The thing I miss about most opera is raffishness.
You know, that music-hall, theatrical-underbelly, up-from-the-depths, cut-loose, anything-but-grand collaboration with the audience: the sly wink.
Wagner’s a mighty guy, but he’s no winker. Puccini’s plenty theatrical, but he wouldn’t wink if a butterfly fluttered past his eyeball. OK, Mozart winked. A lot. And I suppose you could call the elephant stomping around the stage in “Aida” a wink, but really, that’s more of a giant-size goggle.
There’s plenty of joy in the music: Listening to Leontyne Price or Maria Callas or Renee Fleming or Jessye Norman or Dawn Upshaw can transport me to places I love to visit again and again. But so often the staging (especially in the cavernous halls where most opera is performed), and the Deep Seriousness of the composition (I’m talking to you, Ring of the Nibelung guy), seem designed to dwarf the audience into a state of insignificance.
Still, I can’t help thinking things were somehow looser in opera’s early days, in those intimate Baroque halls where you didn’t need opera glasses to see the expressions on the singers’ faces, and where gilding the lily — essentially, making a virtue of the showy art of ornamental improvisation — kept things loose and lively and less High Art than living entertainment. Show biz, if you will.
So when I saw last weekend that a group called Opera Theater Oregon was presenting Georges Bizet’s glorious-sleazy “Carmen” at a downtown Portland nightclub called the Someday Lounge as live accompaniment to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent-movie version of the 1875 opera, I was there.
And I wasn’t disappointed.