Opera: Large smells and large screens

The view of the opera's festivities from the Scatter campout spot.

By The Scatter Family minus one plus two

The Scatter Family minus one headed downtown Saturday night to Portland Opera’s season-opening Big Night gala concert, an indoors/outdoors spectacle that also included pizza, rockabilly, giant walking heads, and an after-concert showing of the Marx Brothers’ side-splitting operatic thrashing A Night at the Opera on an oversized screen hanging above the front entrance of the Keller Auditorium.

The Scatter Family? Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Scatter (Bob Hicks and Laura Grimes) and the Small Large Smelly Boy (age 13), who loves ballet and whistles opera whenever he thinks strangers aren’t listening. We fondly call him Felix/Martha (Felix Unger/Martha Stewart), but it really should be Felix/Frasier/Niles/Martha (if you have to ask then you haven’t laughed through the Frasier TV sitcom, where Frasier and Niles are hilarious opera-loving sons of a crusty retired police officer).

Why the minus one? The Large Large Smelly Boy is not fond of opera (“Why do they always sing so high and stuff?”), but he’s a big film buff and we had hoped he would fall for a chance to see A Night at the Opera (“But I can get it at the library!”). We have no idea why he’s not amenable to being exploited for cultural and comic purposes.

Why the plus two? We ran into one of the SLSB’s longtime buddies (LSB2, also 13) and his dad, who generously sent their reflections (they’re good ‘uns; just wait). In debating about a blog name, the dad suggested SSD (Short Smelly Dad), but we’ll call him Ed.

Mr. Scatter: We scramble onto a concrete perch at Ira Keller Fountain a little late in the game, while the folks from Opera Theatre Oregon are finishing their set. A trek of some distance has got us here. Mrs. Scatter, nervous about what onstreet parking slots might still be available in the Pacific Time Zone, had begun looking for a spot somewhere around downtown Grand Island, Nebraska. We compromised on a spot closer to Moscow, Idaho, and began the trudge, pausing briefly for a breather at a truck stop near The Dalles.

Mrs. Scatter: Oh for crying out loud, I parked only a few blocks away. Hoof it, Mister. (Note that I didn’t call you a big fat liar.)

At least it was better than Ed’s experience a handful of years ago when he took his daughter to the opera when she was in middle school.

What happened, Ed? The first time he took her he parked in a garage, which was locked up after the show. They took a cab home.

The second time his car was totaled on the way to the show. They made it to the performance anyway … and took a cab home.

The third time they took a cab to and from the opera.

What about the operas, Ed? They were pretty inappropriate for her age. Like Don Giovanni.

The opera’s synopsis on the all-knowing Wikipedia starts out, “Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, sexually promiscuous nobleman … ”

The big-headed Groucho.Mr. Scatter reminds us we’re not here to be sexy. Or are we? The fountain, which is above and directly across from Keller Auditorium, is crawling with the curious and curiouser. A gigantic Groucho Marx head is prowling the grounds in front of the fountain; a similarly gargantuan Harpo, frizzy curls tucked beneath a colossal bowler hat, is on the other side. Chico’s making mischief somewhere else. Groucho’s cigar alone is the size of a modest Christmas tree. A makeshift beer and wine garden has been set up behind us, so near yet so far: City regulations won’t allow the under-age Small Large Smelly Boy past the barricade, and likewise won’t allow the beer or wine to wander out into the rest of the park where it might undermine the morals of passing pigeons. So the Scatters settle in soberly as a rockabilly outfit called the Twangshifters sets up onstage.

It’s an odd juxtaposition for a night at the opera, but not an unpleasant one. Spurred by the smoky/sultry vocals of lead singer Sara Berry, the ’Shifters glide through a set of songs to make babies by, and songs about how come you won’t make babies with me anymore, and songs about I’m stuck in Folsom Prison and I can’t make babies with no one no how and I feel like I’m gonna die. The songs have oomph. They do not wear tuxedos.

A bowl from Oregon Ice Works.The white-haired woman next to Mrs. Scatter isn’t so sure. “Let’s bring on the opera!” she huffs as the Twangshifters pound their power chords at the end of their set. She’s wearing a lime-green outfit and pink sandals. Her husband has brought back a cup of bright-purple ice from the Oregon Ice Works cart.

That’s alright, you guys. Don’t mind me. Mr. Scatter, the SLSB, Ed and LSB2 all head to the auditorium for the real thing. They’re off to comfy seats and nice bathrooms. That’s OK. Really. They leave Mrs. Scatter on the cold, hard concrete. She’s got her bottled water and the port-a-potties right next door.

“Does anyone want two free tickets in the 6th row?” A guy stands in front of Mrs. Scatter and announces this. Mrs. Scatter turns to the woman next to her in the pink sandals. “Go!” she urges. The woman’s hand shoots up. The guy hands her the tickets and says, “Better hurry!” The woman and her husband get up and hustle out. Their seats with perfect views quickly fill in.

Mr. Scatter, doing an inside job: The SLSB and Mr. Scatter take closeup seats after abandoning Mrs. Scatter to the casual pleasures of the out-of-doors. Unlike the Twangshifter tunes, the Portland Opera Chorus does wear tuxedos. The men, at least. So do the men in the orchestra. The women wear black dresses or black pantsuits, and do not hold cocktail glasses. As Tevye the butcher says, Tradition. This inside-outside thing has proven confusing for Mr. Scatter, who was unsure whether to slap on a tie or hiking shorts. (Mrs. Scatter interjects: You’ve never seen Mr. Scatter in hiking shorts, have you?) He compromised on a stylishly rumpled Eddie Bauer look, which turned out to be overdressed for outside and underdressed for inside. The SLSB managed with his usual sartorial panache, carefully picking out one of his classiest T-shirts.

The outside is a lot like the inside, except when it’s not. As the concert starts up, Mrs. Scatter is surprised how much the audience adopts regular concert etiquette. As the conductor George Manahan takes the podium, the crowd customarily claps, just as if they were in the “real” audience. They’re quiet and respectful during the performances. They adjust their glasses, shift in their seats …

The walk signals at the crosswalks blink green and red. Roasted food smells fill the air. Two wine glasses are perched on a wall. A familiar ppffttt sound goes off as a brown bottle is uncapped.

It’s a perfect balmy temperature with clouds in the sky. As soon as the overture to Lenny Bernstein’s Candide starts, Mrs. Scatter is excited to think that the SLSB is inside live with the blazing timpani and the sweet flutes. A car engine vrooms up the street.

Mr. Scatter, the inside scoop: Conductor Manahan bounces to the podium and the orchestra digs into the program’s opening piece, the overture to Candide, which Portland Opera will produce next May. It’s a jivey, bouncy thing, which soon gives way to an interlude with opera general manager Chris Mattaliano and Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who talks a bit from note cards and then picks up a small hammer and bangs a miniature anvil. Four times. He strikes quickly, setting a frenetic pace. The orchestra plays, the chorus sings. It’s Verdi’s evergreen Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore, a lusty ode to the pleasures of wine, women and song. Bum-bum-bum-ba-bum-ba-bum-ba-bum-ba-bum-BA! Yes, it’s that kind of evening, and Mr. Scatter, for one, finds himself completely in favor.

This is a concert, not an opera production, and the stage is unadorned except for a large glittery chandelier hanging over the chorus’s heads. Mr. Scatter finds himself idly hoping the plan isn’t to have the chandelier come crashing to the stage while the phantom scuttles furtively away beneath the streets of Paris. The concert setting puts the focus squarely back on the singing as opposed to the staging, although the exquisite soprano Maria Kanyova (Violetta in Portland Opera’s 2008 La Traviata) in particular comes across as a dramatically expressive singer, and tenor Roger Honeywell, who’ll sing Pinkerton in this season’s Madame Butterfly, knows how to wring some anguish with his hands as well as his voice.

The operatic numbers on the program are like high-class kissing cousins to the Twangshifters’ rockabilly hits. The water-nymph heroine from Dvorak’s Rusalka has fallen in love with a human prince and wonders how she’s gonna manage a love affair with a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. Macduff, ticked off at the turn of events in Verdi’s Macbeth, anguishes over the death of his wife and kids and vows vengeance on Macbeth’s bad-ass head. Pinkerton and Butterfly get all passionate on their wedding night. Honeywell, as the painter Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, stands in prison awaiting his execution and remembering his love Tosca. When he hears that whistle blowin’, he hangs his head and cries. The voices are sterling, the music among the most sophisticated and gloriously complex ever composed. But in certain crucial ways opera is just a big ol’ country tune.

Funny, cuz Ed said … Before TV and big-screen movies, operas were the blockbusters of their day — the stuff of love and guts. They got all that good old-fashioned drama going on.

Some weeks ago … The perceptive SLSB asked why the opera would put on the simulcast for free. Wouldn’t that take away from people buying tickets to the performance? Why would they spend all that money for the street fair and movie?

Mrs. Scatter explained there’s a big ripple effect to a community event like this. It gets people stoked about opera and about the season. Perhaps they sell even more tickets that way. It’s a fund-raiser so the more people they reach, the more likely they’ll attract more donations. They widen their audience by attracting younger folks, families and people who can’t afford opera tickets. The goodwill from an event like this is immeasurable. The collaborations with other musical groups and vendors and giving them that publicity only spreads love. In a few months when people are writing their end-of-the-year charity checks, perhaps that awesome free gift to the city will be remembered.

When Mayor Adams strikes that anvil four times for the chorus part of Il Trovatore Mrs. Scatter thinks, Brilliant. Think of all the people watching for free who want to know more about that gypsy caravan.

Outdoors … During the stunningly beautiful aria Song to the Moon from Dvorak’s Rusalka, an explanation flashes on the screen: “She sings to the moon, imploring it to tell the young man of her love.”

The audience is quiet and rapt as two small planes with blinking white lights intersect in the night sky above the screen. A toddler squeals.

A woman stretched out on her belly on a fountain wall listens attentively as Honeywell sings an aria from Tosca.

As Lindsay Ohse and Caitlin Mathes fetchingly sing the flower duet from Delibes’ Lakme, Mrs. Scatter scribbles “Studio artists? Really?

A guy and two grade-school-age boys walk in and sit down. A cart that appears to be from the beer garden noisily rolls down the sidewalk (that could have been timed better). One of the boys sits in the guy’s lap, and as the chorus and aria from Verdi’s La Traviata launches they throw their arms out and bop around together during the intense percussion. Their hands pop up and down during the high skipping notes. Then the guy reaches around the boy, sticks a fork in a bowl and eats a big bite of salad.

A stroller goes by under the big screen during the Triumphal March from Aida. Mrs. Scatter realizes what the SLSB has been whistling for days. Again, she’s so glad he’s inside, hearing it live.

A big golden dog on a leash walks under the screen and a small dog yips on cue to the music. Mrs. Scatter and the woman next to her exchange looks and snicker.

A faint scent of daphne catches on a breeze that blows through the trees during the Madame Butterfly duet, which is tender, passionate and searing.

A message flashes on the screen during the finale of La Traviata. It’s a song of the “joys of wine, love and life’s fleeting pleasures.”

More from Mr. Scatter: In important ways the Big Night gala concert is about young people. It’s meant to raise money for the opera’s Portland Opera To Go, or POGO, program, which sends teams of performers to schools throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington, helping just a little bit to plug the enormous gap in arts education and opening a doorway to new possibilities for an untold number of kids. Mattaliano mentions that a similar program in New Jersey when he was a schoolkid inspired him to make a career in opera.

The evening is also a showcase for the Portland Opera Studio Artists, young professionals at the beginning of their careers, and this year’s crop is a good one: baritone Andre Chiang, mezzo Caitlin Mathes, bass-baritone Nicholas Nelson and soprano Lindsay Ohse join Kanyova, Honeywell, and former studio artist Brendan Tuohy onstage. Mr. Scatter has been a fan of the studio artist program since spending time with the Portland company’s original group (soprano Amber Opheim, mezzo Kendra Herrington, tenor Scott Six, baritone Jonathan Lasch, bass Aaron Theno) in 2005, following their preparations for a chamber-opera production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Other small-scale productions have followed, among them Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, enriching the city’s music scene at the same time they’ve kick-started promising careers. On this night, Ohse and Mathes are simply lovely in the flower duet from Delibes’ Lakme. The four studio artists — joined by the appealingly bright-toned Tuohy, who vocally is a Tony to make you think you’ve been stabbed and gone to Heaven – shine most fully in the balcony scene and quintet from West Side Story, a vehicle that suits their developing voices and underscores the brilliant way that Bernstein’s theatrical scores straddle the popular and the serious. If you ran across a full production of West Side Story that was sung this well, you’d be floating on air.

Near the concert’s end the performers swing into the Act IV chorus from Carmen, and Mr. Scatter hears the well-coiffed woman behind him humming softly with the orchestra, dreaming, transported, moved to join in on a passage of music she knows like her own heartbeat. That’s opera. You gotta love it.

What a nice surprise: By the time The Scatter Family walk into the house after 11 p.m., a message is already waiting for Mrs. Scatter. The LSB2 has sent his account, astonishingly complete with full titles,  composers and performer names. The boy had done his homework and checked his facts!

The opera was amazing. It was everything I wanted it to be and much, much more. The worst part of the opera was how uncomfortable the seats were. (Mrs. Scatter: Yeah, tell me about it, buddy.) Besides that, the Portland Opera made me want to see all of their upcoming events this season such as Madame Butterfly (by Giacomo Puccini) and The Marriage of Figaro (by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). The selection of music in The Portland Opera’s Big Night was incredible. The singing was magnificent and I adore their beautiful chorus. I especially liked The Pearl Fishers duet with Andre Chiang and Brendan Tuohy.

Another nice surprise: Mrs. Scatter has another message first thing the next morning by the time she turns on her computer. The Small Large Smelly Boy has reported in. Mrs. Scatter doesn’t change even a comma.

Of the entire concert, my favorite part was the duet from Lakme; I could not remember ever hearing it before, and it is always nice to find out that there is something beautiful out there that is unknown to me. There were other good arias, duets and choruses, too: I was fond of the drinking song from La Traviata, the Aida Triumphal March, and the Act IV chorus from Carmen (I noticed everybody around me tapping their fingers with the music — with Carmen, you always want to sing along). However, these melodies were all familiar to me, which is why I have highlighted the Lakme duet as my favorite.
One part I was not particularly fond of was the duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers; the duet itself I was quite fond of, but I felt that the tenor (Brendan Tuohy) was singing over the baritone (Andre Chiang) and drowning him out. They both had nice voices, but I would not have paired them. I could not tell whether Tuohy was singing too loudly or Chiang too quietly.
Overall, the evening was pleasant. If Portland Opera does the same thing next year, I would show up again.
Ed’s note makes a lovely capper:
I had a grounds maintenance job all through high school. My boss, Frank, was an ex-Marine from Brooklyn who looked like an older John Wayne, but with a Benson-Hedges stuck to his lip like Andy Capp. Once he decided we needed uniforms and got us all T-shirts emblazoned with “We Hate Grass.” Frank was a passionate opera aficionado.

The radio in his pickup truck was always tuned to the classical station, but the volume would go way up for an aria from Puccini. Barreling around in that mustard-colored Chevy full of lawn-mowers, I absorbed Frank’s love for the art. I was first immersed in the music of opera, a panoramic vista to my ears. Last night’s masterful performance by the Portland Opera included a number of pieces that I first heard on Frank’s radio.

Well, I guess we’ll have to figure out how to get the boys to a full-fledged opera …