The Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS™) – Column #2
Who’s Afraid of Opera, Doc? – by Jeremy R. Kipnis
Don Giovanni (Philip Cutlip, baritone) impales The Commendatore (Christian Zaremba, bass) in the opening scene of Venture Operas NEW production of Mozart’s classic opera. (Photo: Ken Howard)
Of all the many types of music that have been composed and performed in human history, one of the oldest still being produced regularly, which is capable of stirring the soul and plucking the heart strings, is also considered the least approachable: OPERA. Even the mention of it causes most people’s eyes to roll into the backs of their heads, these days, with thoughts of “It ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings!” Most will have heard their first taste of this ancient genre in cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd singing bits and pieces of Richard Wagner. Yet opera is nothing more or less than popular musical drama with singing; the same experience that commands people to pay crazy money for premium seats at a Broadway musical, attend a live rock concert with elaborate staging and lighting, and relish in the extended musical dramas often seen in films (and television) over the last 90 years, since sound came to silent movies beginning in 1927. Such well known names as Grease, Tommy, and The Wall are no doubt familiar offerings with singable favorites everyone knows. But call them by the “O” word and you can kiss any interest in them goodbye. Why is this?
Gripping choices await Donna Elvira (Marquita Raley, soprano – far left) as she and her friends attempt to stop the moral corruption being created by Don Giovanni (Philip Cutlip, baritone – center) and his man servant Leporello (Eric Downs, bass-baritone – on knees) in this NEW production by Edwin Cahill and the Venture Opera Company. (Photo: Ken Howard)
Unlike most folks, I grew up in a deeply musical family, where my grandfather, Alexander Kipnis, was a virtuoso Opera Basso of his day and of the same caliber and notoriety as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were at the same time and which David Bowie, Pink or Adele are today. My grandfather’s career singing opera took him to 7-continents throughout the world precisely because people have enjoyed attending nightly popular musical events that were typical and affordable. Opera was not considered elitist or high brow like it is often depicted in films but fun and entertaining. Yet today it is attended only occasionally by the very young tagging along with their grandparents, as a rare grade school field trip, or by the very rich who can afford it. It is often considered to be either a great nap after dinner or certainly a tired old format whose time has come and gone, like the dodo bird. But nothing could be farther from the truth of the matter because live musical performances with singers and staging continues to attract huge audiences and produce both new and revived versions of these very same favorites, daily. But there is a huge disconnect, however, that separates today’s audiences from anything using the term “Opera” rather than calling it “Broadway” or just a “Show”, more generically. How can people love going to see and hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s many hits like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Sweeney Todd without also wanting to attend a live performance of the classics like Bizet’s Carmen, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, or Wagner’s The Ring of the Nebelung (from which the Lord of the Rings takes most of it’s story elements)?
Don Ottavio (Yujoong Kim, tenor) pledges his eternal and undying love to a not so convinced Donna Anna (Amy Shoremount-Obra, soprano) who has just lost her father, the Commendatore, to assassination by Don Giovanni! (Photo: Ken Howard)
Last November 8th, 2015, I had the distinct pleasure of experiencing one of three performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a new production by the fledgling Venture Opera Company; a band of enthusiastic performers who took the same old tired foray and turned it on it’s head to make for an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable 2-3 hours of glorious music and human drama. But unlike most Operas that I and others have experienced in years past, this brilliant group of musicians and performers brought the drama out of the Opera House; instead playing it all around the audience in a former synagogue in lower Manhattan where anyone with $40 and a desire to be entertained by one of the all time greatest pieces of music ever written could go without worrying about pretense. Although Don Giovanni may appear on the surface to be an almost 230 year old Opera, it has continued to be a staple in people’s lives during that entire time; always in performance somewhere, just like episodes of Star Trek! And it is to the credit of one author (Da Ponte) and one composer (Mozart) working together before the invention of electricity, cars, medicine, and cell phones were even imagined that this magnificent work continues to be performed (somewhere in the world) right as you are reading this. The lead character in the film Amadeus was no different (in real life) than any other popular composers and performers of any era. But his music has been singled out in a way that remains intrinsically important to generation after generation. And this fact will no doubt continue as long as there are attentive and curious ears and eyes to experience it.
Philip Cutlip (Baritone) as Don Giovanni uses his position as Catholic Priest to woo would-be wives away from their future husbands. (Photo: Ken Howard)
While most often Operas take place on a stage (just like most musical shows) and the orchestra is located either in a pit (at the base of the stage) or remotely where no one can see them, this particular performance placed them to the left side of the audience for all to see while the singers performed in front of, behind, to the sides, and even above the audience in a staging that was fresh, exciting, and invigorating to all but the most jaded snobs. For anyone seeing this performance and attending an opera for the very first time, the audience reaction was palpably enthusiastic; with a combination of intriguing and provocative lighting, powerful staging and direction (by Edwin Cahill), and brilliant musical performances by an orchestra of 32 conducted by my new favorite, Ryan McAdams. It was clear from the first note to the last that everyone involved was completely committed to bringing this show to life as though it were being performed for the first time, back in 1787! What was different from every other performance over the last 229 years was the desire to say something a little different: the rapscallion Don Giovanni, performed here by the captivating, handsome, and compelling Philip Cutlip (baritone), was portrayed as a Catholic Priest; loosening the ties that bind the three married (or almost married) couples using a combination of lies, deceit, greed, and subterfuge to manipulate the woman into his bed (as the vernacular goes). Assisted by his man servant, Leporello (sung with gusto, verve, humor, and zeal by Eric Downs, bass-baritone), the two reached unprecedented levels of debauchery in what many new comers to opera would hardly expect from a tired old musical genre. (Please read the synopsis available online for further plot details.)
The Ghost of Commendatore (Christian Zaremba, bass) presides over the audience before the show and during the intermission as the audience fans out into Edwin Cahill’s sumptuous use of the Angel Oresanz Center (a reclaimed synagogue in lower Manhattan). (Photo: Jeremy R. Kipnis)
Given this sharp depiction of a corrupt church, it’s priests, and the near total lack of moral compass eschewed by the supporting characters, this story unfolds more like a modern movie or streaming television drama than an elitist musical snooze; with the singers engaging the audience (often directly in front of them or even in their laps) at key moments in the plot (see the many photos and captions for details). This is unheard of in most productions because the layout of most Opera Houses and performing spaces precludes it for rather obvious reasons. But here, it was an essential ingredient in updating this 18th century “off-Broadway” show into the 21st century, where audiences have come to expect everything and demand even more for their ticket price and time. The unexpected joy seen on the face of both young and old audience members was, to my way of thinking, the whole point of attending a LIVE performance, where anything can happen, and often does — a particularly important part of the LIVE experience that we relish even with well established masterpieces; regardless of what type of music or drama is unfolding. There is nothing more boring than seeing the same old thing, over and over again unless it provokes a new response created in the soul of the audience. And here, Don Giovanni was brought to life and presented for the true scoundrel he has always been. And so it was a completely compelling moment to see and hear him dragged off to hell at the end by the glorious and powerful performances of such talented and enthusiastic young people; many of whom clearly have a grand future ahead of them in what I hope will be a tremendously successful “Venture” into the many incredible worlds of musical drama waiting yet to unfold before us, again!
Debauchery and mayhem await the wedding couple, Zerlina (Cecelia Hall, soprano) and Masetto (Matthew Patrick Morris, baritone) unless they and their friends can stop the evil priest, Don Giovanni (Philip Cutlip, baritone) from destroying their intimate trust. (Photo: Ken Howard)
So the next time you decide to take yourself out on the town and see a show for fun, consider that Opera is absolutely as relevant, enjoyable, and striking today as in centuries past given a team of people who breath life into every aspect of their work and art form. In the end, what you will remember about the music and drama you experienced are the same qualities that keep these pieces coming up before audiences time and again. And by the way, one cannot put a price on a cherished memory like this, which is why I made this evening’s opera a date night with my wife; who had asked to see THIS production precisely because it was new, fresh, and provocative. In this way, live music can make much more of a difference than just about any recording because … it is LIVE, and the people producing it are right there, in front of (and around) you; just like in LIFE! Indeed, I look very forward to this company’s continued exploration of the classics, which include a NEW production of Bizet’s Carmen beginning on March 5th, 2016 at the Diamond Horseshoe, downstairs at the Paramount Hotel (235 West 46th St. in midtown New York City). Do yourself a favor and go experience it . . . like it were new (which for many it will be, again). Highly recommended!
The complete cast members, crew, and musicians can be found at:
Next up . . . for Venture Opera: Bizet’s CARMEN!!!