Saturday, June 21, 2008

Opera at the movies is transforming the experience of culture, diffusing high art into the heartland in new ways.

When I was a little girl of six and seven, my older sister and I often stayed with the family of a man who was the house doctor for the Grand Ole Opry, back when the Opry was still located in downtown Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium. This was 1969, 1970. On Friday and Saturday nights he would take us along with his two youngest daughters to sit backstage while he tended to whatever star that needed tending. We sat in the dark wings and watched the high-haired men and women go back and forth in their spangles and fringe. We all liked Roy Acuff best because he had a yo-yo.

This should have been the moment of my musical birth. I was a child with the best seat in the house, but even in those early days country music and I were a poor fit. I can remember the hats and the boots, the rose-colored lights and the snake-like electrical cables, but I don't remember a single song. Opry is what I was born to. It would take me another 25 years to figure out that my heart belonged to that from which Opry was derived.

My friend Erica Goldberg lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She has hauled her boys to the Metropolitan Opera the way we were taken to the Ryman, as little kids. She got them in the children's chorus so that they could walk onto the stage and sing. I wonder how my life might have turned out differently had I been lucky enough to be Alex Goldberg. I was past 30 before I started research for a novel in which the heroine, an opera singer, is kidnapped in a South America embassy. While studying to write "Bel Canto" I heard my first opera. That was when the lights went on. Everything in me leaned forward. This was my music, my destiny: coloratura instead of twang, "Dove sono" instead of "Stand by Your Man."

The problem was I still lived in Nashville. I started buying opera tickets in other cities, and plane tickets to get me there, and when I added on hotel rooms and cab fares and a snack I quickly found myself with a habit that would make most drug addictions look manageable. I couldn't get enough of the stuff. Metaphorically speaking, I had come to the theater well after intermission. What chance did I have for proficiency when there was so much I hadn't seen? Listening was satisfying -- yes, I was grateful for those Saturday broadcasts from Texaco, and yes, I bought CDs -- but opera is a dramatic art, and in many ways a visual art. It is sidelong glances as well as the E natural. I wanted to be in the room while it was happening. I wanted to watch Violetta grow pale.

And then Peter Gelb got the job of general manager at the Met. He understood that people like me couldn't always come to the opera and therefore created a system by which the opera could come to us. The Met began to broadcast live high-definition performances into movie theaters across the country. I didn't catch on until the second show of the first season, which means I missed Julie Taymor's production of "The Magic Flute." I still haven't gotten over that. Instead, on Jan. 6, 2007, I wandered into the Regal Green Hills 16 theater and put down $20 for a ticket to "I Puritani." I had read about this theater thing, but I still didn't really understand what would happen. There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a slight smell of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.

Are there words for this? I was in Nashville watching the Metropolitan Opera. I was seeing it on a screen so large that the smallest gesture of a hand, the delicate embroidery on a skirt, was clearly visible. I could see Ms. Netrebko's tongue inside her mouth and see how it shaped the air that made the note. I could see the conductor, yes, the crisp gesture of his wrist, but my God, I could see the French horn player as well. I could look into the eyes of the chorus one by one, every man and woman focused in their part. It was Opera Enormous, every note utterly human, simultaneously imperfect and flawless. It was opera from Alex Goldberg's eye view, which is to say I was right there on the stage.

If the opera itself wasn't enough there were perks besides: not having to wait in the ridiculous lines at the Met to get a drink and use the facilities. While patrons killed time between acts, rereading the program or staring aimlessly at the heavy velvet curtain, those of us in the Regal Green Hills 16 got to go behind the curtain where Renée Fleming, armed with a microphone, stopped the soprano and tenor as they came off the stage and asked them why they liked Bellini and how hard it was to sing bel canto. Imagine getting to see Cézanne interviewing Pissarro over a half-finished canvas, getting to see them talk casually, intelligently, about technique. Imagine then Cézanne pointing to a small smear of light on a pear and saying, "I love how you did that! I always struggle with the light on a pear!"

My obsession with the Met broadcasts was immediate and deep. I bought my tickets in advance and came to the theater early. Everyone came to the theater early. The place was packed but we all felt compelled to pretend we were season ticket holders. We tried to sit in either the same seat we had sat in for the last showing or the seat that came as close as possible. I am in the second to the back row on the left hand side, five seats down from John Bridges, five rows back from Eugenia Moore. We all know each other now and chatter about what's coming next while we wait for the giant countdown clock on the screen to hit zero. We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid 10 times as much (possibly more) for their tickets as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience on the screen stops to greet the people around them, and like the audience in New York we clap for both arias and curtain calls. Unlike them, we are mostly shy about calling out Brava! and Bravo! The rational mind understands they can't hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.

The second season was for me a breakthrough in the language I so desperately wanted to speak. I was seeing enough opera to develop a sense of Ramón Vargas. I had seen him live several years ago in a production of "La Traviata," but there he was again in last year's broadcast of "Eugene Onegin" and this year's "La Bohème." I thought that Maria Guleghina had been the highlight of last year's "Il Trittico" and when she came back as Lady Macbeth my pleasure felt almost like ownership, as if I had been the one to discover her in the first place. The same was true with Juan Diego Flórez, who had been so dazzling in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia." Three days before the broadcast of "La Fille du Régiment," the New York Times ran an article about Mr. Flórez hitting the nine high C's of his aria and then repeating the feat in an encore, the first Met solo encore in almost 15 years! Two years ago I would have read the article with a certain numb of acceptance, knowing that this was the sort of thing a country girl was never going to see, but instead I came even earlier to the next Saturday broadcast where we as an audience speculated in the aisles as to whether or not he would do the encore again or if it would seem, well, too obvious on a broadcast day. (I guess it was. No encore of the encore.) But still, even to hear it once was brilliant. We got to see the powerhouse performance of Natalie Dessay who is in herself proof that it isn't enough just to listen. We did a lot of grumbling over the fact that her "Lucia di Lammermoor" wasn't broadcast. How quickly we turn from grateful to greedy.

A real opera fan, the easy kind who was born into it, revels in obscurity. They are choking on "Carmen." At 13, Alex Goldberg is more interested in a production of Janacek's "Jenufa." Remedial fans like myself who have long lived with the burden of limited access are always playing catch-up. So in the past when I was out of town and had the chance to see an opera I would choose, say, "Madame Butterfly" over Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges" because I was trying to lay down the bedrock of my education. I still haven't seen "Rigoletto" for heaven's sake! But the broadcasts have run the gamut from warhorses to world premieres. I didn't love "The First Emperor," Chinese composer Tan Dun's 2006 world premiere, but it made me feel cutting edge to have seen it. I have never felt even remotely cutting edge where opera is concerned. If I lived in New York and had all the time and money in the world, I doubt I would have gone to see "Hansel and Gretel," but I live in Nashville and so I went. I have to say those giant fish in tuxedos will stay with me until the end of my days. The music was as haunting as the sets, and I will be so glad the next time I see the marvelous Christine Schäfer on the screen and can say, "Gretel! It's Gretel!"

As time goes on the Met has dug down deep to keep the intermissions interesting. Joe Clark, the indefatigable technical director, explains how snow is made while 50 teamsters roll giant sets around him. Renée Fleming interviews not only the soprano and the conductor but the people who handle the horse in "Manon Lescaut." The horse was placid but Karita Mattila dropped into the splits in the middle of her intermission interview, and then, to keep things even, came up and slid down on the other side.

That we are so well entertained between acts is a benefit but not a necessity. The necessity is opera itself. The way I cried at the end of "La Bohème" was expected, and when my friend Beverly in Texas called later that night to tell me how she had cried we both said, "Mimi! Mimi!" over the phone and started to cry again. The crying I did in "Suor Angelica," the second act of "Il Trittico," took me completely by surprise, that final image of the luminous child coming in through the doors at the top of the stage forced the audience into a great, collective sob. But nothing really touched "Eugene Onegin," the staging, the music, the glory that Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Renée Fleming made together. As wonderful as Ms. Fleming is as a guest host, the sight of her anywhere on the Met stage makes one feel she should go put on a dress and sing.

On the last day of the season in April (I changed a plane ticket to come back from L.A. a day early so as not to miss it) the Met put a list up on the big screen of fall's coming attractions. Ten operas plus the opening night gala! We broke out in a cheer, I swear to you, a cheer, when we heard that news. There were only eight operas this year, only six the year before that. We wanted more and more and more.

Sometimes I worry that culture is like vegetables and that I'd be better off eating that which is locally grown. Could I have learned to embrace the Opry the way I have managed to come to peace with okra? I doubt it, but these broadcasts have given me the best of big-city life. I have modern technology to thank for that, and in fact I have it to thank for more than just opera. I can also take a first-rate Kundalini yoga class with the podcasts I download through Sitting in front of my computer at home I flex my spine with the best teacher in L.A. Nashville isn't exactly small-town living, but there are certain ways in which we still lag behind. Technology has helped me fill in the holes, whether that's renting "Fitzcarraldo" from Netflix or getting an overnighted copy of "The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Implicit in my love for Tennessee has always been the understanding that certain needs were going to have to be met out of town. These days I find there are fewer and fewer reasons to fly.

No comments: