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Operatic life, maddening to magnificent

By Lawrence Toppman

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  • ‘Tosca’

    Opera Carolina’s “Tosca:” Oct. 18, 21, Belk Theater.

    Details: www.carolinatix.org; 704-372-1000.



After singing for 30 consecutive seasons in the Opera Carolina chorus, I know one thing about opera: If you do it right, it’s cooler than six supermodels sitting on an ice sculpture.

I suppose it’s also good for your cultural health, though that makes it sound like musical muesli.

Maybe it’s even spiritually ennobling once in a while, although popular operas often end with erring spouses or political foes getting shot, stabbed, strangled or poisoned. “Tosca,” which opened Opera Carolina’s season Saturday, has two suicides, a firing squad and a fatal knife thrust within two hours of music.

But mostly, opera that’s done right is a visceral pleasure to hear and perform.

Note that I said “done right.” Done badly, opera can be the most interminable form of artistic torture.

I sat next to actor David McCallum (now a star on TV’s “NCIS”) at an excruciating “Macbeth” 30 years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. After Act 1, I asked if he liked opera. “Not really,” he said. “My son Peter is playing Fleance, so I came to see him.” (He paused.) “Is this as stupid as I think it is?” I said it was. After his son’s role ended in Act 2, he bolted. I stayed to suffer alone.

As I write this before opening, I still can’t be sure how “Tosca” will turn out. We’ve had a good run of rehearsals, but those can be deceptive. Sometimes they go smoothly but lead to a bland musical pudding. Sometimes they go badly; then, like a ball thrown by a pro bowler, a show curves away from the gutter and hooks right into the pocket.

The chorus barely sings in “Tosca”; unfortunately. Puccini had little use for choruses until his last opera, the opulent “Turandot.” And just as he figured out how to exploit the sound of massed voices, he croaked while composing Act 3.

But I’m pretty sure this will be better than the first “Tosca” I did in fall 1983, when I made my debut.

For one thing, it’s in Italian, the way it was meant to be heard, with English titles projected above the stage. For another, it’s not in vast Ovens Auditorium, which was a great place to bring a horse onstage in “Carmen” and a great place to shout yourself hoarse as a singer. And over the last 30 seasons, the quality of our performers has risen steadily.

The company grows up

In my early days, we tended to get two kinds of principals: those taking their first steps up the hill of stardom, and those who were already well over that hill.

Sometimes we lucked into terrific young talents: Jennifer Larmore sang a bewitching Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” en route to an international career, and Gary Lakes was a towering Samson in “Samson and Delilah” before his Met gigs as a Wagnerian tenor.

But many principals were like the rusty-voiced bass who told a “Faust” director he could sing Mephistopheles’ “Calf of Gold” aria two ways: He could be frightening or alluring. The director explained a completely different idea for the number. The aging star nodded and asked, “Would that be the first way or the second?”

The term “prima donna” has acquired negative connotations based on opera legends – it actually means nothing more than “leading lady” – but the real divas in my opera world have been directors, not singers.

One buffoon told us to leap, wearing costumes and swords in belts, off a 6-foot ledge during an entrance in “Il Trovatore.” We thought it could be dangerous and asked him to demonstrate. “I would,” he said. “But I’ve just bought these new Ferragamos, and I don’t want to damage my shoes.” After the first tentative jumper landed the wrong way on an ankle, nobody followed.

Another idiot told us to strike an attitude in “La Traviata” that directly contradicted what we were singing, which audiences would read in supertitles above us. “The words, the words,” he shrugged impatiently. “You think too much about the words. Nobody cares about the words in opera!” Verdi stopped rolling in his grave shortly after the show.

Blessedly, most of our regular directors maintain a sense of humor while moving vast numbers of people around the rehearsal hall night after night, and we’re glad to see them again. Jay Lesenger, who’s directing “Tosca,” is one of those.

Contrary to rumor, even esteemed singers rarely strike haughty attitudes offstage: Denyce Graves, the biggest name to perform here in recent years, was genial. Soloists come from overseas more often, now that the company’s standards have risen; they frequently battle language barriers but are shyly friendly.

Singing with the pros

We chorus members find ourselves in an unusual position. We’re paid honoraria according to years of service: I get the top fee of $450 for the run of the show, because I’m the longest-lasting male singer in the company’s history. (Singers don’t always know when their voices are shot, so I plan to stay until a big hook emerges from the wings to snatch me off by the neck.)

That means we’re “professional,” yet we’re not: We have other jobs, and we sing out of a love for music and a need for attention. We don’t have the clout to beef about staging, as soloists can, but we’re expected to maintain a high level of dedication.

We may need as many as 10 or 12 weeks of music rehearsals, once or twice a week, if we’re performing in a language as chewy as Russian and an opera as demanding as Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” Or we may rehearse music four or five times to polish a “Tosca.” (We memorize parts on our own time, of course.)

Next we get two weeks of staging rehearsals, usually in a church meeting hall or gym, with tape on the floor to show where the furniture and doorways will eventually go. We end with a week or less on the Belk Theater stage before opening night.

Then comes the inevitable letdown. Unlike actors in local plays, which run two to four weeks, we get just three or four performances to perfect what we practice. The “family” in which we’ve spent so much time – sometimes lovingly, sometimes moodily, trying to make the production better – simply dissolves.

We walk away with pay envelopes and a bank of memories on which to draw until the next show, yet that can be enough. Because, if everyone got it right, we’ve had a very cool time indeed.

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