Music: Modern and Primal

Appealing at many levels, the Cincinnati Opera kicks off with 'Salome' and her head games

Jymi Bolden

Nicholas Muni is ready to light up his third season with the Cincinnati Opera.

Ask your average Joe or Jo-Ellen if they'd like to spend a night at the opera, and it's likely they'll describe some painfully laborious task they'd rather perform instead, like polishing their staple gun or shopping for floor wax. It's surprising then, given opera's tedious reputation, that a ticket for the Cincinnati Opera's 2000 Season goes about as fast as a courtside ticket to the Crosstown Shootout.

So what gives? Truth is, the opera is enormously entertaining, not only musically, but visually and narratively as well. And it's not just entertaining for your blue-haired grandmother; it can also entertain your blue-haired Punk Rock cousin. In fact, according to Nicholas Muni, the artistic director of the Cincinnati Opera, opera is the fastest-growing of all the classical art forms for young adults.

"That's been true for about past 15 years for people between the ages of 20 and 40," he says, during a break from rehearsals at Music Hall.

So how do you explain the growing interest in opera among the younger set? Part of the reason, Muni says, is that opera — the original multi-media art form — reflects the complex modern sensibility. "You can get everything in that evening," says Muni of a night at the opera, "orchestral music, solo vocal, choral vocal, dance, drama, visual arts, technical arts, lighting and so forth, all rolled into one.

I think that's very appealing to people who nowadays are conditioned to the multi-media stimuli of television, computers, movies and so forth."

But if opera is in some way in step with the modern world, it is also appealing on a primal, emotional level, and this, as Muni says, has played an important role in broadening the demographic for opera in terms of age. "What's appealing to younger people now is that opera has intense emotion. And young people are especially attracted to that, especially as our world gets more machinelike or cool with all these technical advances.

"I think people are unconsciously yearning for more sorts of human experiences, and opera fulfills that in a very intense way, because the stories all have to do with situations where characters are in extremis. They are deliriously in love, or they are insanely jealous, or they're in religious ecstasy, or they hate someone or love someone. The emotions are all very intense. And in order to sing over an orchestra, you have to tap into that primal emotion that's underneath it."

It should come as no surprise that most of the people who say they dislike opera have never been to see one. Despite this lack of experience, though, people seem to have clearly defined opinions on opera. "Usually that has to do with a negative stereotype of very, very large, unattractive people, who don't look the role that they're playing. It has to do with not being able to understand something in a foreign language. Also the length of opera. There is a stereotype that opera lasts, you know, five hours. But I think the word is getting out that those conditions that may or may not have ever been true are certainly not true now."

This weekend potential opera fans will have a chance to see for themselves if their preconceptions hold water, with the Cincinnati Opera's production of Richard Strauss' Salome. In a nutshell, the story concerns King Herod's stepdaughter Salome, a young woman who plays some major head games with John the Baptist. The production is directed by Muni, and stars soprano Stephanie Friede — whom some will remember for her emotionally complex performance as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust last season — with design by Peter Werner, who worked with Muni last year on Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw.

"Salome is the second in what we're calling a Victorian trilogy, beginning with Turn of the Screw last season, and then concluding two years from now when we do Elektra," says Muni. "(It's) all part of one scenic and conceptual approach.

"There is a sort of strong ambiance in the Salome of the late, late Victorian time period, around the turn of the century," Muni explains, "although there are great influences visually in terms of Orientalism and a Middle Eastern look. That's sort of the main idea: It's a Victorian fantasy. The play by Oscar Wilde and the opera were composed or created around the turn of the century, so it's very much of that time period, of that sensibility. We wanted to hook into that with our production. It's very closely aligned to the original creators' aesthetic."

The season continues through July 22 with performances of three more operas: Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, Gioachino Rossini's Cenerentola and Giuseppe Verdi's Aida. This year, however, Cincinnati Opera is doing something a little different with their schedule, which should appeal to the many opera fans who come in from out of town for the event.

On July 13 and 15, a Thursday and Saturday, the opera company will perform Pelléas et Mélisande, with a performance of Aida sandwiched in-between on Friday, July 14. This is unusual for the Cincinnati Opera, as they generally only stage one production per weekend.

"It's the first time we've done it since I've been here," says Muni of the two-opera weekend. "I think the company has done that occasionally in the past, but not very often. And so we're getting a little taste of the idea. For example, on one weekend, folks who are from out of town, who love opera, can travel to Cincinnati and see two operas instead of one. And this is sort of a test case, not only in terms of attracting people from outside, but 'How do we do that on a technical level? How do we absorb that great increase in activity? How do we fit two things on the stage at once?' If that goes well, we aim to do that more often, because we are looking to have a more attractive package to offer regionally and even nationally."

With a string of sell-out seasons, the Cincinnati Opera is looking for ways to grow, but growth, even for a thriving company, can be a complicated pursuit.

"We're locked into a certain time frame," explains Muni. "In other words, we have the May Festival, and that's an immovable schedule thing. And then we have the end of the summer when people tend to go on vacation and so forth and when, most importantly, the orchestra have their vacation. So any expansion will have to include going into repertory to some degree or other. I think our first step is to do more performances of four productions. But after that I think, after we get that far and that works, we can start to expand the number of productions."

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