Carmen at the Winspear

Lobby of the Winspear Opera House

Lobby of the Winspear Opera House – taken during the opening festivities three years ago.

Winspear

The interior of the Winspear, taken when it first opened.

Ever since we stumbled into the unexpected awesomeness that was Turandot at the Death Star – I have been jonesin’ for some more opera. I managed to take in a couple of Met Simulcasts at local movie theaters – which was extra cool – but there is no substitute for the real thing.

Despite our poverty at the moment, I splurged and bought tickets to the Dallas Opera’s production of Carmen at the Winspear. Wanting to enjoy the show with the minimum of folderol I chose the Sunday matinee. The tickets have been magneted on the refrigerator for months… finally, today was the day. I was psyched.

I have always loved the music of Carmen – I have had an album of the orchesteral suite on my own personal heavy rotation for thirty years. It is a treat to hear the familiar melodies on their home turf, so to speak.

The only problem I have with Carmen is one of those stubborn stray childhood memories. Implanted like an intractable splinter is the remembrance of a particular episode of Gilligan’s Island… where the castaways produce a homegrown play of their own device. It is a musical version of Hamlet, set to well known opera themes – in particular a couple of the more famous melodies from Carmen.

The combination of the serious genius of Shakespeare and the classic musical stylings of Bizet mixed with the silly sitcom technique caused a rift in the time-space continuum and a permanent spot of damage in my young brain. The corruption persists to this day. Unfortunately, I can’t listen to The Toreador Song without hearing the Skipper singing, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be….”

And then, Gilligan singing “To be or not to be,” to the tune of Habanera… Oh, man, I wish I had never heard that….

But, other than that, I love the music.

And hearing it live was especially special. So much of the music we hear today (all of it, really) is electronically amplified. Even live music is miked and boomed out over speakers. To hear the complexity and delicacy of the orchestra and the voices within the exquisite acoustics of a place like the Winspear with no intermediary between the instruments and performers and your eardrums is a pure treat… something to be treasured and remembered, experienced whenever possible.

Now, because I am poor, we could only afford nosebleed seats – way up in the top, only three rows down from the ceiling (though, since I bought them on the first day, they were in the center). It wasn’t bad at all. The sound was still perfect and, although we couldn’t make out the emotion in the faces of the performers, the staring-down-on the relatively narrow staging gave the production a three-dimensional look that staring straight through the proscenium from a floor seat doesn’t boast.

As we went to the elevator before the performance the attending woman said, “Sixth Floor – Now at the intermission, go down to the fifth floor if you want to buy something. That’s actually a great place because there is a balcony outside.” So that’s what we did. I really enjoyed the few minutes out on the balcony, looking down onto the familiar reflecting pool and across the arts district… you could even see past the highways on to Fair Park – a beautiful view. The massive aluminum grid of the sunscreen was only a few feet over our heads.

Trammell Crow Center and the Winspear Sunscreen

Trammell Crow Center and the Winspear Sunscreen

The aluminum grid of the Winspear Opera House sunshade - very high overhead, reflected in the pool.

The aluminum grid of the Winspear Opera House sunshade – very high overhead, reflected in the pool.

The opera is not a quick thing – it takes up the whole day (though for me, the actual performance goes by all too quickly). But it is an experience that I have come to treasure – a special form of entertainment. The history of it, the people watching at the performance, and especially the industry and expertise of everyone associated with the show makes is so worth the effort and expense.

Now I have to look ahead… what to see next? Maybe Death and the Powers? It looks like it will be simulcast all over the world, maybe you can join me?

Coloratura

Renée Fleming in the finale of Armida at the Met.

Renée Fleming in the finale of Armida at the Met.

There are few things in life as much fun as falling down a rabbit hole.

Ever since Candy and I went to see Turandot at the Death Star I have been fascinated by the world of Opera and have been learning about it – if only a little bit at a time.

The only problem is that Opera is an expensive rabbit hole and I am broker than broke right now. But there are ways, there are always ways – to be cheap and to find stuff for free. One way to reduce the cost of Opera is to not see it live, but to find simulcast productions. The Met has a series of HD broadcasts and, right now, they are replaying old ones. I was able to score free tickets to a broadcast of Carmen a couple weeks ago, and really enjoyed it.

Before Carmen, they showed previews of upcoming broadcasts and I made note of the wild finale of Rossini’s Armida. Wednesday, after work, even though I was exhausted, I drove up into Plano to watch the repeat broadcast of the opera on a big HD screen at a movie theater there.

The Met’s production, with Renée Fleming and Lawrence Brownlee didn’t get very good reviews (from a Blog, from the New York Times) but it was more than entertaining for my uneducated ears. I especially enjoyed the ballet in the second movement (even with the odd tutu-wearing demons)… maybe that’s another rabbit hole. I enjoyed the singing more than I expected. I even enjoyed the hokey representation of the characters of Love (a young girl) and Vengeance (who looked like he might have been in Metallica) – battling over Armida’s soul.

I did some research into Rossini and Armida, learning that it is a late example of Bel Canto – a term I had heard but never understood before. The florid singing, the coloratura, is what most people, the unwashed masses, make fun of when they think of Opera – but in context it is beautiful and expressive.

I studied the story of Armida and Rinaldo. It’s a classic tale and the basis of many operas and paintings. The bare story of the opera is simple and melodramatic, but there are a few dimensions that I found fascinating. Armida is the classic story of a powerful woman brought down by love, and then jilted. But unlike, say Dido, she is not ultimately defeated. She does not kill herself. Struggling at the end between Love and Vengeance – she chooses the latter.

Rinaldo and Armida, by Francesco Hayez

Rinaldo and Armida, by Francesco Hayez

Slowly I build my knowledge and my repertoire. Oh, and I did buy tickets to the Dallas Opera’s live version of Carmen at the Winspear Opera House in October (the matinee performance on the 27th). The tickets are nosebleed –but I’m excited about actually going to see it live. There will be another broadcast performance on the 25th – in Klyde Warren Park, and I plan on going to see that too.

Doing the research on the styles and history of opera brought back one memory from the spiderwebby recesses in my mind. Prior to, say, 1800, the most prized voices were of the Castrado. In seventh grade (or so) I took a fairly serious (for seventh grade) class in music theory. I still remember studying Jazz and the Blues and having the teacher playing instruments behind our backs and having us figure out what they were (the sound difference between a trumpet and a cornet is hard, but can be done).

We did study a little bit about Opera and its history. The teacher mentioned the Castrado. But she said, and I still remember her exact words, “They had a special operation on their… uhh… throat when they were children that caused them to have high voices. They don’t do that anymore.”

Yeah, right. On their throats. I guess she didn’t have much choice other than to lie to us – those were more innocent times. It didn’t sound right to me, though. Something was wrong, and that’s why, I suppose, I remember her saying that to this day. I knew enough to suspect what the word Castrato meant.

But I couldn’t believe it. She had said “Throat” and that made some sense. Surely, I thought at the time, nobody would cut their kids’ balls off simply to make them sing higher for the rest of their life.

That was too horrible to comprehend.

I didn’t know.