Monday, August 2, 2010

My Visit to Opera New Jersey

I am going to be brave and write about my experience attending the opera a couple of weeks ago. The reason I say "brave" is that I don't really know too much about opera. As a natural extension of my interest in singing, I have been dragging my husband to see a few performances in the past couple of years, and I have been enjoying exploring this interest.

Since I do not have the qualifications to review a production from an educated standpoint, I can only give my impressions as a fledgling fan.

My husband asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday a couple of weeks ago. Since my birthday fell on the eve of my participation in the Westminster Choral Festival in Princeton, NJ, I searched online for something to do in Princeton. I found that there was an opera company there, Opera New Jersey and on the night of my birthday they would be performing Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti. I asked my husband to come down with me for the night and kick off my week at the choral festival by taking me to dinner and to see this opera.

This would be the fifth opera I would attend, and it was going to be the first one somewhere besides the Metropolitan Opera.

Up until now, I have been thoroughly preparing myself for each performance I was planning to attend. When paying the hefty prices for the Met, I have wanted to get the most out of the experience that I could. So, I would obtain a recording of the opera and listen so that I would know the music. I would study the libretto and the commentary on the opera along with its history. I would read about the singers whom I was going to hear, and also listen to some of the arias by various singers on youtube.

This time, however, I was so busy preparing for my trip, studying the Mozart Requiem score, entertaining friends, packing up my daughter for her week away at Grandma and Grandpa's, that I only had time to read a brief synopsis of Don Pasquale, and by the time we got there, I didn't know much about it at all and had never heard any of the music.

I found out that there is such a thing as an opera you don't have to "prepare" for and can just sit back and relax and enjoy. Opera NJ made this possible for me by their absolutely wonderful production. The opera, Don Pasquale is a perfect one to have this experience with because it is just a lighthearted very fun comedy that almost seems like a funny musical theater piece.  Of course the beautiful music and the highly developed singing voices take it a step way above that.

It's not so much that I would like to tell you about the opera itself in that I wanted to exclaim how wonderful a job Opera NJ did on the performance.  I told you above that this was my fifth time at the opera and I liked this experience way more than I did my experiences at the Met.

For one thing, the house, McCarter Theater, which is just steps away from the Princeton Train Station, is elegant, charming, and intimate.  I felt really comfortable just being in the place.  A man on line for the men's room at intermission -- who came across as being much more experienced opera-goer -- told my husband that this theater experience was more like what it feels like in the many small opera houses of Europe.  I loved the deep rich colors of the seating and curtains, and the cozy feeling of sitting together with all the audience.  It felt like we were all friends who had just had a nice dinner together and had moved to the drawing room for an evening of pleasurable entertainment provided by our host.

Another thing I loved was that the orchestra was so present in front of me, and I could watch the instrumentalists.  I could observe every draw of the violin bow, and watch the conductor preside over the experience.

The voices of the performers were of a high quality. I enjoyed the voices more in this intimate setting than I did at the Met.  At the Met, even with very good seats pretty close to the stage, everyone still seemed smaller.  Here, I couldn't believe how clear the voices were even though there was a substantial orchestra so close between me and the singers.

To be honest, I had expected, going in to the performance, that the voices I would hear in this smaller company might be less masterful or beautiful than some of the famous names at the Met, and I learned that this is a wrong prejudice to have had. I probably just picked up this notion from the marketing and the way our culture dictates what is supposed to be good.  It filled me with great pleasure to hear really fine singing at this little production, singing that I felt was every bit as good, if not better even, than what I had heard on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

And it was not just I who thought this.  At the choir festival later that week, I ran into a woman who had seen Opera New Jersey's production of Don Giovanni that same weekend, and she had a similar story to tell.  She also thought the production was more enjoyable than ones she had attended in Manhattan. In fact, she told me that she had stopped going to the Met altogether.

The sets were really wonderful. I was aware that they were not quite as "grand" as what I had seen at the Met, but they were so well-suited to the space and were as charming as the theater itself. In fact, this performance seemed to integrate so well and match the setting and feel of the entire theater space. And I felt that was part of what was so well done about this production -- the opera knew it's space and knew who it was as a performance piece in that space.

I was incredibly impressed with the acting of the singers.  They told the story with their bodies as well as their voices.  There was a lot of visual joking and I felt that children would enjoy this performance, should they not even understand a word.

I also enjoyed the performance of the chorus.  Each and every choral member had a distinct personality and character and the acting of even these "lesser" roles contributed to the story and helped us understand exactly what was going on, and what it was like to be employed under these circumstances in the household of Don Pasquale.  In one scene where they were singing about the new activities of Don Pasquale's new wife, it was clear that some of the servants, the younger ones, viewed all the hustle and bustle with breathless glee, and that some of the older ones thought the whole thing a great nuisance.  Each singer portrayed a character who would react to the happenings in a unique way and not all the same, while maintaining a unity of ensemble. I thought it was perfect and that these lesser cast members were very talented.

All the lead roles had marvelous voices and wonderful acting interpretations of their roles.  I could write paragraphs of how much I enjoyed each one of them so I hope that I am not insulting by focusing on just one lead in particular.  I was enchanted by Ava Pine, who played Norina.  She pulled off the authority, mischievousness, lovableness, humor of her character so well.  As I sat back and enjoyed her performance and singing, I thought of the times I'd fantasized about being an opera singer, and I knew that there was no way I would be able to capture all the nuances of a character as well as this singer did, at least not without many more year of study and experience, and perhaps never at all.  She was sophisticated, clever, sparkly, and very lovable and her singing was strong and beautiful.

I also loved the way the stage actions were incorporated into the interpretation of the music.  I'm trying to remember a specific after two weeks, and there is one point I remember where Norina was singing a particular phrase and pouring herself a glass of lemonade at the same time.  While singing the phrase, she raised the pitcher so that the stream of lemonade into the glass matched the music she was producing.  The thing that was great about it was that it was not gimmicky or extraneous to what was going on, nor put in as a mere cheap trick to delight the audience.  The action helped establish the playfulness of her personality -- a gesture that brought us far along getting to know her -- and was musically appropriate.  It was also executed so naturally that it looked easy, but I was aware that to sing the difficult passage, and perform the lemonade pouring accompaniment was no easy feat just to pull off, much less look as natural as it would be in real life. Ms. Pine accomplished it masterfully.  She made it look simple and easy.

Another example of the type of place where the action was integrated with the music was where the fluttering feather duster of the maid dusting off the bookcase seemed a natural illustration of the fluttering of the violins (a tremolo? -- sorry to lack a better musical vocabulary to describe). It happened in a way where it was hard to say if the music had suggested the action, or if Donizetti himself had been inspired by such an action to convert into music.  At any rate, the interpretation of it was delightful.

These are just a couple examples of many such actions that were incorporated with the music throughout the entire production.  Each one of these actions brought out the musical phrases and the appreciation for Donizetti's music, and I applaud the insight of the stage director and conductor, Michael Scarola and Mark Laycock for incorporating these little touches.

Besides these little actions that so helped me appreciate the music, there was another great scene where Ernesto was wandering forlornly through a park, singing about his lost love, and there was present on stage with him a street musician, playing the trumpet.  The music being played by the horn player in the park was actually being played by the horn player in the orchestra, but it was accomplished in such a way that the horn player on stage looked very much like it was his music we heard.

The horn player acted as a sympathetic "listener," and musical partner to Ernesto's aria, reminiscent of that objective but sympathetic observer character such as Bert in Mary Poppins, or the fiddler on the roof who accompanies Tevye.  I did not know this opera, so I did not know if it was a convention written in to the libretto, or if this was a unique interpretation of Opera NJ, but I had a feeling it was a unique interpretation, and in my very humble opinion, it worked really well.

To sum things up, I am definitely going to try to get over to see more performances by this little opera company.  I felt there was something so right about the idea of this high quality intimate way of presenting opera in a community.  How wonderful, I thought, for artists to spread themselves out in these little companies, bringing these kind of productions to the little communities of our country. It makes more sense to come together for theater this way, providing rich entertainment for each other on the weekends as we go about our daily lives. Something much better than the isolation of sitting home watching TV or on the Internet, and providing jobs for people who love to make music.

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