Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: I went out to catch some live music and found myself at a most unusual gig. Upon entering the hall, I passed through no metal detectors, and large security guards did not pat me down. No one looked in my wife’s purse for weapons or recording devices, and no one wore ear plugs to block high decibel sound. But it got weirder: While I sat in a comfortable seat through two long sets of music, nobody around me talked or texted, and — strangest of all — not one person was using a cell phone to record the musicians. The group had several lead singers backed by an unusually large band. In fact, they couldn’t even fit onto the stage, but were set up instead in a well of sorts in front of the emoting vocalists.
Yes, I attended an opera. But not just any opera; this was Mozart’s Don Giovanni. That meant little to me, I confess. I knew of Mozart from the movie Amadeus, and I knew of Don Giovanni largely through Bernard’s Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell. I come to the genre of opera almost exclusively by way of The Who’s Tommy and Rice & Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
As I sat among the expectant, well-dressed opera fans, I pondered David Byrne’s eternally relevant question: “How did I get here?” It’s complicated, but call it love — love of a woman and of a love of music. Some weeks back, my wife Ellie and our daughter were planning to attend a preview presented by Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company. It was a promotional event, where the cast would perform brief excerpts from their upcoming production and field a few questions – sort of an upper crust schmooze fest. At the last minute, the phone rang; it seemed Ellie would be going alone. Hesitantly, she asked if I would be interested in attending an opera preview. “There will be food,” she promised. “Will they sing ‘Pinball Wizard’?” I asked.
We went. The operatic atmosphere was not the least bit intimidating. Instead, it could not have been more welcoming. Friendly people greeted us, with William Florescu — the Florentine Opera Company’s general director — acting as host and emcee. We found our way to the small tables near the stage, set up much like an intimate jazz club. Those organizing the event asked people to fill out cards and place them into a box. They wanted contact information, yes, but they also said there would be a drawing for prizes. There was a space on the card where questions were encouraged. Say no more; I was ready.
The music began, and two members of the cast performed excerpts from Don Giovanni. Soprano Ariana Douglas as Zerlina and baritone Leroy Y. Davis as Masetto were outstanding, singing brief selections with only an electric piano for accompaniment. They sang in Italian, of course, but the Florentine Opera Company’s beautiful voices conveyed a longing that transcended words. If they had wanted to whet the appetite of this opera novice, mission accomplished.
Florescu thanked the audience for attending, and said they would end with a few words from mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, who would also be happy to take a few questions. Fons is a nationally known figure in the world of opera and would be playing Donna Elvira in the upcoming Florentine Opera Company production, but as she talked with this Milwaukee audience it became immediately clear that Fons was no diva. Instead, here was an extremely approachable and down-to-earth individual who possessed remarkable talent.
The normal questions came first: What has been her favorite role so far? What operatic role did she most want to play? Florescu soon turned to the box of cards for written questions to ask Fons. He read one that I recognized. It asked, “How many different key signatures does Mozart use in Don Giovanni?” Miss Fons was dumbstruck, as was Florescu. Different keys? Fons called for help from her colleagues sitting across the room. No one seemed to know. I had stumped the band — which wasn’t really the point of my question, but I still won a pair of tickets to the performance. Ellie was thrilled; I was amused. To the opera we would go!
And we did. But before attending, I wanted to get to know the opera; I thought I would appreciate it more. To my amazement, there was not a recording of Don Giovanni in the library systems of either my college or my community. Now it was I who was stumped. When I asked the proprietor of my favorite used record shop for a copy, he admitted to having only a terribly low fidelity recording of a 1937 radio broadcast. Undaunted, Ellie and I turned to YouTube to watch some performances.
I also searched out some opera reviews by Bernard Shaw. Since he included a lengthy Don Juan scene in one of his plays, I knew Shaw would have something to say about Mozart. And he did, but nothing that helped me much with an appreciation of Don Giovanni. I did learn from Shaw that a few of Mozart’s early works were nearly impossible to sing and that some performers of his day refused to even attempt his vocal scores. This was interesting, but time was of the essence; I read a few plot summaries and declared myself prepared.
The lights in the hall dimmed, the audience became silent, and the Florentine Opera Company began. What followed was 90 minutes of beautiful singing coupled with convincing acting, all backed by a full orchestra. I had a general idea of what was going on, but confusion never impeded my enjoyment of the event. If I ever became completely lost, I could look at the top of the stage for English translations of the singers’ lines, but this was usually not necessary. As with another recent concert I attended — lyrics performed in a language I did not understand was not problematic.
The inventive lighting design of the stage, the beautiful costumes, the various sets of chandeliers and moons—everything came together with the voices. In addition to the Florentine Opera Company singers I had heard at the preview, there was baritone Alexander Dobson in the opera’s title role, and soprano Emily Birsan as Donna Anna. Basses David Leigh and Musa Ngqungwana, and tenor Brian Stucki were the other principals in the cast. The names are many — too many to list here. In fact, at one point late in the second act, I counted 32 performers on the stage. I feel less guilt about this sin of omission since the names of the members of the “band” were not listed in the evening’s program. But I do know that this excellent orchestra was conducted by Joseph Rescigno.
During the intermission, I reflected on opera etiquette and how this performance was at odds with most of the concerts I attend The differences are many, as I outlined earlier; but this is not a bad thing. Am I renouncing or replacing any of the music genres I already deeply love, including rock, country, and jazz? Of course not. But maybe there is a place at the table for something new, as well. I’m looking forward to returning to the opera, even though I know that “Pinball Wizard” will not be on the program.
Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.
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