It’s safe to say that opera, when it's at its best, never rests on one set emotion for the duration of a work.
There’s a range of expression, and even the dourest, most tragic of works have the occasional flash of humor, whether deliberate or unintentional. Such comedy, it can be argued, even heightens the inevitable tragedy. There’s an added context that comes with the boys of Bohème mocking a fancy dinner and ferocious duel that offsets the frantic entrance of Musetta and Mimì’s cataclysmic end.
La bohème and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel are given the full comedy treatment in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s "Dr. Opera," a partnership with Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe. To promote a January event, “The Second City Guide to the Opera,” featuring Renée Fleming, the company is producing a series of online videos which put pairs of troubled opera characters on the therapist’s couch.
Gretel (played by newest SNL addition Aidy Bryant) has residual anger towards her parents and had the stove removed from her apartment; Hansel boasts food issues. Mimì and Rodolfo are in a more traditional couple’s counseling session, both wishing they could return to “Act I” of their relationship as Mimì hacks into a handkerchief. (“Jesus, your hands are freezing!” Rodolfo shouts. “Then buy me a muff!” she responds, before Dr. Opera asks drily “Is that a euphemism?”)
Like comedy and drama, comedy and opera find a meeting point in therapist humor. Perhaps that’s why Frasier Crane was such a fan of the art form, or why Woody Allen works opera into so many of his movies. In fact, there’s an Allen-ish vein that runs through the first two episodes of “Dr. Opera,” reminiscent of the final lines of "Annie Hall." “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken,’” relates Allen’s character. “And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don't you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’”
As Allen’s character then explains, relationships run a similar course. “They’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd… but I guess we keep goin' through it because most of us need the eggs.”
Opera needs the eggs, too. And it can do with some fun poked at towering characters who seem impenetrable, lofty, immortal. Early operas made gods human, full of foibles. Admittedly, “Dr. Opera” so far comes off as a bit shaky. The Hansel and Gretel session works well, viewing the characters several years after the action of the opera, and dealing with a story universally known outside of the opera world. La bohème’s characters are in Act III, so like a Disney mid-quel, you know what’s going to happen to them once they leave the office. Somehow the comedy doesn’t ring as true, coupled especially with inside jokes that leave newcomers to Bohème out in the cold.
How it will shake out for other operas in the Lyric season will say less about the comedic potential of the operas and more about the ability of Lyric and Second City’s writers to mine contemporary laughs from them. One wonders if Elektra will be featured before Strauss’s work opens the Lyric season in October, or how the unfamiliar-to-most plot of Don Pasquale could be condensed in sketch comedy form. And, given that it’s Second City forming the comedy side of the partnership, part of me really hopes to see the network’s homegrown character, Sassy Gay Friend, give Gilda relationship advice.