Opera, Come Rain or Come Shine

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It seems that, whenever we tune in to the news, somewhere in the world there is too much rain or none at all. In the run-up to the London Olympics, Londoners fretted through the rainiest spring and summer that even their seemingly impermeable town had endured in decades. China was battered by two typhoons in the past week. Great swaths of South Asia seem submerged by annual flooding (last year 20% of Pakistan was under water).

In vast expanses of the United States, the worst drought in more than 50 years has resulted in crop failures and, by extension, the need to sell livestock for slaughter because it is too costly to buy feed. Farmers likely are singing "I Wish It Would Rain" or banking on the dubious magic of those who say they know how to coax precipitation from unyielding clouds like the character Burt Lancaster played so memorably in “The Rainmaker” (1956). Parts of Africa and the Middle East are similarly parched right now in what has become a too-often ritual of hydric deprivation. And January through July 2012 have been the hottest of these seven months on record in New York City since record-keeping began in 1895.

How we respond to rain is primarily a question of preparedness but also a matter of mood. Sometimes there is the cheery deluge that puts a smile on your face and makes you dance like Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain." Then there is incessant rain that makes you miserable, like pouty Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson in the 1932 film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Rain.”

These issues of deluge and drought are, let’s face it, due to the fact that global warming (euphemistically called “climate change”) is for real. In a future post I will give you my take on Wagner’s Ring Cycle as a cautionary tale about environmental devastation. But, for today, let us explore the impact of rain on opera and how it is presented.

When I began making notes for this article, I was in Verbier, Switzerland during its excellent music festival. The chief concert each night is held in a large, sturdy tent that holds almost 2,000 people. The program included selections from Tannhäuser, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, with René Pape singing Wotan, followed by Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (a monument to Wagner), all conducted by Manfred Honeck. As Pape intoned the music about building the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, great booms of thunder could be heard from outside. (By the way, how did the gods build a rainbow bridge when there was no rain?)

By the time Pape’s Wotan asked Loge to light the magic fire that surrounds Brünnhilde, I feared that these flames would be extinguished by the pounding rain. Soon, there was a huge downpour, so loud that the performance of Bruckner's Seventh had to be stopped twice because the noise from outside meant that the musicians could not hear one another play.

This performance led me to think about how rain is dealt with at opera festivals in Verona (right), Caracalla and Santa Fe. At the Italian festivals, rain means musical instruments can be damaged, so performances are quickly suspended. The musicians and singers wait in protected areas, just in case the performance can be resumed. But if the weather service predicts that the skies will not clear, the performance will be cancelled. If it had already begun, then refunds are not given.

I have seen many wonderful performances at the Santa Fe Opera and, without exception, they have been punctuated by a weather spectacular. The semi-outdoor auditorium is open on the sides and has an opening above part of the seating area that allows the audience to see the sky while watching the action on the somewhat protected stage. Most of the time, these storms last about a half hour and are more beautiful than intrusive. But word reached me in Europe, where this is being written, that Mother Nature outdid herself the other night in New Mexico.

I contacted my colleague, William V. Madison, who was in Santa Fe, for any weather updates. He replied:

“The other night’s performance of Rossini's Maometto II at Santa Fe Opera wasn't delayed by rain. Instead, during the show one of those desert storms that come up so quickly arrived. I'm not sure even company veterans would have known how to anticipate it, or even to react. Mostly, we got wonderfully evocative backdrops until the second half of the evening, when the storm reached full force. 

"At that point, the weather became an active participant in the drama. When soprano Leah Crocetto (as Anna, the heroine), asked God to bring down lightning bolts to defend His children, He obliged with the real thing. And when the chorus urged her to ‘flee the coming storm,’ we got the appropriate atmosphere. Somehow the singers managed to keep a straight face throughout, though many of us in the audience laughed — even as others were running for shelter, with rain pelting us from house left. The set wobbled in the high winds, such that several stagehands rushed to hold it in place, but the show went on. With all these special effects, it was easy to see Maometto as a precursor to French grand opéra -- and not only because Rossini later revised the piece for Paris.”

In opera, I prefer storms created by composers rather than the celestial powers-that-be. Following the splash made by The Enchanted Island last season at the Met, I am eager to see Thomas Adés’s The Tempest this fall. Rossini was a master at composing storm music. In the downpour in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the rain comes in little drops then, suddenly, the wind kicks in and the rain gets heavier. Then, just as quickly, the wind subsides and the storm passes over as the orchestra gives a last sigh. 

Wagner could also kick up a storm. Certainly the overture to Die Fliegende Holländer starts with a big squall at sea. My favorite, and shorter, storm music is the prelude to Die Walküre, which many audience members do not realize is the winter storm about which Siegmund sings later in the first act.

My favorite operatic storm scene is in the third act of Rigoletto, as nearly perfect an opera as has ever been written. Here, Maddalena tries to persuade her brother Sparafucile not to murder the Duke of Mantua, as Rigoletto has paid him to do. Listening nearby is Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, who is love with the Duke. The actual storm (anticipated brilliantly by the offstage chorus, is not just a weather event but serves to intensify the emotions among the characters. This tempesta is, indeed, tempestuous and the music the orchestra plays could not be more evocative.

Watch this video and tell us below, what adventures have you had attending opera in the rain? What rain scenes in opera are your favorites?