’t get me wrong, if Plácido Domingo was starring a production of something up in Portland, I’d totally go up to see it. But if he was no good, I wouldn’t make any bones about it. And I would hope to Wotan that the show was well cast and well produced enough that it would be a quality show without his star power. For a while, that’s all that was keeping opera afloat and attracting new people to shows. The very audaciousness of an opera singer being something of a rock star was new again. And it drew a bunch of new people into the scene.

But no art should depend on stars to be successful. That is a wholly unwise business model, and it sets up artists for an existence with no real feedback from the public. Companies should instead focus on the shows themselves, erecting beautiful sets and ensuring everyone in the company can work together. And that begins with not making one person a god.

 

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Growing Up Opera: Do Parents Influence Their Kids’ Interest?

After talking to the awesome Opera Teen a while ago, I realized that we had something in common: Neither of us had grown up around opera. Our parents weren’t fans, and we more or less discovered it on our own.

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“HOLY SH*T, it’s an aria!”

Like me, The Teen had come upon opera largely through self-discovery. He had had a grandfather who had acted as a kind of guide into the world of opera, but his parents just didn’t seem to be into it. And this is a story I’ve heard over and over again from Millenials: Opera just wasn’t part of the entertainment palette at home, so they went out and embraced it as something new. Fine arts, by ways of rebellion.

I can definitely say that was the case for me. My family was definitely not a stereotypical “opera family” — We weren’t rich, we didn’t give money to NPR based on their opera programming, and we lived in a small town (though I did hear my very first opera there, courtesy of this company). When I’d sing particularly loud in the shower, my mum would call out to me, “Stop singing opera!” We were a jazz family by heritage; opera was the polar opposite of us, and therefore foreign.

As most people do when they enter college, I rebelled against my parents. But instead of drinking a lot or getting a ton of tattoos, I started listening to public radio. I attended foreign films. And I started listening to opera.

Ailyn Pérez for upcoming Opera GR production of "The Elixir of Love."

“Dude… he is hitting those sharps so hard right now.”

Of course, I came off as a snob to my family. Why would I want to just stay all cooped up in my room listening to radio hosts talking about life, or a couple old people sing about an elixir of love? It was strange to them, and not as much a part of their cultural vocabulary. Which is totally fine. Not all people are into opera, and that should be respected. But for a kid with a budding interest in opera, not having a parent or mentor who wasn’t into it as well was very hard. It discouraged me from learning more about opera, though thankfully I gained the personal strength to pursue it as an adult.

All this begs the question: What is the right way to handle it if your kid is into opera and you’re not? I assume The Teen’s family is totally fine with hi hanging around the Met all day, or else he wouldn’t be such as much of a bada*s as he is. But my parents, intentionally or not, discouraged me from actively looking into opera as a young(er) woman through peer pressure. But I still got into it as an adult. So does parents’ “approval” of their child’s interest in opera even matter if they’re going to get into it later on anyway?

Rigoletto and Gilda from Verdi's "Rigoletto"

“Please Daddy, I just want to go to the opera house! I promise, I won’t shag any baritones!”

Maybe it does. Both The Teen and I came to opera out of rebellion, and are pretty much guaranteed to stay opera patrons for a long while. But what if each of our sets of parents/guardians had been huge opera fans? I know at least I would have seen a lot more opera, and probably would be much more knowledgable about it today. Even if my parents hadn’t been totally interested in opera but had encouraged my interest more, things would have been much different. I would have respected them for letting me be myself, and maybe would have bonded with them over opera with time.

But now I’m opening up the floor to all the parents out there. Do you encourage your kids to go into the fine arts, even if you’re not into them? How do you handle it if your kid is into something you’re not? I’d love to hear your answers.

 

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Review: Portland Opera Company’s “Falstaff”

I’ve often been asked what makes a great opera performance, as opposed to a bad one. A bad film is arguably easier to identify than a bad opera — the sets could be inappropriate, the actors could be bad or insincere, whatever. Opera operates with music that has endured for hundreds of years. It’s very easy to not be able to tell when an opera is bad simply because the music is beautiful and the singers are clearly talented at singing that beautiful music.

So this is my answer to this question: A good opera performance is one that makes you forget that it is a performance. If you never have a moment where you wonder to yourself, “Is this what usually happens in opera?” then it is good. A bad opera performance comes off as aloof and cold; a good opera performance is one that takes you directly out of the opera house and into the characters’ lives.

“Falstaff,” I can safely say, is one of the latter.

Falstaff in Verdi's Falstaff

The singers of Falstaff transcend the story not only with their voices, but with their incredible talent as actors. There is not a single park-and-bark in the entire show; instead the singers are each clearly invested in portraying their characters. These people are good actors, not just good singers. And for a comedic production such as this, you need people who can be both.

In terms of individual performances, three singers stood out to me. Eduardo Chama is a brilliant Falstaff, not just for his delectable voice but because of his willingness to embrace the physicality of the part. His difficulty of getting down on one knee, the condescending swats he makes at what he believes are fairies… they all make for a wonderfully rakish leading man.

The second performance of note would have to be Nicholas Phan, playing the lover Fenton. For the first time in a long while, here is a tenor who can sing a serenade with a degree of sublety. Phan’s Fenton does not blare or blast his love for Nanetta; he declares it in a a nuanced and sincere manner. Phan proves that tenors do not have to be obnoxious peacocks to be considered talented. He even sings the the lover’s aria in Act 3 with a straight face, bless him.

Lovers Nanetta and Fenton of Falstaff

The final performance I wish to comment on is that of Weston Hurt, playing the lordly Ford. This is not in an attempt to exclude the ladies of the cast (who were all lovely and clearly well cast), but an effort to acknowledge the fact that Hurt played his part after injuring himself. The show still went on even though the guys was wheelchair-bound. And you know what? It worked. It worked so well, in fact, that I would propose that Hurt stay in the wheelchair for the duration of the show’s run. He projects well and creates incredible tone throughout the show, and him being the only seated character lends weight to both his nobility and his status as the only married man at the beginning of the show.

The set of Falstaff is incredibly lovely, but even more impressive is that is is undoubtedly Elizabethan. The directors and design team avoided the temptation to jazz up a Shakespeare-inspired story with modern elements or ironic sets. By going old-school to the extreme (rounded-brick style buildings, handkerchiefs, and Sleeping Beauty-esque dresses abound), the company avoids any possibility of betraying the brilliance of the original story. Compare this to their wannabe avant-garde performance of Don Giovanni earlier this season, and the value of loyalty to the original script is incredible.

A gathering of the fairies in Verdi's Falstaff

I have to give Portland Opera credit: They had a huge opportunity to go all out, crash-and-burn, flaming Aida for their final show of the season. The Great Gatsby movie was ramping up its marketing during production, so the temptation was probably there. But they chose to produce a relatively more mellow show, letting their stars flower in a lower stress environment. As a result, the show is fabulous. It is funny, engaging, and encourages a lot of laughing and rib-jabbing. Just the sort of comedy we need right now.

(All pictures provided by Portland Opera).

**Update: It has come to my attention that Weston Hurt’s injuries have become too severe for him to perform, and he will require surgery. The duration of Falstaff will feature Andre Chiang in the role of Ford.

 

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.