Monday, March 23, 2009

On the relevance of the Opera to a Legal Alien

There was a time when the Opera was the only upmarket entertainment folks had access to.

And yes, it's long been associated with that stereotyped, heaving behemoth of imperialist, artificial snobbery that characterizes so much of what movies & books of the 1900s taught us about what rich europhiles did for fun. Even when included in memes of a working class life on screen, characters like Vivian Ward and Loretta Castorini came across as women holding on desperately, whimsically to a castle built back when they still wore pigtails.

That time is long past. Opera, like most every form of public [read: donor-based] Art has been evolving into performance that can be related to, understood intuitively and still cherished as an experience of something that is relatable, yet magical.

It was with this belief that I found myself at Boston's Schubert Theater last Friday, for a performance of Dvořák's Rusalka (go here for the synopsis) staged by the Boston Lyric Opera.

Why Dvořák?

a) You have to google his name to get the accent marks right. That is cool.
b)He was part of my impromptu yet highly creative classical music education four years ago.
c)He admired Bedřich Smetana who wrote Ma Vlast, which is a beautiful piece for those who love air-conducting, and watching the dawn come up over water, through trees.

Why Rusalka?

I was one of those girls who adored Disney's Little Mermaid back in 1990. But with the changing years came a few realizations about the nature of ingrained, subliminal evil and ergo, things changed. I needed to know an older, grislier version of the story, with tough chicks, blood, gore... and no happy ending.

Friday evening saw me clomping up the stairs of Schubert Theater in a brand new pair of black pumps. This activity was part of an attempt to play nonchalant dress-up. Nothing too elaborate, you understand. As a first-timer I knew I had to aim for somewhere between the flared jeans and the fur coat.

Word to the wise: Unless you belong to that particular genus of the female specie that travels easily on stilts, do not attempt making a night at the Opera the first high-heeled expedition of your life. Operas can run up to 3 hours with two short intervals, and the leg-room space in the balcony is reminiscent of Delta/BA transatlantic economy-class flights.

The first to arrive for the Rusalka performance were the senior members of the audience. There is something lovely about standing just inside the glass doors and watching while older couples exit sedate cars, gracefully making their way up the shallow stairs into the theater.

Traveling on the T, or walking through Boston, coming across such couples used to elicit a range of emotions in me: subconsciously, I kept to unspoken rules about being a foreigner: by avoiding loud talk, establishing ease with the local language and keeping to my space-- whether on the right of the stairway/elevator or staying out of priority seating-- I let these people know that I didn't want to intrude, that I wasn't overtaking their city, that I had my own way and most importantly, that I wasn't like every other FOB who wandered around the city taking pictures, wearing Sox hats without knowing the first thing about the franchise or the game.

It's hard being an alien in New England. There are studies ad infinitum in cross cultural psychology that show how aliens from most every Asian country experience issues with adaptation in America. It's often a choice between being a fake-accented brown noser or being a die-hard, ethnic-roots flag-waver. This city houses both groups. Each group regards the other with genial disdain, and if you arrive here with more than one cultural identity in their kit, you have to deal with said groups, and with locals assuming you belong to one or the other.

No one has time in a big city for individual stories, unless that story resonates beyond geographical and social boundaries.

Which is why the Opera can be the Great Leveler. Unlike Broadway or sporting events, it has no place for posers. Suddenly, no one cares what you look and sound like once you're through the theater doors, armed with ticket stubs. Suddenly, it's all about the story and music.

This is where Rusalka comes in. It has beautiful, sweeping romantic music: repeating motifs that work as choruses, detailed tonal painting that covers the range of human emotion without being Wagnerish. Basically, you don't have to be Czech or an Opera-head to get it.

The story is relatable:

Rusalka chooses to love a man who comes from and belongs to another world. A total stranger to her. Their love is instinctive, wordless, like the thunderbolt that hits Michael Corleone the first time he sees Apollonia in Sicily.
Her father and sisters beg her to see the error of her love, telling her that she belongs to the world she was born in.
She goes to a witch who laughs at her longing, but empathizes despite. She tells Rusalka the costs of this love will be almost unbearable, that if it doesn't work out there will be hell to pay, quite literally.
Of course the relationship doesn't work out-- they are too different, he wants too much and she's been struck mute as part of her deal with the witch. The visiting foreign princess is the perfect other woman: intelligent, eloquent and skilled in social graces.
Rusalka realizes he's full of hot air, regrets giving up her water nymph self and her water nymph virginity. Do note, her father throughout this has not cast her off. In fact, he comes back to counsel and comfort her, yelling at her for throwing away her water nymph life but still holding her close as he guides her away to the netherworld.
The foreign princess tells the prince he's a fickle twit and that he can f**k off. You want to hate her, but you can't because she only exposed what Rusalka refused to admit: the prince was never the right guy for her.
Rusalka can't fit in anymore, because she's been scarred by all she's been through. The witch tells her the only way to return to her previous, happy life, is to kill the prince. Rusalka can't do it: the guy was a dick, but she still loves him. The prince finally comes crawling by, desperate with need for that taste he never fully understood and now misses like clean air; Rusalka tells him if they kiss he will die.
He dramatically begs to be sent away because "life is nothing without you." Rusalka does the deed, remarking that she hopes he finds forgiveness from someone else, while her father declares that all sacrifice is futile.

This is the sh*t that resonates, man.

There are many delicate, beautiful moments in this opera. Of particular note is the Song to the Moon, sung by Rusalka. Here is a performance of that song by Gabriela Beňačková, possibly the most well-renowned Slovak soprano in the world.

The production itself was stunning. The sets and lighting were remarkable in their minimalism and use of video projection. Marquita Lister as Rusalka tore your heart out and sang it into the rafters till it hung there with those of the other audience members, like so many lost helium balloons into the night. Nancy Maultsby as Jezibaba the witch stole the show.

Sitting in the balcony that night with the house lights out, you couldn't tell where other audience members came from, how much they earned or what language they were most comfortable in. Your enjoyment or knowledge of the story didn't have to be validated, and for those three hours, a theater full of grown-ups was allowed to dream up and remember stories from their own lives and their own countries, breaking and mending their love all over again.

It was good realizing that there are places like the Schubert Theater, this far from home, where such magic can still happen.