Calling me an opera novice would be overstating my status immensely. I went to the ballet and Red Sox games in Boston, never the opera. Why? Opera is INTIMIDATING.
But last spring, Joel took me to Turandot by Puccini. What I have learned, since then, is that this a famous opera with huge dramatic love scenes and music I recognize. We sat all the way up in the cheap seats, but they were perfect. It was magical, amazing, mesmerizing, and the best part is that the Minnesota Opera projects the subtitles so that you can read the poetry along with the music. The talented singers and performance, along with the well-written program would make the subtitles unnecessary, but I find them to be incredibly helpful.
When Turandot was over, I felt like I was in Pretty Woman. Remember that scene? The old lady at the opera asks Vivian: “Did you like the opera, dear?” Through tears in her eyes, Vivian says: It was so good, I almost peed my pants!” Turandot did this to me: feeling the gambit of emotions, sitting next to the love of my life, having 2 intermissions where Joel and I could sit and sip champagne overlooking the Landmark where we got married. For one night, we were Vivian and Edward.
After this experience, how could I not want to go back? How can I not crave the MN Opera? When Joel found an application form inviting bloggers to come to the final dress rehearsal of Macbeth, I made him apply that very second and bit my nails until we heard that we were selected to come. What a big night for us and for Bacon and Ice Cream.
I have a confession. I have a Bachelor’s, Master’s and most of Ph.D. in literature, and I have never read or seen Macbeth. The Shakespeare course I was forced to take in college was Shakespeare’s Historical plays. This is why I never truly understood or enjoyed Shakespeare until I met our mutual friend Conor, whom I consider a re-incarnated Shakespeare bard himself. So, entering this, my 2nd opera and without my official Shakespeare conduit, I didn’t exactly feel confident in my abilities.
But, Daniel Zillmann, Communications Manager for the MN Opera, created an atmosphere for the novice opera attendee. He invited us to come early, enjoy a spread, add a name tag, and ask questions. It was a brand new moment at the Ordway for us. It was empty and still dazzling, and sparkling. The strange, delightful Winter Carnival was going on just on the other side of the street, under the twinkling lights of Rice Park. A tradition of the Winter Carnival is they use hot air balloon baskets full throttle and create huge plumes of fire straight into the air. Joel and I sat in chairs, eating caramels and drinking free Coke, gazing at the Landmark and the beauty outside.
Zillmann called us to attention and invited Michael Christie, the Music Director of the MN Opera and conductor of Macbeth, to speak to us before the dress rehearsal. One of Joel’s modes he goes into is his journalist mode. Basically, he should be wearing a cub reporter cap, while he stands in the front row with his notebook and pencil taking avid notes. I, on the other hand, like to stand in the back and watch my little cub reporter at work. Michael Christie attempted to be relaxed and one of us mere mortals, but his talent and brilliance shown through in his presentation. The violent upshots of the fire from the hot air balloon baskets behind him making him glow in the firelight increased my sense of mortality standing before a god.
Importantly, Christie described how Verdi’s Macbeth is meant to be different than any others because he is purposely breaking the traditional operatic genre by: [stealing Joel’s wording here]
“providing a constant narrative experience with drama that the audience could connect to… Christie informed us that Verdi ‘s Macbeth as cinematic opera, with lots of introspection.”
By 7:15, we were escorted to seats Joel and I could never even dream of affording. For the average Opera attendee, these seats would be 150.00 a piece per performance. And here we were, Joel and Becky in the non-cheap seats! Plus, Zillmann made sure we were all comfortable and in these amazing seats and fully stocked from the spread.
I was excited about a dress rehearsal performance because I expected the singers to be human, make mistakes, fall, trip, anything, Instead, Greer Grimsley as Macbeth and Brenda Harris as Lady Macbeth were a god and goddess. As Brenda Harris stated at an MPR interview, “Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the first power couple,” I felt Grimsley and Harris were also a power couple. Nothing disparaging could ever be said about their performance in this production of Macbeth.
My interpretation of this production is that, like Verdi breaking the operatic formula, so would this production. The use of mixed media throughout was fascinating and terrifying combined. After taking the witches’ potion, Macbeth begins to hallucinate. These hallucinations are portrayed as projections onto the stage, and the audience is able to see the prophecies with Macbeth. The prophecies have a nightmarish, Clockwork Orange quality to them, that is both terrifying and gut wrenching.
Joel had mentioned the presence of the witches. By far, the witches were an element that broke operatic formula. To me, opera is a production, with a definite line between where the audience ends and the production begins. The witches, in this, however, were phantoms and provided a unique haunting, unsettling feeling. They would appear in the background on stage and throughout the audience.
I took a moment to look at Joel and a witch had suddenly appeared on the stairs next to him. I actually said, “Holy SHIT!” in a half whisper drawing attention to the poor witch. But her presence did exactly what it was supposed to do, I was unsettled throughout the remainder of the opera.
Another factor is how color itself was used as a character throughout the production. In that same MPR interview, the word Grimsley and Harris used to describe the play was: “dark.” Both Zillman and Christie said, “dark.” But “dark” isn’t the right word. Instead, its something so much more. This is highlighted by the darkness of the clothing of the characters, the muted hues of blues, purples, grays, and blacks in the design and lighting. The billowing and continuous smoke that appears in the sky throughout and the fog created by the witches during the potion making scene. So when red appears, symbolizing blood, fury, anger, revenge, it becomes a character itself. Your eyes are drawn to the blood on the hands of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after they have killed the king. The blood drips across the stage, or a screen of bright red is pulled up behind all of the scenery, the character is bathed in red light as each of them plot murders and treachery. Even the thrones were upholstered in red, symbolizing how much blood was shed in order for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to ascend to them.
Leaving the theater, I was heavier from the darkness. Unlike Turandot, I was not weeping from the beauty. Instead, I was overwhelmed and exhausted emotionally and physically from the darkness.
The publicity for the opera states: “Power corrupts. Verdi’s dark-hued Macbeth examines the corrosive consequences of tyranny.” The MN Opera met this challenge head on, and I suggest that you bring your security blanket for this one. You will need the comfort as you walk out of the theater.