The New Yorker, Oct. 24, 2011.
Whenever a new town sprang up on the American frontier, one of the first orders of business was to open an opera house. In 1883, the newspaper of Red Cloud, Nebraska, proclaimed, “We need it, and need it bad, and by all means Red Cloud should have an Opera House.” Few of these venues had the resources to mount their own full-scale productions; instead, performances by travelling opera troupes and solo singers intermingled with band concerts, Shakespeare nights, variety shows, Wild West revues, lectures, and other entertainments. (Oscar Wilde, on his American tour of 1882, took in a number of smalltown opera houses.) Nevertheless, the choice of name signifies the respect that opera commanded in the popular imagination, as the most extravagantly fulfilling spectacle of the age. John Dizikes, in his history “Opera in America,” observes that “the price of tickets at the opera house was usually within the reach of most residents, and its prevailing atmosphere was informal, democratic.”
I recently passed through Red Cloud, which was the childhood home of Willa Cather. She moved there with her family in 1883, at the age of nine. The opera house, a small theatre on the second floor of an old hardware store, has been handsomely refurbished, with the Willa Cather Foundation occupying offices downstairs. The schedule, ranging from chamber groups to Elvis impersonators, is as eclectic as it must have been in Cather’s time, when the author got her first taste of music theatre, in the form of light operas like “The Bohemian Girl” and “The Mikado.” Cather heard grand opera only after she left Red Cloud, encountering Wagner in Pittsburgh, in 1897. In her subsequent writing, most vividly in the diva-from-the-plains novel “The Song of the Lark” and the piercing short story “A Wagner Matinée,” Cather weaves together operatic epiphanies and memories of life on the prairie. Implicit in much of her work is the idea that the Red Cloud Opera House is no contradiction in terms.
These days, it’s much easier to find decent opera in cities and towns across the country. The advocacy organization Opera America has more than a hundred companies on its rolls; fifty years ago, there were only twenty-seven houses of comparable size. Amid the financial crises of the past few years, smaller-budget houses have struggled, and several have closed. There has been additional competition from an unexpected source: the Metropolitan Opera, whose hugely popular movie-theatre broadcasts may be siphoning off some of the audience for local opera. Nonetheless, the fat ladies have gone on singing, as have the barihunks. During a weekend trip to the eastern edge of the Great Plains, I dropped by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Tulsa Opera, making a detour into Cather country along the way. Both of the productions that I saw had more spark than the Met’s first new shows this season, and, unlike the Lincoln Center simulcasts, they provided the irreproducible thrill of live action—what Walt Whitman once called the “liquid world” of operatic art.
Oil brought money to Tulsa, and, with it, opera. The city’s Grand Opera House opened in 1906, and thrived for a while. (According to a 1919 Texaco newsletter, when touring singers visited a West Tulsa refinery, the tenor Orville Harrold remarked, “If there was any form of oil to be used in Grand Opera work, toward lubricating the voice, it would be Texaco brand.”) The present company, which was founded in 1948 and has an annual budget of two and a half million dollars, is known as one of the sturdier and more adventurous organizations in its class. Last year, when the Tulsa Opera was forced to make cuts, it staged Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” instead of more obvious fare. Rising singers have often stopped in Tulsa early in their careers: Stephanie Blythe, now a Met star, sang Carmen there back in 1999, and gratefully returned for a gala earlier this year.
Tulsa’s current season opened with “The Barber of Seville.” Taking the lead female role of Rosina was the soprano Sarah Coburn, who, at the age of thirtyfour, is nearing her peak; she has already won international notice for her appearances in bel-canto repertory, and made a successful Vienna State Opera début earlier this year. She grew up in Oklahoma— her father is Senator Tom Coburn, who, oddly, is a fanatical opponent of federal arts funding—and she lives in Tulsa when she is not on tour. Her loyalty is a boon for the company; she sings with fundamental beauty of tone and pinpoint coloratura agility, adding tasteful embellishments and effortlessly reaching to high C and above. (She withheld a high F in “Una voce poco fa” on this occasion, but it is within her power.) What I missed in her performance was the emotional urgency that even a comic role like Rosina requires; Coburn never seemed altogether lost in her character’s plight, absurd as it is.
Jokey detachment was the main flaw of this generally lively and well-rehearsed production, directed by Tara Faircloth. Cutesy dance moves for Rossini’s vamping rhythms and a few anachronistic additions to the libretto (“Fruita di Looma” appeared on Rosina’s laundry list) had the effect of distancing both performers and audience from the action. In any case, the jokes by Rossini and Beaumarchais are funnier. David Portillo was a nimble if sometimes dry-voiced Almaviva, Corey McKern a resonant though not always dexterous Figaro. Peter Strummer and Michael Ventura vigorously filled out the buffo roles of Bartolo and Basilio. Most impressive was the fluid, idiomatic playing of the orchestra, under the direction of Kostis Protopapas, who has served as Tulsa’s artistic director since 2008. In any city, it’s rare to find a conductor who sets the right tempo so consistently, in scene after scene, that you stop noticing he is there.
The man who imported opera to Kansas City was Kersey Coates, a Quaker who moved west in 1854, helped build the first bridge across the Missouri River, fought slavery, and did very well in real estate. The Coates Opera House had many splendid seasons before burning down, in 1901. After lean years in the mid-twentieth century, local opera resumed with the founding of the Lyric Opera, in 1958. Like the Tulsa Opera, the Lyric has a history of supporting rising talent, none more significant than the mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, on the Kansas side. DiDonato has become perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation, the heir apparent to the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She still has a home in the area and keeps an eye on local affairs. When Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, abruptly eliminated the state’s arts funding, earlier this year, DiDonato took to her ordinarily cheery blog to denounce the move as “ignorant, shortsighted, fearful, and unspeakably damaging.” Perhaps out of deference to a colleague, she has had nothing to say about Senator Coburn.
Last month, the Lyric Opera moved to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a four-hundred-milliondollar complex designed by Moshe Safdie and financed principally by the Kauffman pharmaceutical fortune. It’s not a particularly original piece of architecture, its nested forms recalling, variously, the Sydney Opera House, Disney Hall, and the New York Guggen- heim, but its vast glass-canopied lobby is stunning, and its concert hall is a golden-wooded wonder. The interior of the opera house veers toward chintziness, and its acoustics are imperfect: voices project well and the brass ring out, but the upper strings tend to wither away. All the same, the Lyric had no trouble selling out a run of “Turandot.” Tickets are becoming scarce for the remainder of the season, which includes John Adams’s “Nixon in China,” in March.
The “Turandot,” directed by Garnett Bruce and designed by R. Keith Brumley, is a markedly more thoughtful show than the Zeffirelli warehouse sale that still clutters the stage of the Met. Faded reds and greens mimic the gritty grandeur of the Forbidden City, with various scenic details borrowed from Mingdynasty treasures in the collection of the nearby Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Zeffirelli could also learn a few things from this team about making the action clear. Less focussed was the playing of the orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony. At the matinée I attended, Ward Holmquist, the Lyric Opera’s artistic director, had evident feeling for the Puccini style, but he tended to conduct along with the score rather than in front of it; various cues were imprecise, leading to helter-skelter moments.
The cast offered no talent on the level of DiDonato—the home-town diva will make her Kauffman Center début in March, in the concert hall— but the singing rose above the humdrum. Lise Lindstrom was a forceful Turandot, slightly shrill but precise; Arnold Rawls, the Calaf, got by mainly on clarion high notes; Samuel Ramey lent quavery soul to Timur. Most notable was the Cuban-American soprano Elizabeth Caballero, who sang Liù in sensuously glowing tones, her charged legato shaping the music into cogent paragraphs. Liù’s death scene tore at the heart. For a long stretch in Act III, the performance achieved the kind of unselfconscious emotional directness that has lately been in short supply at the Met, where almost every new production seems designed for people who think they don’t like opera, or, worse, for the movie cameras.
Caballero also appears this season with the Nashville Opera, the Florida Grand Opera, the Austin Lyric Opera, and the Central City Opera, which occupies a great old opera house in Central City, Colorado. She has sung only one small role on the Met stage—Frasquita, in “Carmen”—but deserves to ascend farther. Anyone who has given up on a local company in favor of the Met broadcasts might ponder how singers like Caballero will be able to hone their craft if America’s national opera network flickers out. In opera, as in the rest of the economy, outsourcing kills careers.
See also: Great Plains photojournal.