It felt strange going to the opera before having a good, solid meal, or even taking a shower. Still, last Saturday morning I hauled myself up, out and onto a bus just after 8, heading toward downtown Vancouver in search of the Scotiabank Theater.
The occasion was “The Enchanted Island,” the Baroque pastiche that was the latest in the Metropolitan Opera’s series of live high-definition broadcasts to movie theaters around the world. These broadcasts have brought new audiences to the Met and other entrepreneurial performing arts organizations, from the National Theatre in London to the Bolshoi Ballet. (Two years ago, I saw a billboard for a screening of “Macbeth” in Chengdu, China.) My friends Leslie and Mike were also going to “The Enchanted Island,” but at the Walter Reade Theater in New York, where the show, and the opera across 65th Street, went on at a more civilized 1 p.m.
Being new in town, I allowed plenty of time to find my way and arrived with almost an hour to spare. The theater wasn’t open yet, and the few other earlybirds outside were looking around for breakfast. A kindly jogger suggested an Italian café a couple of blocks away, where I ordered a bowl of stick-to-your-ribs oatmeal — and a good thing, too. Inside the theater, a welcome-and-etiquette announcement noted that the concession stands would be open by intermission but asked patrons to “please refrain from eating popcorn during the opera, as the sound can be distracting.” I remembered wondering at my first HD broadcast, “I Puritani,” if it was proper to eat popcorn at the opera.
It also felt a little strange watching the onscreen crowd taking seats inside the Met, just a 20-minute subway ride from my New York home and practically next door to my second home in recent months, the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Travels With Joey, July 13, 2011). The broadcast omitted my favorite moment at the Met, when the Austrian crystal chandeliers are raised to the gold-leaf ceiling, dimming the house lights and indicating the music is about to begin.
Confession: I know it’s heresy, but I’ve come almost to prefer seeing opera in movie theaters and later on PBS to attending live at the Met. It’s not just price. (Good seats at the Met tickets can run into hundreds of dollars, as opposed to $24.42 Canadian for this broadcast.) The Met’s acoustics are glorious, even up in the family circle, but the house is so cavernous that it dwarfs the singers even from parts of the orchestra. During Barbara Cook’s solo concert there in 2006, when I sat in the very last row, I could confirm by the blond mane that yes, that was Cook onstage, but I could make out nothing she was doing. On the broadcasts, performers are movie-star size, and multiple cameras provide close-ups and shots from many angles rather than a single point of view. Subtitles, even for English librettos, make not only the plot but every word clear, thus eliminating the need to study in advance, as I used to do before the Met installed its titling system in 1995. Intermission features, also shown on PBS, give the audience something to do beside go out for popcorn during half-hour breaks.
I had been curious to see who in Vancouver would turn out for an opera screening at 9:55 a.m., and no surprise: no one looked under 40 except members of the house staff. In fact, there were far more young faces in the onscreen Met audience than in the Vancouver theater. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony on Monday night drew a much higher proportion of younger people. As for the Wednesday matinee of the Tony Award-winning “Red” at the Vancouver Playhouse – well, anyone who ushers knows who goes to Wednesday matinees. This performance drew seniors and a school group, and few in between.
“The graying of the audience” is the nemesis of classical art forms like opera and ballet, which so many people find intimidating. How, presenters worry, will these forms, and thus their organizations, survive into the future if young people aren’t coming?
My arts journalism class at the University of British Columbia has been assigned to compile a Google Calendar for the semester. When I’ve checked it over the first two weeks, I’ve found listings for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, the Taboo Sex Show, Street Food City, the Stop the Presses! Journalism Film Festival, K-Pop/J-Pop Night and “The Vagina Monologues” (posted by Kate, who’s in it). But, with the exception of “Red” and a local production of “Waiting for Godot,” there are few for institutions like the Vancouver Symphony, the Vancouver Opera and Ballet British Columbia. Is the problem the ticket prices? Lack of education in the arts? Or is it that the students just can’t relate?
Yet there is reason for hope, even though no one but me admits to having watched the Met’s “Anna Bolena” on PBS from Seattle over the weekend. Mohamed, who grew up in Bahrain, enthusiastically looks forward to learning about opera and ballet, Western forms to which he has had no exposure. Jennifer arrived for class on Monday with a stack of library books. “Puccini,” she explained. “I’m sort of obsessed with ‘La Boheme.’ It could be my final project.” Gudrun rushed up to me after I mentioned the Met HD broadcasts during our first class. “Are you going to ‘Goetterdaemerung’?” she asked. I am, and she was deeply envious. “I couldn’t get a ticket,” she said. “My mother was so disappointed.” They had seen the other three operas in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Of course, Gudrun is from Iceland, a country that has nearly 90 music schools and still takes classical music seriously.
So I’ve suggested that the opera-shy consider attending an encore of “The Enchanted Island.” There’s nothing to be scared of. It is no more than a mashup – a modern word for pastiche, defined by Wikipedia (and really, where else would you go for the definition of a word like mashup?) as a “song or composition created by blending two or more pre-recorded songs.” (Think “Glee.”) “The Enchanted Island” is a mashup of hits from three or four centuries ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun.
In this case, the mashup is a matter of not only the music (by various Baroque composers) but also the new English libretto by Jeremy Sams, which inserts characters from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into “The Tempest.” “It certainly helps to know your Shakespeare,” the British-accented woman next to me remarked at intermission, but even if my students don’t, they’d have little trouble following the story, especially with subtitles spelling it out. The over-the-top visuals alone are worth the trip. And as a mashup, what is “The Enchanted Island” but a part of the “Remix” culture we’re studying, in which elements of existing art are sampled and recombined to create something new? (For a fuller explanation, see Lawrence Lessig’s book of that name. It’s on our recommended reading list.)
At the conclusion of “Apollo’s Angels,” an exhaustive history of ballet, Jennifer Homans regretfully declared it a dying art. Is opera another? There’s no reason it needs to be in an era when Rufus Wainwright — Canadian! And best known as a pop artist — is about to have his first opera performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (The Met originally commissioned it but pulled out because Wainwright insisted that the libretto be in French.)
For the record, the Feb. 11 live broadcast of “Goetterdaemerung” at the Scotiabank Theater was already 90 percent sold when I bought my tickets, the day after they went on sale in late August. It starts at an even less civilized 9 a.m., and it won’t be easy to make the curtain, or sit through six hours of Wagner in an undercaffeinated state. But I’ll be there.
Postscript: After the opera, I spent the afternoon at the Vancouver Art Gallery looking at “Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art From the Audain Collection,” which, sadly, closes this Sunday. The exhibition’s two floors cover centuries of art in British Columbia, from First Nations artists of centuries past to contemporary ones of many ethnicities, with an especially fine display of my own collecting passion, masks. But that’s a different form of enchantment.