In the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you that I’ve always loved music. My mother played the piano in our home, and we who could carry a tune sang with her. I progressed from soprano to alto at about the sixth grade, to tenor for a week or two in middle school, and settled down as a bass in time for two years in a small church choir before heading off to Georgia Tech. There I sang in the Glee Club for three years before physics research took over my life.
Opera came much later. A brave soul started a county opera company in our little rural county in Maryland. All the lyrics were sung in English, accompanied by two grand pianos. The director sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the audience in a drafty old barn. Later, the company moved into a small community-college theater. A friend who sang in the chorus invited us to attend, and I was hooked. Early on, the fare tended toward light opera. But within a few years, we began enjoying more serious productions.
One year, the director finally found an alto who could handle the lead role in a production of Carmen. We attended with great anticipation. But it seems the director also imported a young tenor from New York, and the tenor stole the show. When he sang the “Flower Song,” the audience was entranced. I have not been so moved by that song since, despite having heard it sung by other, more-highly-rated tenors. Perhaps, just perhaps, there’s something extra special about opera sung live.
For me, the end of the county opera came when we attended a performance of Wozzeck—and I fell asleep. I know (and I knew then) that it was supposed to be great opera, but we were at the end of a hard week of work, and it just didn’t have the tunes that might have claimed my attention. (Google “atonal” for more information.) Not to worry, though: Shortly thereafter, the little county opera moved into the nearest big town, forgot its roots, and was soon forgotten by its audience and supporters.
As time passed, however, I discovered many other ways to enjoy live opera. On a business trip to England, I attended a performance of La Bohème at Covent Garden. I was far from the stage, but it was grand opera, and the audience all cried when Mimi died, just as we should have.
On a stop in Florence, my wife and I enjoyed live Italian opera—sung in Italian and attended by Italians. It was quite moving to watch and listen to the audience respond to the action as one can only if one understands what’s being sung.
Here in Asheville, David Craig Starkey and the Asheville Lyric Opera (www.ashevillelyric.org) have figured out precisely the right way to perform these noble works. There are just enough live performances to be able to do them justice—and no more. The words are sung in the language in which they were written, but with a brief translation projected above the stage, so all of us English-speakers can laugh at the right moment and cry when the time comes.
This season, we’ve attended performances of Don Giovanni and Lucia di Lammermoor. But since we already had plans on the dates of the Don Giovanni performances, we attended the final dress rehearsal instead. The only thing it seemed to lack was the usual standard of formal dress on the audience’s part! Someone considering attending their very first opera might do well to opt for a dress rehearsal.
And Talise Trevigne, the soprano who sang Lucia, was simply wonderful! Her stage presence was outstanding; her ability to sing effortlessly and well—while standing, sitting, lying on her back or even on her stomach—was amazing. The music she made draped over the front of the stage, singing a duet with the flute, was astonishing. Her “mad scene” (Act 3, Scene 1) was remarkably well done. The long, loud, standing ovation at the end of the performance showed that the rest of the audience appreciated it as much as we did.
As Frank Grebowski, the general director of the Opera Company of North Carolina, said, “It must be wonderful to wake up here in Asheville every morning.” Or as we like to say, “It’s grand to live in Paradise.” And a key piece of that is the grand music available here.
[Downtown advocate George Keller chairs the Civic Center Commission and is an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA.]