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A Tale of Two Nationals

Lessons for Opera Carolina

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After sitting spellbound for more than five hours, I noticed that some members of the audience were booing. Now, most of us were standing and applauding lustily at the end of the Canadian Opera Company's production of Götterdämmerung. The soprano who triumphed as Brünnhilde, Susan Bullock, had drawn fervid cheers, eclipsing the éclat accorded to the tenor, Christian Franz, who had persevered as her ill-fated champion, Siegfried.

As expected, the warmest ovation was reserved for COC's conductor and general director, Richard Bradshaw. It was largely Bradshaw's persistence, after all, that had turned the dream of a permanent home for Canada's national opera into the glorious reality where we stood, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto's newest jewel.

The Sunday matinee on Sept. 17 capped the COC's first-ever performance of Richard Wagner's complete Ring Cycle, a 17-hour marathon (including intermissions) that stretched out over six days, beginning with Das Rheingold the previous Tuesday evening. I was there with 45 other members of the Music Critics Association of North America who had gathered in Toronto for our annual meeting. The opportunity to behold Canada's new performing arts palace -- and the country's first Ring Cycle -- was sufficiently auspicious for MCANA to move its annual gathering from late spring to late summer.

All four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen -- including Die Walküre on Wednesday and Siegfried on Friday -- were broadcast live nationwide on CBC Radio. The sense of national pride was palpable.

So why all the boos?

Despite all the fine sounds we heard from the principal singers, and despite how wonderfully textured Bradshaw's COC Orchestra sounded in its new hall, a pent-up hostility had built up over the past six days toward the conceptual, modernist spectacle we were seeing with the majestic music. When stage director/production designer Michael Levine strolled onstage with the rest of his design team for their final bows, some of that pent-up hostility was released by those who felt it, clearly audible amid the applause.

MCANA's delegation wasn't seated as a block. We were scattered throughout the hall, in all sections -- except the luxury boxes -- from the front of the orchestra up to the fourth balcony. So it was a local opera lover standing next to me, one who had ponied up for the full Ring Cycle and a subscription to the other six operas on COC's 2006-07 slate, who turned to me apologetically during the booing.

"We're not usually like this in Toronto," he explained. "We're polite people and more accepting."

I nodded without a shred of sympathy. "Welcome to the big time," I replied.

Yes, even Canada's most cosmopolitan cultural center, a city that can absorb a star-studded International Film Festival with the nonchalance of a New York, can still experience rude awakenings and growing pains. But as Opera Carolina begins its 2006-07 season with the most risk-free repertoire imaginable, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, we might reflect on the relevant lessons Toronto has already absorbed on the bumpy road to sophistication.

Adventure: At the age of 56, Canadian Opera hasn't exactly consummated its first Ring at breakneck speed. But in its 59th season, Opera Carolina has barely broken its Wagner cherry. We've experienced Flying Dutchman twice over Op Carolina's history, and that's it for this seminal composer -- compared with nine Butterflies, six Rigolettos, and five Pagliaccis. We haven't seen any of the longer Wagners, beginning with the fairly accessible trio of Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Lohengrin. Counting the Ring tetrology, seven of the 10 operas in Toronto's season have never been staged here, including works by Strauss, Shostakovich, and Verdi. If you don't embark upon cultivating a taste for the longer, more richly rewarding classics -- or widen your repertoire -- quality, audience, and output are bound to stagnate.

Great Expectations: Our performing arts companies should expect more from their audiences. We all remember the religious ruckus and the funding fiasco when Charlotte Rep staged Angels in America at Booth Playhouse. But does anybody still remember the attendance records set by the landmark production -- or that each of its two parts was a full three hours long? While the controversy made us a national sensation, Rep's artistry made Angels a regional destination.

They're no more blasé north of the border. Two months before the Four Seasons opened for three complete runs of the Ring, 98 percent of the seats for the 12 performances were sold.

Fervor: While Butterfly, Rigoletto, and Pagliacci all have the essence of grand opera, they are mere pabulum for opera enthusiasts eager to explore the full range of the repertory. Challenge us, we say -- and bring on the heavy artillery in singing talent.

Yes, despite our abbreviated brat-and-beer intake, fervid opera fans can be every bit as rambunctious as football fans. When you've truly arrived as a world-class company, you better come onstage with your A-Game or prepare to be booed. The era of knee-jerk standing O's for Op Carolina will be history.

Vision: Nobody's going to spring for a new $160 million palazzo to house a company that mounts four major productions on an annual budget that is less than one-fifth the size of COC's. Yet, wonders have been worked in recent years in collaborative efforts, pooling the puny resources of numerous smaller companies like Op Carolina into one substantial pot. These co-productions have included an opulent Aida and pioneering launches of Cold Sassy Tree and Margaret Garner.

But why are such winning projects so intermittent -- three in the past eight seasons -- and why has no enduring alliance of companies coalesced? A similar formula is working quite successfully for the Blumenthal PAC, which is a prime mover in the nationwide Independent Presenters Network. The PAC has helped hatch Thoroughly Modern Millie, Spamalot, and The Color Purple on Broadway in the past four seasons, giving us an inside track when those shows begin to tour.

How much easier it would be to mount spectacular productions of proven winners in the operatic repertory -- utilizing singers of international stature on the rise who often wait years to take the plumiest roles at the Met. What better reminder of how well solid coalitions can work than the Tony Award for Spamalot on display in the Belk Theater lobby?

MCANA members were taken on a tour of the new Four Seasons Centre by architect Jack Diamond and a spokesman from the London-based acousticians, Soundspace Design. Achieving optimum conditions for musical performance and spectator enjoyment, we heard, is more of a science than an art.

Although I rued not packing my opera glasses, the orchestral sound where I sat in the second balcony was so richly detailed that I had no desire to switch. As for the productions, my favorites from every standpoint were Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung.

There were design extravagances in both. The raked, pebbly set of Walküre caused numerous slips and falls: Wotan, the ruler of the gods, sung by last-minute standby Peteris Eglitis, took a particularly nasty tumble. In Götterdämmerung, Siegfried drank the magic potion in a room at the castle of the Gibichungs that looked more like a BofA boardroom than a Rhine throne room. When the Rhinemaidens waylaid the hero, they tossed away vinyl purses and stripped down to negligees to attempt their seduction.

Four directors took turns in this Ring, and the intensity of Atom Egoyan in Walküre and the wit of Tim Albery in Götterdämmerung were far better than Levine's desultory debut in Das Rheingold. FranÁois Girard managed to outstrip everyone else in abstract stupidity, turning Siegfried into the most tedious, Eurotrashy five hours of Toronto's Ring.

Since my wife was staying in Baltimore, enjoying the grandkids during the MCANA meeting, I flew down to the D.C. area afterwards. That gave us an opportunity to check out the Kennedy Center and Washington National Opera's premiere of Sophie's Choice, which opened just four days after Canada's extravaganza.

If you ever get the chance, do not miss this mammoth Pentagon of performing arts complexes by the shore of the Potomac. Imagine all the performance facilities of New York's Lincoln Center under a single roof, fully accessorized with restaurants, gift shops, and ultra-large lobbies. Ring around it verandahs long and wide enough to safely land a small passenger plane, and you just begin to grasp the grandeur of this stupendous arts island. Awesome.

Sophie wasn't as impressive as the hall. We definitely got the better deal when Opera Carolina hosted some of the premiere performances of Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner. Trouble began when composer Nicholas Maw decided he could write his own libretto when he couldn't get novelist William Styron's cooperation.

A full review will appear shortly in American Record Guide, but I'll say this: writing a stage adaptation of an intricate 576-page novel is a job for a professional.

Parting Scoop: If you had the urge to yawn when The Observer broke the news that Molly Ringwald will be starring in Sweet Charity next June, take heart. Our fearless daily has been sleeping on the fact that two-time Tony Award winner Cherry Jones will be headlining the touring production of Doubt when it docks at the Belk next April. Jones will reprise the role of Sister Aloysius, which earned her the Drama Desk, Obie, and Lucille Lortel Awards -- along with her most recent Tony.

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