Monday, March 12, 2012

Symphonic Metamorphosis, Movement two

The first performance of the Kansas City Lyric Opera's production of "Nixon in China" by John Adams was Saturday night.

Here's the two reviews I could find:

Kansas City Star, "Epic meets intimate: Lyric Opera's "Nixon" is a stunner", "Opera in the age of the sound bite"

The KCMetropolis review was written by a friend of mine. He's not the sort of person to take it easy on one of the highest-profile performing ensembles because I'm playing in the back row, but the connection does exist.

It was well received, as you will see if you read those two reviews.  It's always difficult to know how things are playing in "the house", because the pit can seem very insular.  Especially in this production, where the entire pit has amplification microphones and the show is being mixed from somewhere in the back of the house.

Reading the reviews, I wanted to see the production.  They spend so much time talking about the visual impact, that I feel lost with only the barest hint of some peeks I've made.  Surely in this digital age, there's a recording of it somewhere.  Couldn't I just borrow it for a night?  Ahh, I know I can't.  Too bad, though. 

This opera may be the most difficult thing I've ever performed as a musician.  It's not overly difficult to physically play: most of the rhythmic patterns are straightforward, or similar to something else.  The real challenge is playing for three hours with only two 15 minute breaks.  The opera is mostly through-composed, which means that the music begins at the beginning of the act and doesn't stop until the lights come up and people head for the restrooms.  There are no "numbers" or "arias" that exist as separate entities.  So even when we're not playing, we're counting rests in mixed meter like fiends, trying to make sure we don't get lost in the mean time!

The entire time, everyone has to pay continual attention and keep the brain working, or you'll be lost for an important entrance that knocks everyone else off kilter.  It feels weird to describe it as being so individually focused, because the constant subdivisions and ever-present rhythmic pulse have made me wonder more than once if the entire opera could be performed sans conductor.  Perhaps only a click track, like a Hollywood recording session.  Heresy to mention, in an age where more often than not, an orchestra is reduced to some token strings and a few keyboard players.

There is an aspect which I find disappointing.  It sure is expensive to go the opera!  This performance had seats that started at $75.  In the highest balcony.  Fortunately, the theater is a beautiful place with nary a bad seat.  The subtitle projection screens are a techno-marvel, and I know from previously performing the ballet that even the upper balcony provides an excellent view of the stage.

But, a part of me knows this is an expensive business.  The singers are top notch, which is important because this definitely ISN'T easy on a vocalist.  The scenery is apparently amazing.  The lighting design is inspired.  The orchestra is a full-strength opera ensemble (40-50 people) who needed rehearsal time.  All of that costs lots of money.  And, for my small amount of griping, I hope they do make money.  Because making money means more such productions.

We in the artistic community always complain about how the sports get the money in schools.  No clarinet teacher makes the kind of salary the football coach does!  But the reality is that the football coach -- with a winning record -- can bring in millions of dollars in school revenue each year.  Very few art professors can claim the same!

So while I grieve a bit that this isn't the opera populaire, it's bringing world-class artists and modern masterpiece music to a cow town in Missouri.  And people are filling the halls, which is the best possible result.

And it's giving me a few precious opportunities to believe I'm the performing musician I always wanted to be.  Which is the best possible result for me!

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