This weekend the Dallas Opera went big and presented a simulcast of The Magic Flute at Cowboy Stadium. It was an attempt to break the world record for most seated attendees at an opera simulcast. (It didn't quite make it; It seems we don't do everything bigger in Texas.) It was also done as a gift, a way to expose the general public (us) to opera.
Here's the problem with that: Opera should be for the elite. Sorry, but that's what I was half-thinking as I tweeted, checked my status updates and generally ignored the majority of The Magic Flute on Saturday.
Like many, Puccini was my gateway drug opera composer. It was Tosca, and when she died I cried like a drunk toddler. I was pathetic, sobbing my face off surrounded by senior citizens whose oxygen tanks filled the isles of the Miami venue, and I'm pretty one of them call me a pussy. Fine. I just wasn't expecting it. Until I took the plunge and went, I thought opera was something drab that you were meant to sit through patiently, golf clap after and then remark "wasn't that lovely?" about. I didn't know that the raw unamplified strength of the human voice, when left to soar to the rafters of a well-designed building would sucker punch me, emotionally. But it does, or rather, it should.
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Had my first experience been last Saturday, I wouldn't have become a life-long fan of the genre. See, The Magic Flute was chosen because the Dallas Opera wanted to give a community gift that families could use, and if there's such a thing as a child-friendly opera, it's this one. The stage looks like some "Star Trek" lessor-planet; the costumes are just strange; there's a singing bird and all kinds of dancing forest animals. Think: H.R. Pufnstuf makes an opera and you've got The Magic Flute. It hit me hardest when there was a lull in the English translations on the jumbo tron; I felt like I was watching a German acid trip. Also, there is no compelling storyline; it's a loosely constructive narrative from Mozart's crazier, mega-Masonic years. So while you know that you're supposed to care about the fairy tale couple in the matching powder blue outfits, you just start Googling "Mozart syphilis brain rot" instead.
While TMF isn't going to be most adult's favorite opera based on its plot, won't the superhuman vocal talents of the performers evoke an emotional response from the crowd? Not at Cowboy Stadium. It was a grand experiment, but there's no way to control the reverberation in a space of this size. We knew this going in, but thought maybe there was some NASA magic that we were unaware of, ready to be unleashed for sound purposes. It was difficult to gauge where a note started and finished, much less be knocked down by its power; I don't think opera can be enjoyed in this environment.
That's the problem. The Dallas Opera had a noble goal: it knows how life-enriching the experience of opera is and how it can affect those who are exposed to it, and so they utilized their resources and attempted to do just that on the grandest scale imaginable. But by its own design opera is best enjoyed in an opera house. It's in the tremor of a soprano's plea or the pitch-perfect sob of a ruined lover that we find a human connection and a reason to care.
Yep, it's classist. Tough. Opera is very expensive to produce: the stage, venue and talent comes with a high price point. And it must be a limited quantity of seats. After a certain venue size is reached, you won't hear that woman die from tuberculosis in the back of the house. For its quality and standards to be upheld, it's the public's responsibility to suck it up and buy a ticket to the Winspear. If last Saturday's offering wasn't your cup of tea, or in this case, big gulp of Dr. Pepper, that's natural. Investigate further. Set aside a couple of bar tabs worth of money and shell for seats at next season's Aida. The Winspear doesn't sell soft pretzels like Cowboy Stadium, but the music will change you in a way that carbs never can.