Opera Buffs Meet at the Met, at the Sunrise
By Deborah Salomon
The natives are restless - but intrigued. For the third season of The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD at the Sunrise Theater, scheduling maestros have mixed popular classics ("La Traviata" and "Don Giovanni") with works about Gandhi and Anne Boleyn; also an early Verdi plus a Baroque fantasy entwining music of several composers with the star appeal of Placido Domingo. Wagner, love-him-or-hate-him, is represented by two operas totaling almost 11 hours performed on a newly designed set so massive that the stage floor required reinforcement.
"I'm not a Wagner fan, but I'm excited to see an opera about Gandhi," says Loretta Aldridge, actress and president of the Sunrise Theater Preservation Group. Aldridge has lived in Europe and attended La Scala in Milan. "Some people reject modernizing, but that's the way of the world."
The way of the modern world is also to make opera available in exurbia. Of the 850 theaters in the U.S. chosen to receive the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning performances (four in N.C.), Southern Pines is the sole non-metro location, notes Pat Wallace, Sunrise administrator. She attributes this coup to an appreciative population, many from opera-savvy cities, but none so gung-ho as Nancy Jacobs.
"I grew up with the opera in Boston," Jacobs says. "Opera is the ultimate theater. It has music, acting and -dancing. I -lobbied the (Sunrise) board for three years to bring it here - I never gave up."
For the 2009 season, the Sunrise acquired $40,000 in digital equipment for the 370-seat theater, with seats arranged so each has a good sightline. Equipment also enables the Sunrise to host National Theatre Live in HD from London throughout the season. Performances are captured in the round by 10 digital cameras; this adds depth to already spectacular sets and enables close-ups of the svelte, age-appropriate performers - another modernity, since high-def scrutiny demands singers look the part, not just belt out familiar arias.
"These are handsome men and beautiful women. No fat ladies here," Aldridge says.
Jacobs recognizes the fear factor - fear of boredom, fear of the foreign language, fear of missing a football game. She has tried to entice teachers and home-schooling families with -discount tickets. Weekend sporting events usually prevail.
Lest we forget, opera originated as mid-brow pop entertainment which, like Shakespeare, played to the masses and usually included common folk in the story line. Plots were dramatic, characters exaggerated, situations heightened. Thus "soap opera," meaning overblown tales sponsored by ordinary household products. Antiquity created snob appeal for 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century operas.
But the genre lives on: "Evita," "Chicago," and "Dreamgirls" may be labeled musicals, but the link exists. To strengthen it, simulcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan include easy-to-read supra titles and an informative intermission program. Most attendees come armed with a Google primer on the composer, plot and divas.
So far, so good. Opera at the Sunrise has become an occasion. Some attendees dress up. Season ticket -holders grew from 160 in 2009 to 200 last year. Nearly that many subscriptions have already been sold for the 11-opera season that commences Oct. 15 and ends April 7 with the big bang that "La Traviata" always delivers, this time in what reviewers call a stunning "bare and timelessly modern" version by German designer Willy Denker.
Warning: Violetta, the -terminally ill heroine, appears in a low-cut red mini-dress.
When the last anguished lover dies and the final notes fade, opera-goers spill out onto Broad Street for cocktails, dinner and critiques. Because half the glory of opera is being there. The other half is -talking about it.
"If you haven't been, you really need to go," Jacobs advises.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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