Last week we looked around the world for pop-up concerts that have been bringing music to the streets. But it is one thing to just roll a piano outdoors. It's another thing entirely to mount an entire opera in its actual setting. Here are five ambitious productions that actually staged performances at the precise locations specified in the libretto.
1. Peter Grimes on the Beach
The most recent edition of the Aldeburgh Festival held along England's squally Suffolk Coast, premiered a production of Peter Grimes, set on the same beach that Benjamin Britten visualized in the opera. Staged as part of Aldeburgh's centenary celebration for Britten, who founded the festival with tenor Peter Pears and writer Eric Crozier, this ambitious production required singers not just to master the score, but also whipping winds and churning seas. Said director Tim Albery in The Independent: "To say 'What's the point?' would be like asking what the point is of climbing Everest."
2. Turandot at China's Forbidden City
In 1998, the Austrian director Michael Ecker traveled to China's Forbidden City to put together a $15 million production of Turandot. Claimed to be the most expensive opera at that time, the rendition featured conductor Zubin Mehta and director Zhang Yimou. It took four years of negotiations for Ecker to convince Chinese authorities to allow the project (see part one below). Following this success, Ecker began planning a truly authentic Carmen in 2004, which would have been staged as a progressive performance, moving to sites in the Spanish city. The performances were cancelled due to insufficient funding.
3. A NASA Opera
Staging a warhorse in outdoors seems rather tame compared to avant-garde director Nelly Ben Hayoun's idea of putting on an opera at NASA headquarters. But last fall the International Space Orchestra, an ensemble filled out largely by NASA employees, premiered Ground Control. Based on the Apollo 11 mission, the opera features sci-fi inspired music by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack. The coup de grace was a performance in the wind tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Northern California. A documentary about the project premiered this winter at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
4. Aida at the Giza Pyramids
Verdi was commissioned to write Aida, for the occasion of the opening the Cairo opera house. Over the last three decades, productions outside of the theater and in front of Egypt's famous pyramids have overshadowed those in the house. To be fair, it's hard for any set designer to create as dramatic a backdrop as the real thing. The trend began in 1987, when Placido Domingo led a cast of more than 1,500 for an Aida set in Thebes, near Luxor, with its 3,000-year-old pyramids. All 5,000 seats for the 10 performances sold out, with international A-listers such as Princess Caroline of Monaco and Queen Sofia of Spain paying upwards of $750 for tickets.
5. Rappaccini's Daughter at Brooklyn Botanic Garden
There aren't too many operas set in New York City, but that hasn't stopped the inventive Gotham Chamber Opera company from finding out-of-the-box but apposite venues for its productions. Most recently, the company staged La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini's Daughter), which tells the story of a doctor and his daughter who are locked in a garden, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Other performances have been staged a fake trip to the moon at the Rose Planetarium (Il Mondo della Luna) and a tale of a debauched Roman emperor at burlesque house (Eliogabalo).
Eric Dubin, Elaine Alvarez and Daniel Montenegro in 'La hija de Rappaccini' (Photo: Richard Termine)