When Opera Isn’t Opera
Posted by Mitch Mitchell on Feb 27, 2010
Friday night, I went to the Syracuse Opera production of The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner. I would say that I went to the opera, but that would be a misnomer, based on what they did to it.
Let me get this part out of the way. The singers were fabulous. The lead, Greer Grimsley, was spectacular in the role of the Flying Dutchman, and his counterpart, Peter Strummer, was also great. The leading female role was sung by Lori Phillips, as Senta, and she was fabulous as well, although, if it were me, I might have wonted more of a lyrical coloratura in the role, someone with a higher pitch, but that’s me.
The orchestra was also great. The conductor, Douglas Kinney Frost, is new to me, and though he did a competent job with both the orchestra and the choir, it seems that conductors might be doing something different these days than what I’m used to. Instead of being animated when the orchestra was supposed to be hitting accented notes, he would do it first, and then a beat later the orchestra would follow him. That was bothering me early, as I kept wondering if maybe he was off the beat in some fashion. Eventually I decided to stop looking at him and to close my eyes when nothing else was going on.
So, what was missing? The opera, that’s what. This was more of a choral version of the opera Flying Dutchman than an opera. It wasn’t a production. There were no costumes, no acting, no sets. Instead, they decided to do something they said was innovative. What they called it was a multimedia production. They got some Syracuse University students to put together video montages of, well, pretty much whatever they wanted to do, and they showed them on screens behind the orchestra throughout the performance.
Talk about distracting. For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s a tale of a ghost sailor who made a statement so bold that the devil decided he would have to sail the seas forever unless he could get a woman to give her true soul to him in love, and thus he and his crew cold finally die. This means you might expect that there would be some things in a video such as boats, maybe pirates, bad weather, etc. There’s one point in the opera where there’s supposed to be a feast, so maybe there would have been exhibits of food and the like.
Nope, none of that. Oh, there was some water, a tree once, someone pouring beer, and a mixer beating batter that eventually becomes a cake. Other than that, none of what they came up with had anything to do with anything that was in the show. That, plus they kept replaying some of these videos over and over. It was really distracting because above all of this was the translation of the German libretto, which also at times was confusing because when two singers were singing different lyrics at the same time, you weren’t always sure whose words were being printed above, and every once in awhile they wouldn’t put up any lyrics at all.
So, the opera was a mixed blessing at best. If they had done this entire thing without the video, I wouldn’t have been as disappointed. Not having the entire colorful production, I feel kind of cheated. There are pictures online of this production with some of these cast members, and in costume this would have been spectacular. As it is, I’m now a big Greer Grimsley fan, and I was elated to have the opportunity to tell him 30 minutes after the production ended how great I thought he was (I knew someone in the choir), then today at the mall, in Macys, I ran into him again and thanked him again for his performance.
Oh yeah, one more thing. For those of you who might not know the Flying Dutchman, I’m betting you know What’s Opera Doc; same music. Unfortunately, seems it’s against copyright to show you the cartoon here (really?), so here’s a live performance of the cartoon for you: