Last winter, Richard Paradise, executive director and cinema wunderkind of the three-year-old Film Center in the Tisbury Marketplace (and the 12 year-old Martha’s Vineyard Film Society), sent an email to his more than 5,000 followers, and asked if any were interested in filmed performances of operas from around the world.
Heck yeah, was the (obviously simplified) response from several hundred audience members. Mr. Paradise proceeded to put together an opera series culminating in a July evening of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, with a live intro by opera director Wendy Taucher and her Three Ladies from The Magic Flute.
Now, a second series is afoot. It’s lead event was offered this past Saturday, Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi, which first opened to an ecstatic audience in Rome in January of 1853. Verdi’s masterpiece has proved a popular success ever since; not a critical success, mind you, which shows how completely fun and enchanting it is.
Mr. Paradise is confident that opera lovers will fill many of his seats during the series, but he also hopes the cinema version will entice a new crowd of those who’ve long considered themselves opera-phobic (we know who we are).
“A lot of people think opera is for snobbish, ultra-cultured folks,” Mr. Paradise said before last Saturday’s screening. “Now they’ll find out they don’t need to dress up, they get to sit in the dark in comfy chairs. And none of the operas we choose are over two-and-a-half hours long.”
Without a classical music background of his own, Mr. Paradise relies on a few aficionados to steer him in the right direction. “Doug Cramer of M.V. and New York is my main go-to guy,” he said.
Not only the fear of elitism drives so many away. For some, a single evening trapped before an incomprehensible opera can remain a “never again” proposition. My own opera panic occurred on a summer evening in 1971 at the old, gorgeous Paris Opera House, with Chagall murals, and steps so narrow and high they could give Edmund Hillary vertigo. The featured opera was Tristan Und Isolde by the daunting Wagner, and the entire second act devolved into an endless duet between a hefty soprano and an ungainly tenor seated on a bench, never rising, only singing, in German, naturally, for the whole seven hours (or so it seemed), in the dark. Never again, indeed.
Richard Paradise believes opera has been transformed and opened up to the untutored with its use of subtitles — now on display in opera houses themselves — but delivered by rote in movies. Before the era of subtitles, unless one had boned up in advance on the plot, the whole mess looked like people with exquisite voices falling all over each other, wailing in Italian or German or French a version of “Wah wah wah!” and it was anybody’s guess what had upset them so. Three hours of this can be torture.
But here’s how Il Trovatore played itself out last Saturday afternoon: From the Berlin’s Straatsoper Unter der Linden, red velvet curtains parted to reveal a stage so wide and shimmering that one’s suspension of disbelief transformed it to one’s own stage set before us. Costumes were straight out of 1853 fantasyland, with balletic soldiers in shiny black boots and uniforms, a gypsy crew looking more colorfully magical than homeless, and Placido Domingo as the evil Count di Luna. And, of course, the close-up galore allow for exponentially expanded intimacy with story and characters.
It would take a Joseph Campbell to unravel all the nuances and mythologies of the story, but in broad strokes, the count’s father had once had two little sons, one of whom got sick, a gypsy sorceress was blamed and put to the stake…. Best to stop here; it must be seen to be at least partially digested. Let’s just say that the grown surviving count’s son loves the royal lady Leonora, who loves the soulful Rumi of a troubadour (the English word for Trovatore), who happens to be the grandson of the enflamed witch, but also possibly the brother of the present count.
Trovatore has everything, including luscious costuming, modern effects with video projections, choruses, duets and arias that you’ll recognize because they’re famous, and they’re famous because they’re splendid. You’ll also see the best example of that operatic trope of a character taking 20 minutes to die during which she collapses multiple times, then rises to sing with bravura abandon that brings the house down.
The point here is that an opera-phobe will arrive at a venue such as this with the intent of slipping away under cover of darkness after only an hour, and will instead sit, as Mr. Paradise has promised, in the dark in comfy seats, enrapt for the full intermission-free two-and-a-half hours.
On November 30, the film center will screen Ballanchine’s Millepied (note that the opera program includes two ballet performances).
And here’s the remainder of the schedule for this fall / winter / spring series:
The Nutcracker from Austria’s Mariinsky Theater, November 30.
La Cenerentola by Rossini, January 11.
La Forza by Kuse, February 15.
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci by Castiglione, March 15.
L’Elisir D’Amore by Villazon, April 12
Rigoletto by Viziola, May 10.
For more information and for booking tickets, log on to mvfilmsociety.com/genre/opera-ballet/.