A New Voice in Town
TWO THINGS were obvious from the packed performances at Memminger Auditorium. One is that Charleston audiences have an express desire to see live opera. The other is that newcomer Opera of Charleston is serious about its commitment to provide a good product.
Upon walking into the theatre for the Sunday matinee of Bizet’s “Carmen,” the first thing that struck you was the air of excitement. Live opera, a full orchestra and chorus, contemporary staging, and an expanded auditorium (that called for opening the “wall” which divides the front and back rooms of Memminger). The result was a much enlarged sense of space and a palpable sense of theatrical magnitude.
As co-founder and artistic director Scott Flaherty had mentioned earlier in the day, Opera of Charleston faced several challenges with this production. Among them were the physical constraints of a one-time school auditorium, the need to schedule rehearsals around a busy Charleston Symphony Orchestra timeline, and having only a week to work with the cast of singers brought in for this inaugural performance.
Everything considered, it is amazing what they put together.
The soloists, led by acclaimed mezzo soprano Denyce Graves, were superb. Tenor Harold Meers, soprano Saundra DeAthos, bass Bradley Smoak, and bass Malcolm MacKenzie rounded out the main cast. Ms. Graves (as Carmen) commanded the stage with her sultry presence as much as her sonorous voice, and Mr. MacKenzie (as Escamillo, the toreador) notably matched her clarity, vivaciousness, and magnetism.
All the voices were exceptionally well rendered by the acoustics. With a full orchestra and chorus directly behind the stage, it seemed the voices might get muffled in all the sound. But no; they were vivid as well as delightful.
What a pleasure to listen to professional operatic voices in person: to hear the remarkable human voice projected through empty space to a host of ready ears. There is something indescribable about the quality of sound and its visceral experience that even the most high-tech recordings cannot capture.
Speaking of high-tech, there was plenty of it in this contemporary production. Camera booms captured and cast the action onto two large overhead screens, between which was an even larger paneled screen that served as a sort of replacement for the lack of scenery. Because there is no orchestra pit, Scott and his team put the musicians and chorus in the middle of the action, directly behind the front stage, surrounded on the other three sides by scaffolded platforms.
The “stage” was essentially a walkway around the orchestra. The traditional concept of a stage was abandoned partly due to the physical constraints of the space, and partly as a modern approach to and expression of opera. And it sort of worked.
The challenge with changing so many production elements at once is to do so without overshadowing or interfering with the performance itself—namely, the singers and the action. If you take the pieces apart and put them back together in a new way, you are successful only to the extent that you maintain the original unity. As soon as that mainstay of unity starts to fragment, the magic of “art” disappears—and its absence is noticeably felt by the audience.
For example, scaffolding as stage is not itself a problem. But it becomes one when it breaks up the action; especially when it physically separates the actors in a scene. Similarly, although putting the orchestra in the center, behind the main action, is a creative concept, it proved to be a distraction. Conductor Louis Salemno in particular—who did a wonderful job—was lit by a spotlight most of the time, and his close proximity to the singers (he could reach out and touch them) made him appear to be an awkward prop that did not belong there.
Doing away with scenery also impinges on unity by removing the context of time, place, and mood—critical intangibles that tie all the tangible ones together. Ironically, the large poster screen on the back wall of the stage was itself broken into smaller panels—almost a symbol of fragmentation. Moreover, the two video screens presented the audience with three identical images: the live action plus two projected views of the action.
Technologically speaking, it was a classy attempt. Unfortunately—and despite the resplendent music and singing—it resulted in visual busyness and information overload. Many in the audience were also frustrated by the relatively small, dimly lit subtitles that hung high in the rafters, hard to quickly locate and see.
All of this was by no means “too much,” but something else was: the annoying presence of a camera crew of two that rolled back and forth on a dolly along the front of the stage within a few feet of the actors. To the dismay especially of those in the first few rows, the dolly paused for disconcertingly long periods of time directly in front of the action during pivotal moments when the emotional pitch of drama and seduction were at their height.
Granted, the rolling camera was there in the spirit of making the immediacy of the performance available to everyone in the theatre via overhead screens. It just got in the way too often, distracted from the emotional power of performance, and diminished the impact of live theatre. Admittedly, at times it felt we were there to witness a filming of the opera more than to experience the thing itself.
Still, even with this, the production was admirably done, and it confirmed that Opera of Charleston will be exciting to follow. They bring world-class expertise to the task, can obviously find top-tier talent to perform, and have a stellar orchestra and chorus at their disposal. This staging of Carmen proved that all the ingredients are there for Charleston to find itself as a desired stop for yet another category of professional artists, not to mention devoted patrons.
Learn more about Opera of Charleston.