A Night at the Opera

In the classic Bugs Bunny episode called, What’s Opera, Doc? Bugs, in disguise, gets embroiled in a performance of a Wagner opera (sorry, cannot remember which one), while Elmer Fudd is busy tracking him down. This, of course, represents a good percentage of what I know about opera performance.

That, and if you’re going, you have to dress to, well, if not to impress at least to not depress.

But on WGN radio I caught a few minutes of on-air vivid description of the Lyric Opera’s performance of Showboat. They made it sound almost irresistible, and I had never been to the Civic Opera House which is a true Chicago landmark. The voices would be live, not miked or amplified, and the show itself is the original rendition of American musical theater, originating in 1927 and giving rise to what some consider the only truly American art form. No, it’s not a REAL opera, but it’s close enough.

Now, I am not a music buff or a big fan of stage musicals by any stretch of the imagination, and the only opera performance I had ever seen was in Vienna with student -price tickes (I think we stood) when I was 24. But I do enjoy stage musicals like Fiddler or Oklahoma, when I get the chance. Which is rarely. I also enjoy the occasional Hollywood movie musical, especially Wizard of Oz or My Fair Lady, with their multiple witty numbers. I had never seen any of the Hollywood versions of Showboat, the two best known being a 1951 production with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel(not that well-regarded), and a 1936 version with Irene Dunn (regarded as better, especially Paul Robeson singing Ol’ Man River).

So, I bought tickets on-line. This means I now have an ID log-in and password with Chicago’s Lyric Opera. That, in and of itself, will add several IQ points in any unbiased analysis done by a competent examiner.

I wore a sport coat. And a clean shirt.

We arrived on the coldest night of a record-warm Chicago February, about 15 degrees F temp. with a near-zero windchill downtown. The breeze blowing into and through the lobby at the Civic Opera had many ladies keeping their coats on indoors as we grabbed refreshments. Spouse and I only had coffees, an attempt to help stay awake for the performance that would begin at 7:30 (on the dot, if you were wondering) and run ’til almost 10:30. I won’t say we tend to nod off , but,  . . .

Of course, we ran into someone we knew–rather someone my spouse knew, which is almost always how it goes when you are married to a local celebrity–and we chatted for several minutes before finally giving in and checking our coats.

The seats were great, not because I paid extra for great seats, but because EVERY seat is great. We were on an aisle, and I had the aisle seat. Ask any guy, this makes a huge difference.

Surprisingly, the cast did NOT include Bugs Bunny, but the voices were awesomely amazing. Every voice. The story plot (maybe you know it, I didn’t) is pretty lame, but of course in a musical that is not the point at all. The funny parts were funny, the touching parts were touching, the dancing just good, but the voices? They arrived with rich, deep tones and rumbled, and I’m sorry if there is anyone reading that doesn’t appreciate a trained voice that can deliver with no amplification the truest sound all the way through the back of a crowded theater with two balconies. The female lead was sung by Ashley Brown, the male lead by Nathan Gunn. Joe, who gets to sing Ol’ Man River, was voiced by Morris Robinson. He was extraordinary.

Here is a link to a video mini-excerpt: http://www.lyricopera.org/

During the intermission two little girls in polka-dot skirts were picking up their coats. They were with their grandparents, and they were all leaving. “Getting a little late,” I commented. It was about 9:30, and Grandma said, “Yes, one Act is enough at their age. We don’t want to spoil opera for them.” I thought, How wise!

We caught the second act, and I can’t say we were humming show tunes on the way home. But I will say that it was worth every penny, and that I will remember the voices for the rest of my life.

Chicago’s Civic Opera House seats 3,600 and is the second largest opera venue in North America. It opened in 1929, and is located 1.3 miles from US 41.

Link to Bugs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJXBZbi2RJc&feature=fvsr

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