ERIE - The winds of change are always with us, even in the hallowed halls of the opera house.
The law of averages suggests that roughly half of all changes are improvements, and half are negative in nature, but I think this change is going to be for the positive.
For many years now, operas have been performed as though they were musical concerts, presented with costumes and scenery, to help us to experience the thoughts and emotions which the composer had packed into his creations.
Soprano Anna Netrebko and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien demonstrate a return of opera from concerts in costumes to believable theater, in the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of “Don Pasquale.'
Perhaps the most stunning example would be the title role in Richard Strauss's opera ''Salome.'' That is a staging of the story from the Bible, of a teenaged girl who danced so seductively for her stepfather that he offered her anything she wanted, up to half of his kingdom.
Probably the most famous portrayal of that role was by Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, a woman of considerable heft who first performed it when she was in her 50s. She was not the most seductive teenaged girl you might imagine, yet she performed the music so beautifully that people lined up for hours to hear it sung.
Sadly, this approach to the art form has given ammunition to those who lack the intellect and the emotional sensitivity to appreciate it, and has made opera the butt of their contemptuous humor. That isn't to say that anyone needs to appreciate or enjoy opera, but rather to decry those who feel the need to damage or destroy what doesn't fit their personal tastes.
Increasingly, in recent years, opera has been presented as theater, as well as concert. The advances made in training the human voice, within the past 20 years, have given us many more singers who are able to perform the most challenging roles, and to do it while they're still young and attractive enough to be believed in the roles of lovers, sirens, and heroes which are so common in the art form.
Recently, my wife and I made the easy journey to Erie, on a Saturday afternoon, to enjoy the most recent live broadcast in high definition from the stage of our nation's most respected opera house: the Metropolitan Opera, in New York City.
I'd like to tell you a bit about the recent broadcasts from the Met, then to tell you about the production we enjoyed, and finally, to tell you about future opportunities to enjoy such productions, within an easy drive of our area.
LIVE FROM THE MET
For more than a century, people have been trying to preserve the performances at the Met, so they could re-create the thoughts and feelings which the performances evoked in them.
Television fans, for example, have watched the series called MASH, in which they saw soldiers during the Korean Conflict of 60 years ago, huddled around wind-up Victrolas to listen to scratchy recordings of opera performances.
In subsequent years, radio broadcasts, vinyl records, television broadcasts, home video, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, and more developments have made these opportunities more available and of increasing quality.
Recent technological advances have made it possible for performances from the company's giant stage to be simultaneously broadcast in high definition, to theaters all around the world. Beginning in December of 2006, the company has broadcast eight performances per year, which are attended and enjoyed by people in theaters across our country and on distant continents, as well.
My research suggests that each simulcast costs approximately $1 million to produce, and that each eight-opera season brings in earnings to the company, of roughly $13.5 million. More people, around the world, attend a single broadcast than can fit into the giant theater in Manhattan's Lincoln Center for their entire season.
The two nearest theaters in which people from our area can enjoy these broadcasts are in Erie, Pa. One is in the Tinseltown Theater Complex, which is located just off Route 19, not far from the Millcreek Mall.
The other is inside the beautiful D'Angelo Performing Arts Center, on the campus of Mercyhurst College, on 36th St., in Erie. Those who prefer the somewhat longer trip to Buffalo can find a number of sites there, in which to enjoy the performances, as well.
Tickets cost in the neighborhood of $20 per person, with reductions for senior citizens and for students. This compares with the price range of $25, for a single seat in the highest of the opera house's several balconies, up to a high of $420 for a seat in the parterre, or the lowest and most prized of the balconies.
In return, viewers get to see and hear the action on the Met stage, at the exact moment in which the action is taking place. In my experience, the sound isn't perfect, but it is very good. Nothing beats the experience of sharing a performance live with thousands of other devoted fans, but this is the second best thing, and it is so realistic, most members of the Erie audience were applauding after well-sung arias, along with the people in New York City's gorgeous golden hall.
In fact, there are a number of benefits to seeing and hearing a performance from a broadcast. For one thing, the live audience is actually a considerable distance from the singers, while the cameras can and do focus directly on the faces and forms of the singers.
During scene changes and intermissions, the live audience has to sit in their seats or take a stroll out to the lobby. The broadcast gives its audiences the same choices, but if they want to stay, it also shows its audiences how the sets are changed, behind the golden curtain. The stage of the Met is the same depth as the height of a seven story building, and entire sets can be rolled backwards, while a new scene is rolled into its place from left or right, or from below.
There are live interviews with the singers who tell us things about their roles and themselves, and skilled announcers tell us things to appreciate about what we're going to be seeing and hearing.
Each time I attend one of these performances, I see literally dozens of people from Chautauqua County who have made the excursion, in order to be part of the experience.
The opera which we heard recently was ''Don Pasquale,'' by Gaetano Donizetti. The work is not part of the standard operatic literature, but it is popular, and is not a rare presentation.
The work is a comic opera or ''opera buffa.'' It is borrowed heavily from the Italian tradition of Commedia dell'Arte. Performances in that style have stock characters, and the audience is encouraged to enjoy the manner in which the same events eventually happen to the same people, in each different version.
The title character in the opera is a wealthy Italian bachelor. Nearing 70 years of age, he has quarreled with his only relative, a handsome if rather lazy nephew named Ernesto. Pasquale represents the traditional character of Pantalone, while the nephew represents Pierrot. The uncle wants Ernesto to marry a wealthy heiress of the uncle's choosing, but the nephew is in love with the poor but cunning Norina. She represents the traditionally wily character of Columbina.
Finally, Pasquale tells Ernesto that if he will not marry the heiress, the uncle will take a young bride and produce children of his own, who will become the legal heirs to his wealth, leaving the nephew penniless.
To seek a bride, the uncle turns to his personal physician, Malatesta, who is the personification of the scheming character Scapino. Malatesta is a buddy of Ernesto's, so he concocts a scheme to prevent the uncle's revenge.
The doctor brings Norina to the house, disguised as his own sister. She pretends to be innocent and shy, and the uncle agrees to the marriage. A pretend notary is brought in to perform the wedding, so there is really no legal marriage. Immediately after the ceremony, the shy bride turns into the shrew of shrews, who begins to demand jewels and carriages and other expensive items.
Pasquale regrets his action and asks the doctor to get him out of the situation. The doctor suggests that Pasquale give permission for Ernesto to marry Norina, at which the new wife insists she will not live in a house with a rival, and if Norina is to come into the family, she will divorce Pasquale and leave.
The uncle sees this as his salvation, and agrees to Ernesto's marriage, but as soon as his consent is binding, they confess that the new bride actually is Norina, and that the marriage with the uncle was only pretend. All ends happily, although Pasquale takes his medicine far more calmly than I think would actually happen.
The librettist was Giovanni Rossini. ''Don Pasquale'' was written in 1843, when the composer was 46 years old, and it was a great success, but the same year, the composer was diagnosed with syphilis, which was then incurable, and he soon was institutionalized and died in 1848.
While it's possible to hear fine singers in almost any opera house, the Met has the budget to hire almost anyone they want. The prestige of singing there attracts virtually every singer in the world, up to absolutely the best and most famous.
These were the principal singers in ''Don Pasquale.''
The singer started her career by financing her music studies by working as a cleaner in St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre. Soon her talent was recognized and she went from being a cleaner for real to singing the role of the famed house maid Susannah in ''Marriage of Figaro,'' at age 22.
In 2006, Ms. Netrebko applied for Austrian citizenship, claiming that the long, difficult and expensive process of applying for visas for a Russian citizen to visit other countries was harming her career. The result has been a surge of success in her career in other countries, and a backlash in her native land.
The next year, she announced her engagement to Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schott, with whom she frequently performs. In September of 2008, the couple had a son.
She has made more than 20 successful recordings, and has headlined at all of the major opera companies in the world. In 2008, the respected publication Music America named her ''Musician of the Year.'' Other honors have ranged from being named a ''People's Artist of Russia'' by Russian president Putin, in 2008, to being named to the list of ''sexiest babes of classical music'' by Playboy.
Polenzani's voice is a bit darker and richer than many other current tenors, which has made him a good candidate to be cast opposite some of the great sopranos of the moment, including Renee Fleming, Natalie Dessay, and Ms. Netrebko, with each of whom he has performed multiple roles. His singing has been especially admired by the Met's Music Director, James Levine, who conducted the performance of ''Don Pasquale'' which was broadcast last week. As a result, he has been cast frequently at the Met, in principal roles.
The tenor is married to mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella, who recently gave birth to the couple's third son.
Kwiecien was born in Krakow, 38 years ago. He has performed in opera houses around the world, in a wide variety of roles, but he has been especially linked to the title role of Mozart's ''Don Giovanni.'' In case you didn't know, that title is Italian for ''Don Juan.''
Although not the leading character in ''Don Pasquale,'' his Dr. Malatesta has been given most of the stage business of interacting with Ms. Netrebko's Norina. Most of the photos which accompany the company's press releases feature him, rather than the handsome but less imposing Polenzani. The opera's director, Otto Schenck was obviously utilizing the singer's attractive qualities to the fullest.
In the 2006-07 season, the baritone was named ''Artist of the Year'' by the Seattle Opera Company.
He has recently made debuts with Paris Opera in ''L'Elisir d'Amore,'' at La Scala in ''Der Freischuetz,'' and at the Bolshoi Opera, in ''Eugene Onegin.''