Imagine, for a moment, if Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field all decided to ditch their usual sports offerings and present live opera for over two months every summer. Putting aside the outcry from Yankees, Mets and Knicks fans -- a tough proposition, no doubt -- imagine too that every restaurant, hotel and shop in town catered to those operagoers and depended on the performances for their livelihood.
That is roughly analogous to what happens every July and August in Verona, Italy. Since 1913, the annual Arena di Verona festival has attracted crowds to a 2,000-year-old Roman coliseum for grandiose productions of works by Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and others. Four to six productions are mounted each year, attracting some 15,000 patrons a night (a 250-foot-wide stage occupies roughly a third of the well-preserved arena). The coliseum sits on the Piazza Bra, the huge public square lined with restaurants, cafes and bars.
The atmosphere is not unlike a sporting event: Fans of all ages and backgrounds stream into the 44 gates of the giant arena just before sunset. Vendors thread through the crowd hawking programs, libretti, drinks and seat cushions (a must if you’re sitting on the stone steps of the upper tiers). As darkness falls, the audience lights up little candles. When the performance begins, fans reward every accomplished aria with a loud "bravo" or "brava.” And they wait ready to pounce on every vocal mishap; woe to the singer who is having an off night.
When this reporter caught a production of Nabucco on Aug. 21, the crowd stomped and clapped in rhythmic unison after the chorus “Va, pensiero,” demanding an immediate encore.
The Verona Opera is a uniquely Italian experience and replicating the scale and infrastructure in the U.S. would be tough. Nevertheless, it raises the question as to whether stadiums or ballparks can offer classical music a more user-friendly setting. If opera was a popular entertainment in the 19th century, why not try and reconnect with those roots?
Take Me Out to Puccini
For the next-closest experience in the U.S. consider two upcoming events on opposite coasts: The Washington National Opera on Sept. 22 will use the jumbo screens at the Nationals' baseball stadium to broadcast Tosca live from the Kennedy Center Opera House. The event, now in its fourth annual iteration, is free to the public. On Sept. 24, San Francisco Opera will present a live simulcast of Aida at AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants. Audiences either sit in the stands or spread a blanket on the outfield and are encouraged to load up on chili dogs, beer and crackerjacks.
Both events are characterized as gifts to the community and represent an attempt to strip the art form of its highbrow trappings. “The audience in the stadium is a much broader cross section in about every category you could ask for,” said Michael Mael, Washington National Opera’s executive director. “You could see as many people pushing strollers as pushing walkers. There are people with babies, parents with small children.”
Washington has drawn a crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000 patrons in past seasons; San Francisco has played to as many as 30,000.
Both companies have also added numerous populist touches. Washington will show a screening of the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Opera Doc” as a prelude this year; past installments have featured T-shirt guns and a re-write contest for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." In San Francisco, during an intermission for the 2007 simulcast of Samson and Delilah, patrons were asked to vote for their favorite character by holding up signs that said "Go Samson!" on one side and "Go Delilah!" on the other.
Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a service organization, praised these efforts as a way to bring opera to the masses. “One of the big pieces of this is to enhance the perceived civic value of the opera company,” he said. Both companies' regular houses can be seen as "kind of precious places where only certain kinds of people go. You don’t have to scratch the service very far to see the perceived the image of opera." These screenings may also help the bottom line: San Francisco says that new-patron tickets linked to the simulcasts have brought in about $880,000.
Reconnecting with Opera's Roots
A skeptic might argue that ballpark simulcasts succeed because they don’t demand much from the audience. If these are anything like outdoor concerts in New York, patrons will probably feel comfortable chatting with friends or texting their kids' babysitter while Tosca leaps to her death (San Francisco even encourages fans to talk over the music).
Still, opera was conceived as popular, interactive entertainment. European audiences of the 19th century didn’t sit and watch the opera in silence in the way that modern audiences do; Italians in particular were notorious for eating, drinking, socializing and playing cards while the performance was taking place. If faced with what they judged to be a bad opera or a poor singer, they would be sure to make their feelings known. When necessary, the rulers of the old Italian states were prepared to send armed troops into the theaters to arrest particularly unruly audience members. It wasn't until the early part of the 20th century that the rules began to change.
One is reminded of a point that Placido Domingo made in 1998, when an interviewer asked him about the spectacle nature of the Three Tenors’ concerts. "I understand the complaints of the purists," he said. "But I do not want the purists to go to the Three Tenors."
Photo credits: Scott Suchman