Like most people my age, my main exposure to opera has been through Bugs Bunny cartoons like “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “Rabbit of Seville”. The genius of those shorts was that they took high art and made it into something even attention span-challenged American kids could enjoy. But I imagine they spurred a greater interest in opera for only a very few.
So it was for me. I always thought of opera as something other, unattainable and likely too difficult to enjoy. I can hang with a foreign film once in a while, but the thought of watching people singing in Italian or German while wearing tights was too much to take. I guess I always just regarded it as Broadway with more elaborate costumes and different languages.
But I decided to make time last week, and so I headed to Philly to catch the closing night of the Opera Company of Philadelphia‘s production of Otello. I had no idea what to expect, and even less idea if I’d enjoy myself. Lo and behold, it wasn’t bad at all. In fact it was pretty damn good. What changed my mind?
First off, let’s address the language barrier. Otello is sung in Italian, which makes sense since it was written by the great Giuseppe Verdi. Now you might have an idea of the story if you’ve read Shakespeare’s Othello, on which the opera is based. But that doesn’t mean you can follow everything. That problem was solved by a long, rectangular screen above the stage that flashed the English translation of the words.
I had mixed feelings about this at first. At first I was a little sad that modern opera audiences seemingly need to have their hands held in such a manner. But then again, understanding what the performers were singing most definitely allowed me to become more engaged in the story. And ultimately that’s what any art form is supposed to do – draw you in and allow you to become invested. So rather than just focusing on the sets or the singing, I could connect with the story.
Speaking of the singing, that was the second thing to win me over. Now I wasn’t surprised in the least that an opera staged by a reputable production company had good singing, but I was thoroughly impressed by the performances I heard. In a world overrun by soulless, auto-tuned melisma, hearing real professionals practice their craft is refreshing.
In particular, Mark Delavan’s Iago and Clifton Forbis’ Otello were the kind of commanding, powerful vocal performances you just can’t get from most forms of music. Norah Amsellem’s (Desdemona) soaring soprano took a little while to hit its stride, but really shone in the final act.
I came away from Otello wondering why it took me so long to finally dive into opera. Really, once you get past any cultural bias you may have against it, it really is just another form of entertainment – not all that different from live music of movies. In fact it’s a pretty compelling blend of the two.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the venue. I saw Otello at the Kimmel Center’s Academy of Music, which opened its doors in 1857. It’s a beautiful structure, and contributes greatly to the atmosphere of a performance. If you have the chance to visit Philly, try to see the structure. And if you can catch a performance there, even better. One word of caution – if you buy cheap seats like I did, make sure to take the elevator.