So, I have to preface this post with the disclaimer: I am not a musical theater fan (except for Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff). Therefore, it was really quite amazing to me that I should have enjoyed the production of "Wicked: Die Hexen von Oz" as much as I did at last Wednesday's performance in Oberhausen at the Metronome Theater. In fact, I am not ashamed to admit to my fellow Opera lovers, that it was actually the first standing ovation that I have given a performance since my attendance at NYC Opera's production of Bernstein's 'A Quiet Place', and that was back in October of 2010 and I have seen a few operas since then too!
Because of my outrageous reaction to a show that was STILL not in my native language (emphasis on the 'still' because it puts it on par then with Operas that are also written and performed in non-native languages for me) and in a genre that normally makes me cringe, I felt that this particular experience deserved some closer examination of why it was so successful and why it was so enjoyable to me as an audience member. So, let's look at the 'facts' of what the show was and wasn't to see if we can discern the recipe for its success.
Fact #1: It was sung all in German (and the dialogue too) so it wasn't like I could 'understand' it better-- as some people claim to be the case when explaining why they like Musical Theater more than Opera (since Opera is normally in a foreign language and Musical Theater in the native speaker's same tongue). So, that rules that option out.
Fact # 2: The music wasn't on par with Mozart in terms of brilliancy of compositional skill and wasn't as unpredictable as its classical music colleagues, so that definitely wasn't it.
Fact # 3: The storyline wasn't fraught with tales of people dying and lost loves...or, wait a minute! Okay, that is definitely the secret to its success. It has a great story- and while it's not Mozart, the music is catchy (and not overly cliche or repetitious) and the set, costumes and lighting and special effects put the final touches on an already attention-grabbing story.
Therefore, I feel, we as the Opera-loving public could really learn to benefit from such a show and such a smash hit box-office-wise. Because, here's the thing, when we look at the numbers, Musical Theater performances are infinitely more popular on the whole than Operas nowadays (except maybe at larger notable theaters) and anyway, because of that, we should certainly be looking at ways to make Opera more successful than it has been in recent years. And, I really feel that Musical Theater ideas which were clearly displayed on Wednesday night would work in Opera too, and would not decrease its 'intellectual worth', 'artistic integrity', 'composer's/librettist's original intent' any more than say, showing Opera on movie theater screens. So, what can we learn? Here are a few things that I noticed that worked really well, and which could be adapted to fit the Opera stage.
First of all, the costumes were zany. And there were tons of different ones for each scene. And there were quick changes out the wazoo. And they were colorful and sparkly. Okay, the last observation might decrease the seriousness of say 'Don Carlo' just a notch if the costumes looked like something Beyonce might wear, however....you get the idea.
Secondly, if there was a weak link in the entire Cast in terms of acting ability---I never knew it. And it was because at every moment that someone was on stage, they were really in that moment. They weren't somewhere else mentally...they were concentrated on what they were doing at the present, and because of that it really gave a believability to their acting and helped carry the story along at some weaker points (like for example when the monkeys first got wings...or when the baby lion in the cage was clearly a stuffed animal....). And honestly I think that this acting cohesion came not only from the leads doing a bang-up job of being focused, but also that from the audience you got the sense that everyone on that stage had an equal feeling of self-worth. That the people in the monkey costumes knew that they were just as important as the woman singing Glinda and that if they did their job as if they were less so, then it would decrease the energy, and so on. (That kind of acting decrescendo happens in Opera a lot- and it drags entire productions down because of it.)
Thirdly, those people could all really dance and move so well! So, I hear everyone out there who would at this point say, 'Okay, but they have microphones, so their movements can be more ..... all over the place because they don't have to worry about projecting their voices as much and the muscles involved in doing so...and postures, etc.' Well, yes that makes sense, but on the other hand, between singing there is no reason why singers in Opera can't also move around really well and just look plain wonderful while doing so, right? So, that's something that needs to change, I think. More dancing Opera singers who move well and who are aware of their bodies and comfortable with them in order to really have graceful motion on stage.
Fourth, there was only one intermission and the show was 2.5 hours long! There is something to be said for how many times the audience is able to get up, pee, talk about how great the show is, get a drink, eat a cookie, etc.
If there is only one intermission it's kind of exciting for the audience to be able to stretch, reflect on the great show that they are in the middle of viewing, get feedback about the performance from their friends who came with them, and enjoy some beverages and food, however, there is certainly the possibility of having too much of a good thing in terms of intermissions. Sure, it's okay to do all this once and enjoy it, but after two times, or even three times (as is the case with some operas which are particularly long) it can get a bit tedious.
We all have had those experiences (Opera lovers in particular) where we have attended something with more than one intermission, and by the time you are in the second and third intermissions you find yourself looking longingly at the door and wondering how much more money you have to spend on drinks while standing around with your friends or concert companion remarking "How much longer do we have to be here?" That is when things become problematic. It is at this point when most Opera companies should look at their production and ask themselves if there is a way to skip the first scheduled intermission and go straight through Acts 1 and 2, and then have an intermission between Acts 2 and 3, OR possibly skip the second intermission in favor of the first? At any rate, something needs to be done. (And, I must say, kudos to the theaters who are doing this- the Met has done it already at a few performances I've attended, as well as I hope more theaters out there too that I don't know about!)
So, that is probably already a lot of information which might have been obvious to Musical Theater fans as things which would make Opera more enjoyable to a larger audience, but for those of you Opera fans whom, like myself at one time, might be shocked now to be reading that I suggest these things, I am here to offer this kernel of wisdom that we should all keep in mind: at the time of their composition, most Operas were quite popular amongst the masses. That is perhaps something we would all do well to remember when getting on our high 'Operatic' horses!