New productions, Opera history

A Hologram for the Queen… of Opera

We’ve talked before about the artificially-enhanced opera experience of watching a live Met broadcast. Now the technology is going one step further and bringing opera royalty back from the dead. Sort of.

Maybe you’ve heard the news: the great Maria Callas is touring again. Although this time she’s a mere ghost of her former self—literally.

Yes, the wizards at Base Entertainment—the same company that brought you “Criss Angel, MindFreak” and “Magic Mike Live from Vegas”—has resurrected the voice of arguably the greatest soprano in opera history, some 40+ years after her earthly departure. And she might be coming to a city near you, complete with a live (yes, actually live) orchestra.

The critics who refuse to suffer the overly-produced Met broadcasts should have a field day with this one. But not so fast. While campy and eerily disturbing, it might also be the sort of spectacle that captivates your attention, despite your best intentions to dismiss it.  Not unlike watching an illusionist on stage. You know it’s not real, but yet you can’t look away.

At times, it seems to work beautifully and you’re completely unaware that the apparition on stage is a computer-generated projection. At other instants, there seems to be a small glitch, a ghost in the machine (pardon the pun), as if she’s a puppet and the puppet master is a bit drunk and slightly off his game. There are moments when you hear her voice singing full-out, but her mouth is nearly closed. Well, it’s all an illusion anyway, so if you’re not willing to suspend disbelief, then better not to participate at all.

Ironically (or not), the best part is when the designers of this spectacle decide to make the best of the fun toys at their disposal and use the technology to full effect. Like when Callas throws a deck of playing cards up in the air and they freeze in space momentarily. Then the diva stares at them while they slowly flutter down as the orchestra transitions to the next aria. If you’re going down the path of a Las Vegas magic act, might as well commit to it.

But how does this all happen? How do we get this specter of the dearly departed Maria Callas performing right before our eyes? Was she considerate enough to record this concert in anticipation of the technology that had not yet been invented at the time of her career?

Well, no, of course not. The holographic body of Maria Callas is on loan from a present-day model/actress who spent weeks studying the personality of Ms. Callas, as well as her body language, gestures, and famous report with the audience. The 3-D facial features (and sometimes out-of-sync mouth movements) were created from a computer composite from a library of photographs.

The voice was even more difficult to replicate. According to Marty Tudor, Executive Producer and CEO of BASE Hologram Productions:

“Keep in mind that back when Callas was recorded, she was not in a separate room from the orchestra. Now, for the first time, the technology exists for the vocals from original recordings to be separated from both the orchestra and other singers. As an aside, when we were separating Callas’ voice from the orchestra there were times it was difficult to decipher her from the instruments due to her ‘perfect pitch.’”

This is all very interesting, but if you’re considering attending the concert, probably better to not dwell on the mechanics. Have a drink or two before the show and let the illusion captivate you… just like the real Maria surely would have 40 years ago. It’s theater, after all, and we want an escape. And what better escape than watching someone escape death while entertaining audiences that weren’t even alive the last time she performed?

Brava, Maria! Encore, encore! (And this particular encore could go on for quite a while…)

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Don Giovanni in Modern Times
Featured, New productions

Don Giovanni in Modern Times

Keeping opera performance relevant to the “next generation” is a challenge faced by every company around the world. Productions rely increasingly on technological enhancements, staging is ever-more elaborate, and classic works are constantly being transported to different eras.

But as the saying goes, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” The phrase itself dates back to biblical times, reminding us that no matter how much things change, the essential human experience remains the same. Love, hate, jealousy, revenge, redemption. These themes are as old as civilization, and are the reason why old stories, poems, paintings, and musical performances still resonate with modern audiences. It’s also why remakes are Hollywood’s favorite summer blockbuster offerings.

In the opera world, the story of Don Juan, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, has certainly seen its share of “remakes” in recent years. Here is a brief list of some of the creative productions that have sought to bring this classic tale into modern significance.

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Featured, New productions

Mozart’s Librettist

Not often mentioned with the same reverence as the composer, the work of a librettist is no less important to a genre which, from its inception, sought to combine the magical forces of music and drama to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

While Mozart is the very definition of a household name (even among folks who can’t even name one of his works), his most successful collaborator is all-but-unknown to those who are not ardent opera fans. The Venetian writer, Lorenzo Da Ponte, wrote the libretti for three of Mozart’s most celebrated operas; The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. And yet you may have never heard of him.

The Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte

By Michele Pekenino (engraver, 19th century) after Nathaniel Rogers (American, 1788-1844)

Born in the Jewish ghetto of Venice, Lorenzo converted to Christianity as a youth when his widower father married a Catholic woman. Emboldened by an opportunity not yet given to Jews, he entered the priesthood to have access to higher education.

But while a priest in name, he often “overlooked” the vows of his order to compete with his good friend Giacomo Casanova (yes, THAT Casanova) for being the most scandalous scoundrel in all of Venice. He allegedly lived in a brothel and organized “entertainment” there for himself and other gentlemen of Venetian society on a regular basis.

Eventually he was arrested, convicted, and banished from the city for “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman.” The “respectable woman” in question was probably the mistress with whom he, the ordained priest, had two children.

So perhaps he knew what he was talking about from first-hand experience when he wrote the (in)famous “Catalog Song” from Don Giovanni, in which the title character’s servant lists the number of women his master has seduced:

In Italy six hundred and forty; in Germany, two hundred and thirty-one. A hundred in France, in Turkey ninety-one, but in Spain already a thousand three!

Exile from Venice brought him to Vienna and to the court of Emperor Joseph II, who had just created an Italian opera company. There Da Ponte coaxed his way into the role of “theater poet” without ever having written an opera in his entire life.

But it was in Vienna that Da Ponte first encounters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. They were both living near the Stephansplatz at the time, neighbors in one of Vienna’s most trendy quarters. While collaborating on Le nozze di Figaro during a six week period in 1786, they scampered back and forth between Da Ponte’s humble abode and Mozart’s’ opulent apartments.

According to The Librettist of Venice, by Rodney Bolt:

“We do not know the full extent of that back-and-forth across the Stephansplatz, of how much composer and librettist argued, of whose ideas shaped what, but it is clear that as Da Ponte delivered page after page of prose drama transfigured into poetry that sang in itself, and a form that would be effective as opera, Mozart was able to take the pragma­tically simplified plot and re-endow the characters with subtlety, providing an audible commentary, one moment sarcastic, the next touching, then deliciously witty.”

“And so the simple conversation between Susanna and the Countess, as they compose a letter to entrap the Count, became a duet of extraordinary sweetness and intimacy; Susanna’s aria ‘Deh vieni‘, when pretending to be waiting for a tryst with the Count, intertwined her aim to teach Figaro a lesson for doubting her with a heartfelt expression of desire — a genuine hymn to love in a stock scene of buffo deception. The music-infused the characters that the words had conjured up with the contradictions, doubts, ironies, and warmth of richer humanity.”

Da Ponte’s American Career

In the United States, Da Ponte settled in New York City and became the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. While living in New York he produced the first full performance of Don Giovanni in the United States.

In 1828, at the age of 79, Lorenzo Da Ponte became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Five years later he founded an opera house in the United States, called “The New York Opera Company.” Sadly, due to an acute lack of business savvy, Da Ponte’s opera house lasted only two seasons. However, it paved the way for the New York Academy of Music and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Lorenzo Da Ponte died in 1838 in New York. In 2009, the Spanish director Carlos Saura released a film in Italian called Io, Don Giovanni, a “half fact, half fiction” account of Mozart’s librettist, which attempted to parallel his life with his most famous libretto, Don Giovanni.

Da Ponte and Mozart in Palm Beach

You can see Mozart’s dark Don Giovanni in a film noir version right here at Palm Beach Opera. Tickets are on sale now at pbopera.org.

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