Top 5 Audience Participatory Opera Experiences

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Standing room used to contain the cheapest seats, but more and more often it’s the only option for adventuresome opera fans around the world. In recent weeks one opera, staged amid the normal operations of an urban train station, was a finalist for one of music’s most prestigious prizes. Another, which lets spectators and singers mix in its set, opened to glowing reviews. We’re counted those and three other innovative performances for this week’s Top five.

1.  Invisible Cities at Los Angeles's Union Station

A finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music, Invisible Cities by Christopher Cerrone made a much lauded debut at Los Angeles's Union Station last October. Operagoers were transported from the bustling commuter hub through sets of headphones, which streamed the music directly to their ears. The musicians, singers, and dancers performed in the midst of the station’s everyday operations. Produced by adventuresome new company The Industry, the work is based on Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name, which imagines the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. During the performances, audience members could follow the characters as they wandered through the train depot.


2. Mussorgsky in a City Park

This month, the always intrepid Birmingham Opera Company debuted Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry, an update of the notoriously difficult-to-stage Modest Mussorgsky opera. Entering through a circus tent pitched in the City Park, the audience becomes part of a political rally. Described as a "promenade style performance," the audience wanders through a political rally, and the action, singing and all, takes place around the spectators. In some respects, this English-language production is tame compared to the company’s previous productions, notably the 2012 performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht, which sent a string quartet hovering above the venue in four separate helicopters.


3. Die Soldaten at the Park Avenue Armory

Ticket holders didn’t need to leave their seats to be thrust into the action of David Pountney’s staging of Die Soldaten, which premiered at the RuhrTriennial in Germany before coming to the Park Avenue Armory as part of Lincoln Center Festival’s 2008 season. The opera was staged mainly on a catwalk that ran almost the entire length of the hall, and several hundred seats on bleachers moved with the direction along a set of railroad tracks. The genius, according to Alex Ross, “is to put the audience at the mercy of a physical mechanism that is nearly as formidable as the infernal devices suggested in the score.”

4. Food Operas in Boston

Boston chef Jason Bond and composer Ben Houge turned the tables on the opera-going experience with their series of food operas in which both the score and the ingredients "sing." Houge uses inspiration from Bond’s elaborate tasting menus, featuring seasonal and often locally sourced produce. The first edition, Four Asparagus Compositions, played one night at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Other performance/dinners included Sensing Terroir: A Harvest Food Opera and Beside the White Chickens: A Summer Food Opera.


5. Rameau in a Chelsea Mannequin Factory (Coming Soon)

While site-specific operas have been realized in seamy nightclubs and windswept beaches, New York-based On Site Opera often takes its production one step beyond setting seats in an unusual venue. For example the young company didn’t just let the audience sit for its presentation of George Gershwin’s Blue Monday, staged at Harlem’s Cotton Club; patrons were invited to arrive early for dancing. As Steve Smith recounted in the New York Times, “Without warning, an opera broke out.” Next up for On Site Opera is the rarely seen Rameau one-act, Pygmalion, set at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum and a Chelsea mannequin factory.

Below is a promotional video that On Site Opera made for Blue Monday which provides a flavor of the event. Please share your own favorites in the comments box.