Introducing “Three Questions for Keith”

by Suzanne Calvin

(Why? Because You Really Want to Know)

This month’s questions for Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny are from James Faust, Artistic Director of Dallas Film Society and host of the DALLAS International Film Festival, April 12-22, 2012.  He asks:

1. Is Opera for everyone?

Opera at its heart is about great singing and powerful theater brought together, accompanied by an orchestra—and sometimes including dance as well. Theater has been part of the Western cultural tradition going back more than 2,000 years, which speaks to its power and universal appeal. The human voice is a remarkable instrument; it connects with performers at a visceral level more closely than any other instrument. After all, a violinist can improve his or her tone quality by upgrading their instrument, but a singer must develop the voice that they were born with. Because opera weaves together all of these important traditions, I believe passionately that opera is, in fact, for everyone. That being said, not all operas are as accessible or comprehensible for first-time listeners, so I recommend giving some thought to your first experience. This spring, we will be presenting two wonderful works that are ideal for first-time opera goers: Verdi’s La traviata and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

2. What’s the greatest Opera turned into a film or vice versa?

My personal favorite opera turned into a film is Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I love the musical interpretation in this film, as it beautifully captures the gentleness and innocence of the piece, and brings out its lyrical qualities. (Knowing the German version as well as I do, I still struggle with hearing the text in Swedish, but the warmth and intimacy of the film allows me to overlook this aspect). In many ways, the film anticipated the artistic choices that opera companies now face with simulcasts and DVDs of opera; Bergman’s film is a movie made on an opera set, rather than a recording of a true live performance. The movie contains many close-ups of singers that would not be possible in a typical opera house, and the lighting and theatrical makeup draw their inspiration from movies or TV rather than an actual opera performance. Bergman uses shots of the face of a young girl in the audience (his real-life granddaughter) almost as a leitmotif, to remind us of the importance of the audience in the performance. I also relish/enjoy –I don’t think savor quite works how the director films the opera’s characters on both the mainstage and backstage. The footage of the intermission contains marvelous comic touches: Pamina beating Tamino at chess, Sarastro is studying the score of Parsifal, and the Queen of the Night is smoking a cigarette.

My favorite film to include opera in a cameo role is Orson Wells’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane—still regularly selected as one of the greatest films ever made. In this film, Charles Foster Kane’s mistress, who later becomes his second wife, is an aspiring opera singer. Kane is determined to advance her career, and uses his newspapers in different cities to promote her rising “talent.” Ultimately, though, even his control of the press cannot overcome her mediocrity. The scenes showing her struggling to please her vocal coach, and the shot of two stagehands holding their noses in response to her performance is especially memorable, because it is much more difficult for an actor to play a mediocre opera singer than an out-and-out bad one.

And while we’re on the subject of opera in film, I would mention a third favorite: the cult film Diva. This 1981 film centers around a famous aria from a seldom performed opera, Catalani’s La Wally. Wilhemenia Fernandez as the film’s protagonist sings the famous aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontan,” which is one of the highlights of La Wally. I particularly enjoy how opera as an art form is portrayed as hip and glamorous in this movie—no small feat when it is based on a lovely, yet relatively unknown, opera.

3. Will the Dallas Opera ever perform a “rock” Opera?

When I meet opera patrons for the first time, they often assume that I listen to nothing but opera. Actually, I enjoy listening to a wide range of music. The band The Who arguably created the rock opera genre in the 1970s, and the original musical Tommy, written by Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff contains some great music. The artistic impulse to knit together a series of rock songs, which tend to be relatively short, into an overall story-line was a very influential model (even if one argues that the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s got there first).

So will the Dallas Opera perform a “rock ” Opera? Probably not. But it’s not because some of them aren’t great music and theater. Every opera company is wrestling with the question of what works to add to their core repertoire. The Lyric Opera of Chicago revived Showboat this winter to great critical acclaim. Other opera companies have performed Gilbert & Sullivan, and George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess has been revived by the Dallas Opera, as well asother major opera companies, many times.

To me, the issue is one of artistic “stretch.” The Dallas Opera’s core mission is producing grand opera, with occasional chamber operas added in. As a producing company, we hire top singers and other artists from directors to designers, and bring in orchestral players from outside of North Texas when needed (e.g. the banjo player in our mid-March production of Peter Maxwell-Davies’ The Lighthouse). While we could hire singers and rock musicians for a work like Tommy, it isn’t really what we do best. It would also put us into more direct competition for audiences and supporters with other excellent producing and presenting companies in North Texas (such as the Dallas Theater Center, the AT&T Performing Arts Center, and Dallas Summer Musicals).

Thanks for the questions, James!

About James Faust: James Faust, Artistic Director of Dallas Film Society, loves his family. Loves film. Loves Dallas. Wants you to stay in school.

James Faust | Artistic Director| Dallas Film Society
Host of the DALLAS International Film Festival -- April 12-22, 2012
3625 North Hall Street, suite 740 | Dallas, Texas 75219
P 214.720.0555 | F 214.720.0551 | C 214.505.3681 |

One Response to Introducing “Three Questions for Keith”

globalfountain says: May 18, 2012 at 10:15 pm

MY friend…Keith Cerny

I write to you much as the Medici’s. From the business community, and one of common sense.

If you want to know the future of Opera, it is not in the past. It is in this moment. Look at the stories, they are very immature, and based on trivial explorations of another era.

We are a bit more mature I’m afraid. Explore interation, explore availability, explore creation…from the perpective of the most profound nature of all…a child.

Technology of today supercedes the novelty of hidden nuance, so in essence…get real.

I’m sure there will be more to come.