Sunday, July 16, 2017

Rockin' the Opera: A Traviata Memory


During the summer of 1996, I attended a performance of Verdi's La Traviata at Wolf Trap. I went because Traviata is a favorite opera of mine, and I'd previously seen this New York City Opera production, beautifully designed by Thierry Bosquet and sensitively directed by Renata Scotto. I was not expecting to be as moved by the experience as I was by Verdi's classic tear jerker and it became one of the most moving participatory experiences of my life to date.

The audience was the most non-traditional I'd ever been a part of . . . even for Wolf Trap. Hundreds of multi-colored, broadly knit skull caps, clothing made from hemp, men and women in swirled, tie-dyed cotton skirts over bare legs and feet, ponytails on the men (including moi), boys and girls with unkempt dreadlocks. The scent of weed and patchouli filled the air more than Channel No. 5. I half expected Jerry Garcia to make an appearance, and in some ways, he did by the sheer number of Deadheads present.

Also large in number which made my blood pumper swell with pride; a strong presence of headbangers donned in black on black, Metallica and Slayer tee-shirts, ripped up jeans, combat boots. I stood up and looked around, taking it all in and could not suppress an enormous shit eating grin. Scattered liberally throughout were plenty of older folk, comfortably sipping wine in their lawn chairs, and while some appeared a little nervous, most didn't seem to mind or notice. This was an audience I had dreamed of.

At intermission I excused myself from my friends, moved up the hill to speak with one a young man wearing a Metallica-shirt, but whose girlfriend was more "appropriately" attired for the opera. These young 20-somethings told me that though they often attended and listened to Wagner (his favorite was Tristan, hers, Lohengrin), they came for an opera "fix" and were being won over by the charm and potential heartbreak of this, their first Italian opera.

We ended up talking for a bit about Tristan and then the topic of the tee shirt came up: "Metallica" and all shared a good laugh about what could be, until recently, deemed an implausible situation: discussing heavy metal during the intermission of an Italian opera. He stated he always wears his Metallica tee to the opera, putting up with glares and stares, because usually "
someone finds me and strikes up a conversation" but at Wolf Trap don't feel out of place, and had already met quite a few interesting people before the opera even began. Tres cool.

Seconds after Violetta expired, as the house lights came up, the row of Deadheads in front of us rose immediately to their feet. My friend Kathy poked me in the arm pointed at them, smiling, all these kids were in tears, standing and cheering long before anyone else rose or a single curtain call had begun. Normally I'm loathed to stand (unless it's truly warranted) but Kathy and I stood in solidarity, nodding our heads, and smiling could taste my own salty tears. When the Violetta came (a then young, quite remarkable soprano from Ukraine) there was a roar more typical to a rock concert. I wouldn't have been surprised to see the gentle blaze of
cigarette lighters extended skywards. I was as moved by the reaction of this youthful mass as I was by the wonderful Violetta.

They may have been metalheads, punks and hippies, but they came because they wanted to experience real opera. That's exactly what they got.

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