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Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Sunday Read: Backstage at Semele




Quiet On The Set...and...Remember!
Backstage at the COC brings the past and the biggest question facing opera
by Alex Van Chee
(photos by Karl Forster from the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie production of Semele, 2009) 

So there I was standing in the backstage of the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts amongst a frenzy of camera crew, reporters, and other media writers like a fish out of water on a Friday afternoon, wondering what to do. It was Canadian Opera Company’s media meet and greet event for the upcoming big budget production of Handel’s Semele and everybody was excited. There were speeches about the history and the mechanics of the very impressive “set” (a real 500 hundred-year old Ming temple made of camphor wood, dismantled and put back together here in Toronto), about the multiculturalism and its significance both to the opera and the city of Toronto, about the impossible task of running 3 different operas simultaneously, each with its own sets. Having never been at an event quite like this before, I was suddenly at a loss: I didn’t know what I was doing there. I didn’t have a clear agenda (I knew I had to write something after the trip), I am an introvert (my friends would protest violently on this) so speaking to strangers in an event like this was quite frightening, and I was ill prepared for any one-on-one interviews (I didn’t know this was part of, or even the point of a media event). I must have sweat buckets because the media kit prepared for me that I clutched tightly in my hands was wrinkled and damp.

I did in the end however, manage a short conversation with COC’s General Director Alexander Neef, who generously indulged my awkwardness, asking about his views on the future of operas in North America, the climate of classical music, and on the subject of storytelling. And here he pointed out brilliantly that his job is to tell stories, stories that grab people, that they can understand and care about. And in that very simple line of his lay the big division in the discussion of opera productions nowadays: how to tell the story.


I remember my first opera, I was 11 or 12. My mother brought my brother and me to a touring company’s (New York Met) production of Rigoletto. We were not wealthy and it was an experience my parent could hardly afford. It was also before sub-titles were available. In preparation for three hours of Italian, my mother sat with us for a few hours days ahead of the show, telling us the story of Rigoletto. She even bought a cassette of the entire opera (Pavarotti/Sutherland/Miles/Bonynge, Decca Recording, 1971; I still have it), and we sat there listening to it, asking questions while she flipped through her opera dictionary for answers. I also remembered the horrified and mystified looks the other patrons gave my mother on the day of the show, “they are not going to talk or cry, are they?” She prepared a binocular and a bag of gum so our hands and mouths were kept busy for 3 hours. It was a traditional, conventional production. I don’t remember who were in it or how they sang. I don’t remember if we talked or not, but I do remember it was awesome. I remember it was the greatest story ever even though my mother left out the sex part, and that I only figured out years later.

The question beguiling all the opera companies now is figuring out how do people like to have their stories told. There is a burning desire on the companies to make sure that everyone is “in touch” with the storyline, that the audience can see part of themselves or someone they know in the operas. How do you make everyone happy? The answer is simply, you can’t. There is really no opera “clique”. There is always going to be people who have been going to operas for years, those who have never experienced it before, and the incidental opera viewers. There are even people who would only see that one opera they love so much and nothing else. Some like their stories told in the same fashion over and over again, tested and true, while others are bored with the same old story and like to be challenged, to be told it from a different perspective. Some have never heard the stories before, willingly accept anything that is given and some not so much.


And this brings me to Handel’s Semele, COC’s last opera in their 2011-12 season. Set to the story of Semele from the Greek mythology, it is a tale of greed and its consequence, a very common theme. The production that will be launched at the Four Seasons which has already been seen in Brussels and Beijing, is designed by one of the most prominent contemporary Chinese artists,  Zhang Huan, and he places it through his own cultural lense. It will feature some of the most stunning theatrics on the operatic stages with the mixed use of sets, crazy props, visual media, and other special effects. It is guaranteed to be a treat for the eyes. 

Semele also has a ton of insanely difficult arias. Myself I shall adore and No no I’ll take no less being two of my all time favorites, requiring superhuman vocal gymnastic agility to execute. But I have no doubt that like the production’s previous two outings, a lot of post-show discussions will be on the appropriateness of reproducing a Greek myth in pseudo-China. Personally, that would not be my interest. I will be focusing on the way the story is told, hopefully enjoying the ride wherever it takes. For those who have seen Semele, this will be a lavishly entertaining twist on an old tale. For those who haven’t, go for the audio and visual treat. And do not read up on the synopsis. I forbid my friends from doing so before an opera, and I never elaborate on it in reviews. One would not read the plot and all the details before going to a movie or a play, why do it with an opera? 

Relax, and let COC tell you the story, of long long time ago... 

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