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Rants And Raves: Opera

History Suggests Opera Will Not Go Away Quietly

Above: Bass-baritone Eduardo Chama is Sancho Panza and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is Don Quixote in San Diego Opera's "Don Quixote."

San Diego Opera’s “Don Quixote” may be the last opera produced by the company. I saw a performance Tuesday night that made me think about opera in history.

If San Diego Opera does end up closing with “Don Quixote,” it will be a poetic end to the company's journey. The opera, based on Cervantes’ classic novel, is famous for its country gentleman who fancies himself a knight and champion of the right. He was also a dreamer who dreamed the impossible dream and tilted at windmills. In the play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” a character notes that tilting at windmills can land you in the mire. Or, as Cyrano retorts, up among the stars.

Opera employees and fans are tilting at a windmill right now and hoping their trajectory is upward as they try to save their jobs and the opera in light of last month's announcement of San Diego Opera's closure.

At the opera Tuesday night, bass baritone Edouardo Chama did his best in his performance as Sancho Panza to make the transformation of his character from realist to idealistic dreamer play beyond the proscenium arch of the Civic Theatre stage. He seemed to be asking everyone to pick up a lance and tilt at windmills with his master. The audience was definitely receptive to his character's journey. The crowd – which looked like a full house – was wildly enthusiastic in its response to Chama's Panza and to the production as a whole. It felt like an audience eager to show its support and hoping that if they clapped loud enough someone outside would hear.

I have to confess that I only recently started watching opera. In fact, my job as an arts reporter was the impetus that got me into a seat for my very first full opera. So I am one of the guilty ones who has never been a season subscriber and never donated money. That would be me and millions of other San Diegans.

Claire Accomando

My great grandfather Louis Laloy circa 1930.

Although I may have come to opera late, in a sense, it’s been dormant in my DNA. I grew up with stories of my great-grandfather Louis Laloy, an early 20th century French music critic and scholar, and his friendships with people such as Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. One of the stories that I always loved was how people and audiences reacted to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” I had always thought that audiences for classical music, opera, and ballet were a refined lot prone to cocktail claps and perhaps a dignified standing ovation. So the idea that an audience at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées nearly rioted was fascinating to me.

I bring this up because at the premiere of San Diego Opera’s “Don Quixote” on Saturday, general and artistic director Ian Campbell was met with boos and heckling when he came out on stage. Needless to say he didn’t make a public appearance at the second performance Tuesday night. The clear display of emotion is something that I had heard about opera crowds from the French side of my family, in part because of my great-grandfather's writings. Those French – and likely other nationalities as well – didn't like to keep their opinions to themselves even within the elegant walls of opera houses.

A look back at history reveals some other interesting opera-related factoids. On July 14, 1789, a crowd of angry French citizens broke into the Paris Opera and grabbed any sturdy weapons (leaving the flimsier props behind) before heading off to storm the Bastille. OK, that's not an opera performance or an opera crowd, but opera and revolution are linked early on. Then there’s French composer Daniel Auber’s "La Muette de Portici" ("The Mute Girl of Portici"), first performed at the Paris Opera in 1828, that is later cited as the spark that set off the Belgium Revolution.

Wikipedia has a list of what they call “classical music riots” including ones at Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele” in 1868; Richard Strauss’ "Salome" from the 1907 Metropolitan Opera production in New York; and Luigi Nono’s "Intolleranza" in 1961. And a quick Google search revealed that audiences can still be rowdy as one proved in February of this year as reported by Intermezzo:

“A French opera audience has proved football fans don't have a monopoly on rowdy behaviour. Saturday night's first-ever Paris Opera performance of Puccini's 'La Fanciulla del West' ended in an atmosphere reminiscent of a saloon bar brawl. Nikolaus Lehnhoff's 2009 production, borrowed from Amsterdam, boldly updates the Wild West tale to modern Wall Street/Hollywood. Predictably, not everyone went for it, with cheers and boos split roughly 50/50. More surprisingly, the battle continued on the way out. Le Monde reports the two sides carried on swapping insults on the stairs. ‘Shameful!’ and ‘Shut up, arseholes, you just didn't get it,’ were just two of the choicer exchanges overheard.”

Maybe this reflects what Jean Cocteau wrote about French audiences, that “the smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes.”

And that brings me back to opera audiences having a history of being vocal and to opera having played a lively role throughout history. So anyone who thinks that opera is the "fat lady" singing and its audience is quiet and restrained might want to think again. This all also suggests that if opera is going away in San Diego it will not go quietly nor without a fight. And that's a tradition to be proud of.

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