Last updateWed, 25 Nov 2015 5pm

LOS ANGELES Thursday, November 26th 2015 5:08

Opera Reigns on LA in May

PERFORMING ARTS WATCH - There's something for everyone this month, at least everyone who is an opera lover. There is La Boheme at LA Opera, there's a fairly new piece at Long Beach Opera called Ainadamar, and there is the new technological wonder of full scale opera brought to your local movie theater from far away. In this case, it's the rebroadcast of Wagner's Ring Cycle by the Metropolitan Opera.

For two out of the three (La Boheme and the Ring operas), there is a history of more than a century of performances. The reason is simple -- they really are that good. The third piece from Long Beach Opera is a lot younger, but from what I have seen so far, it is also good, and in keeping with the Long Beach company, something new and different.

Let's begin with Puccini.

The Los Angeles Opera is doing everybody's favorite opera this month, La Boheme. It's been kind of an understanding in the opera world that when you want to sell tickets, La Boheme is the way. That's because Puccini is at the top of his art, bringing us music and story that we have come to think of as the quintessential love theme, the archetypal death scene, the prototypical Parisian adventure music, and of course freezing garrets and starving poets.

If you remember the movie Moonstruck, you may remember the emotional effect that La Boheme and its music have on its heroine, played by Cher, and on its other protagonist, played by Nicolas Cage.

You can find information at the LA Opera website. Apparently two out of the six performances are already sold out.

In addition, if you are not familiar with Puccini's  musical style, the LA Opera (via the Daily News) provides a video of two of the most famous arias performed by cast members in recital. The newspapers are going all gaga over the fact that the two lead singers are, in real life, man and wife. Not only that, but they are young and good looking, disposing of the old cliché that opera has to be performed by fat ladies. Here's the clip:


The second big production this month is in Long Beach, involving a work that is not quite a decade old. It was originally written as a commission for the Tanglewood Music Festival and was then expanded and performed by the Santa Fe Opera. Now Andreas Mitisek and his opera company are bringing it to us.

The opera has the title Ainadamar, which translates as fountain of tears in Arabic. The opera is about the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the relationship with his muse, the actress Margarita Xirgu. It revolves around Margarita's memories of Lorca, who was killed by the Fascists in 1936 Spain.

When Ainadamar was being written for Tanglewood, the commission included the limitation that female singer Dawn Upshaw and a female chorus were what was to be available. Composer Osvaldo Golijov, working with American playwright David Henry Huang (famous for his play M. Butterfly), suggested that Lorca could be sung by a woman. In the classical tradition of the "trouser role" for a female star, Garcia Lorca was written for a midrange female voice.

Golijov has infused his opera with Arab and Jewish sounds, as well as Flamenco music. To get a sense of Ainadamar, click on the NPR website and then click on the Listen button.

There will be only 2 performances of Ainadamar, on May 20 and May 26.

Finally, let's talk about something that is not so much a huge technological breakthrough, as a slow coming of age. I'm talking about the ability to present live action opera on a movie screen that brings it close to the audience. You see the actors, hear the singing, and watch the action from a movie theater seat, but the view is as if you were right behind the conductor. From a technological standpoint, this has been possible for a long time. But from an artistic standpoint, it has been a little slow developing.

It's true that there have been televised operas for several decades -- at least since the 1980s in my memory -- and some of it was very good. At the time, I watched the television broadcast on a PBS TV station and followed the sound on an FM stereo simulcast. The sound was actually better than the picture by a long shot, since all we had was standard television at the time.

Not only that, but the video directors weren't too good at pointing their cameras and cutting from one angle to the next. What the crew of I Love Lucy figured out in the 1950s took a while to percolate down to the higher arts.

Well now it's come of age, not just technologically but artistically and commercially. I'm talking about the routine broadcast of Metropolitan Opera performances all over the world using High Definition images put up on the big screen. The picture is good, and the sound is as good as your movie theater speakers can make it.

In the coming week, the Metropolitan is doing encore performances of its Ring Cycle. Wednesday May 16 is Siegfried, and Saturday May 19 is Gotterdammerung. You can find it locally by going to the Met site or on the AMC Theater chain site.

I saw an earlier broadcast of Gotterdammerung, which is the final opera of the 4 opera cycle. It was acoustically excellent, as one would expect, and it was possible to see the actors' faces and physical movements in a way that would not be possible if you were physically present in the opera house balcony.

Televised opera is almost a whole new art form, because the director can bring a character into close-up, then widen to pick up another character in order to make clear  a plotline. In other words, the audience who would otherwise be in the cheap seats get to see expression and acting.

Let's talk about one brief but well known scene and the music that accompanies it. Near the end of the opera Gotterdammerung, the central male character Siegfried has been manipulated and deceived by the evil character Hagen with the acquiescence of the local feudal lord Gunther. Hagen kills Siegfried by spearing him in the back. This leads to an orchestral flourish that has been made famous in recordings for much of a century. The music, known as Siegfried's death and funeral music, is a recapitulation of many of the themes that have led up to this point in the action, and has been likened to a tribute to three major characters who have, by this point, died over the course of three operas.

In the Met production, the camera closes in on Siegfried as he dies, showing in detail his facial expression as he sings of his love for Brunnhilde. And here is where the televised broadcast adds something that isn't attainable in the cavernous spaces of a real opera house.

The subplot is that Gunther, complicit in Siegfried’s death, now feels terrible guilt. In the Met production, something curious and amazing occurs. As Siegfried dies and is lifted onto the arms of the waiting men, the orchestra goes through that stunning run of music. Gunther, in his misery and guilt, picks up dead Siegfried's sword from the ground and holds it morosely. And, as the orchestra swells into the music that describes the sword (this is the highlight of the piece and, to some extent, of opera as a whole), the camera image comes in close on the sword itself.

The function of this shot is to remind us of the life and death of Siegfried and, before him, of his father Sigmund, of how they have both come to unhappy ends through the treachery of others, and of the culpability of the gods themselves. It's a lot of story to carry in a few seconds of music and one image, but the Met telecast manages it.

(Bob Gelfand is the 2012 chair of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition and writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at -cw

Tags: Bob Gelfand, culture, Los Angeles, Long Beach, opera, art, the arts, performing arts

Vol 10 Issue 39
Pub: May 15, 2012