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San Diego Opera presents The Masked Ball

A few weeks ago, I was happy to be able to fly out to southern California to visit my Grammy and be her guest at the San Diego Opera for their production of The Masked Ball, a Verdi opera that I was unfamiliar with. (This is not surprising; I’m not a big opera fan.) It goes without saying that I was there to see my Grammy more than to see the opera, but the opera was rather good, too. First, Grammy had clipped a review for me by the local (San Diego) arts critic James Chute. Anyone could read this piece and see that it is a glowing review; but Grammy informs me that apparently Chute is a spectacularly tough critic, ripping apart even the good shows, so that context adds considerably to the power of his positive remarks.

Therefore, I went into the performance with a little less trepidation than I might have had. Recall that I have had difficulty appreciating opera in the past and had in fact mostly sworn off it. Well, I found the plot fairly strong and interesting, and rather tragic a la Shakespeare, as in: if only these people had talked to each other first! Or turned around and looked behind them! Ah well. The costumes were sumptuous and appropriate; the sets were fine (more on that in a moment). The singing was absolutely glorious – not my style, perhaps, but if I step back to gain a little perspective, there’s no question that what these folks can do with their voices is astounding and impressive. There was a small Korean-American woman who played a young man and sang such outrageous soprano, a very fun staccato part, that I was charmed. Indeed all the singing was very very good.

The acting is, again, not in my favorite style because it is so dramatic; but I believe that’s the operatic style, and I think it was well done. My biggest beef with the whole experience was its pacing and length; to be quite honest I found it painful right toward the end and wished I were elsewhere. This was a three-hour event with two intermissions, so three equal parts of pretty precisely an hour apiece. I could handle much more than that if it were anything but opera; but in this case I found it trying. As I keep repeating, this is an issue of my personal taste rather than how well the whole show was done. In fact, I can’t find anything to complain about from an objective standpoint. I’m just (still) not an opera person.

Where I am a philistine, though, my Grammy is a very experienced and worthy judge of the opera; she has held season tickets for gosh knows how many seasons in how many cities, and has attended overseas as well; she has a music degree and makes a fine critic. She judged this to be a near-perfect performance, with her one small concern being that the stage sets were not imaginative; she says she’s seen them done better (can’t recall if she saw this opera performed in an earlier San Diego rendition, or in Houston). It seems true to me, too, that this opera was traditional, in its sets, costumes, and performance; but traditions are not always bad.


To my personal tastes, this opera might earn a scant 3 or 4 herbs from the gallows – but that would be high for an opera, wouldn’t it! From a more objective view, though, I think it deserves at least 8. You be the judge.

My visit with Grammy? Absolutely ten old photographs, every time.

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that's me)

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that’s me)

Houston Grand Opera presents Ariadne auf Naxos

On Tuesday, April 26, I took my mother to see Ariadne auf Naxos, produced by the Houston Grand Opera at the Wortham Theatre downtown. I did just a little bit of reading beforehand about the plot, and loved the concept. It’s an opera-within-an-opera, so a riff on the play-within-a-play form that I’m familiar with. And the opera that is within the opera has some ties to Greek mythology which drew my interest, too.

It’s a comedy in which a young and passionate composer expects to present his opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, to a rich Venetian’s dinner party; this is a very serious opera, he feels, an artistic masterpiece, deserving of serious contemplation. He finds out immediately before that his opera is to be followed by a comedic song-and-dance piece, which he finds offensive; and the comic star, Zerbinetta, is equally offended at having to follow a “dreary” opera. Everyone is still more upset when they hear of the Venetian’s last-minute whim to have the two pieces performed, not back to back, but simultaneously!

Zerbinetta, standing, with Ariadne

I thought this sounded like great fun and rather classic comic theatre. The first act contains the above behind-the-scenes angst; the second act is the opera-cum-comedy itself. The back story is not really present in the opera but I’ll give it to you anyway: Ariadne is sister to the dreaded Minotaur, and she helps Theseus to kill him and escape from the labyrinth, thinking that they will live happily ever after together. But Theseus tires of her and leaves her on a desert island, where we meet her first, languishing in despair over her unrequited love. Zerbinetta’s comedy involves four lovers and her eventual selection of her favorite. Meanwhile, she coaches Ariadne, who desires death, that she can love and be happy again in another man’s arms. Zerbinetta chooses her man; Bacchus presents himself to Ariadne, who mistakes him for Hermes and thinks he has come to take her away in death. He finally manages to convince her he does not hold her demise, but rather, that he loves her and wants her for himself. Happily ever after.

The plot comes out a little thin in production, but this show is not about plot, as I’ve observed before of Cats and Cirque du Soleil. The plot is not the point. In this case, the point is the outrageous tricks these performers can do with their voices. This is, as usual, something I have to accustom myself to. In the case of Cats or Cirque, I give myself up to the acrobatics, the music, the dance. In this case, it’s the operatic singing and the orchestral music. It takes a little effort or at least a little awareness for me to slow down and appreciate these things. As an amateur to the opera, I begin by watching the subtitles screen in order to follow the story; but each sentence takes 60 seconds (or more) to sing onstage, and I quickly get impatient. Move on already! This is the wrong way to watch an opera. The right way, I think, is to stay loosely or vaguely aware of the plot or the words being sung, and to lose myself in the incredible vocal acrobatics.

My experience with this full-length opera was not entirely a success, but I’ll take the blame for not being practiced at appreciating opera. It seemed well-done, but perhaps is somewhat an acquired taste, and definitely requires a leisurely pace in its enjoyment. I don’t think of myself as a terribly impatient person but it felt slow to me. I think if this almost three-hour production was presented as three one-hour serial episodes I would enjoy it very much. And also, to be fair, if it didn’t go past my bedtime.

So, I don’t give it an outstanding review, but I take most of the responsibility myself. It was certainly an interesting experiment.

Houston Grand Opera presents The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro is being produced by the Houston Grand Opera, and thanks to the Husband I got to attend a dress rehearsal with our neighbors on Tuesday, April 12. (The Husband begged off: he got us tickets and bowed out. Fair enough.) Now, I had not attended an opera since, what was it, high school? or middle school? And I remember not liking it much. I’m not sure what it was, in fact; I want to say it was Shakespeare but I could be crazy. Do they make opera out of Shakespeare? This is very much not my area of expertise, but it being a) free and b) a dress rehearsal, this sounded like a fine time to give it another go.

Well, it turned out to be a snafu in various ways, and I got in late and left early, both due to circumstances beyond my control. So, call it an incomplete experiment. But I have some observations to share all the same.

Please be patient with me, opera aficionados, for I am entirely new to this. So first, the music is very beautiful – the orchestral music, I mean – I’m not a symphony-goer, either, but it would have been lovely on its own. The operatic singing is unlike anything else, so being so new to it, it’s a bit hard to fit into my world, if you will; it might be a bit of an acquired taste, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I think I did; it’s just different. And very impressive. It is of course in Italian, but even in English I’m not sure I could entirely understand them. There’s a little screen way up above the stage rolling subtitles; it’s a little rough looking down at the actors and up at the screen, but it allows me to follow the action. There’s something a bit disjointed about the fact that every 10 words on the screen take 90 syllables onstage (they repeat almost every line, for one line) but I was able to adjust to the rhythm. So I guess my theme here is, this is a unique art form and one that must be gotten accustomed to.

The plot of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (which I read online before attending – did my homework – I find that I enjoy theatre better when I’m a bit familiar ahead of time) was surprisingly Shakespearean. Lots of mistaken identity, disguises, romantic quadrangles, lovers or suspected lovers hiding under couches when the next one enters the room. A bit slapstick. Very fun! I’m not sure I realized opera could be so fun. (Please forgive my prejudice.) And I’m not sure I’d realized that really, it’s just musical theatre – except that they sing in a distinctive style, in a foreign language, and constantly – all the words are sung – unlike standard musicals which are plays in which the actors spontaneously burst into choreographed song and dance. (Very realistic. :)) Oh, and that reminds me, there was almost no dancing – at least during the parts of this production that I got to see. That’s a bit disappointing; but perhaps with such, erm, athletic (?) singing, it would be too much to dance, too.

My overall review is incomplete because I saw only part of the show, but: I like this. It deserves more of my time and attention to become better acquainted with this format, and I’m ready to give it. Luckily I get another chance: I have tickets to another dress rehearsal in a few weeks, of Ariadne auf Naxos, and I’m taking my mother, and I’m looking forward to it!

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