Sexy Opera Stars Heat Up Staid Productions
By Philip Chaffee
At Opera Colorado in Denver, a recent production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar” was updated into the 1930s, with Cleopatra looking more like a gorgeous Claudette Colbert and Caesar like General Patton.
In Seattle, the local opera’s young artist program ran a show called “Operatica Electronica,” which included a group playing electronic music and vibrant, large-screen visuals.
And in New York, the sex appeal of a recent Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” caused one critic to compare the onstage couple to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Opera is changing. Those entering opera houses around the country may be surprised to see attractive young singers, flashy productions reminiscent of Broadway and audience members as likely to be clad in jeans as evening wear. As the spectacle onstage takes on a Hollywood feel, opera is attracting many fresh faces.
“The thing that excites me most is the influx of young people that we’ve been having the past few years,” said Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera. “The advent of the MTV generation has caused young people to look for something with a lot of stimuli, and we offer that with opera.”
Allan Naplan, the 32-year-old new director of the Madison Opera in Wisconsin, is determined to attract Madison’s significant college and young professional population. “This is not a dying art form,” said Naplan, who emphasizes that wearing jeans is perfectly acceptable and makes sure that student discount tickets are always available. “There’s a sex appeal necessary to have a younger audience. Rudolfo and Mimi”— from Puccini’s “La Boheme” — “have to compete with Pitt and Jolie.”
These changes, Naplan said, are being made throughout the industry. “In conservatories, artists’ entire persona and character are being developed, not just the voice.”
Consider two of opera’s hottest singers, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. Netrebko is a gorgeous Russian soprano who has been interviewed by Playboy and sung in most of the world’s major opera houses. Her pairing with Villazon, as the title characters in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliet” at the Los Angeles Opera, and then in 2005 as another amorous couple in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera, has earned them rapturous reviews for steaming up the stage.
It’s a far cry from what famed New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote in 1969, when he compared sex in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” to “whales gravely coming together.”
Not everybody is happy with this new emphasis on sex appeal and spectacle, believing that it leads to diminished quality. “These voices just don’t cut it,” said one prominent opera voice teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared his criticism could damage his career. “Some of opera singing is so demanding that it requires people standing still and singing. That doesn’t mean that they need to be devoid of sex appeal. But it doesn’t allow for them to be able to gyrate, to sell that sex appeal.”
The voice teacher also bemoaned the success of Netrebko and Villazon, saying that their success is helping to keep out singers with better voices who aren’t as attractive.
In 2004, Deborah Voigt was sacked from a production of Strauss’ “Ariadna Auf Naxos” at London’s Royal Opera House because “a slimmer singer would be better for the part.” The following year Voigt had a gastric bypass operation to help her reduce her weight, which some observers say has compromised her sound.
Opera has always been a compromise between music, theater and spectacle, and perhaps the emphasis is merely being redrawn. Jonathan Ferantelli, a devoted 26-year-old opera fan in New York, insisted that “there’s room in this medium to showcase a lot of different talents. I think it’s a huge mistake to close one aspect of it, thinking it would negate another aspect.”
One prime example of opera’s new direction was a production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera this winter. The production was directed by Julie Taymor, the director of Broadway’s “The Lion King” as well as the films “Frida” and “Titus,” and it was extremely colorful and vibrant.
Even The New Yorker, famous for its arched eyebrow over a monocle, praised the production. “Perhaps the Old Guard disapproved when Papageno broke into a strutting, arm-swinging hip-hop dance,” wrote Alex Ross, the magazine’s classical music reviewer, “but it’s about time the Met got some flava.”
Statistics demonstrate the success of the new, sexy opera. According to a 2002 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, while the audience for ballet has dropped precipitously over the last 20 years, and that for classical symphonies has stagnated, the audience for opera is growing. Some 4.5 million adults attended an opera in 1982; 20 years later, the number had grown to 6.6 million.
The numbers also suggest that the audience is getting younger as it grows larger. In Opera Colorado’s recent production of “Carmen,” with the beautiful Denyce Graves, 8,000 of the 15,000 audience members were new, younger faces.
“The reaction from audience members of all ages has been encouraging and enthusiastic,” said Naplan. “We have to change and integrate the demographic. Young people are our future.”
Where to See the Sexy Stars
• Anna Netrebko, soprano, plays a passionate Juliet in this Gounod rendition of the Shakespearean classic.
Metropolitan Opera, New York
Roméo et Juliette/Juliette
Sept. 25, 29; Oct. 3, 6 & 11; Dec. 8, 12, 15, 20, 27
• Rolando Villazon, renowned tenor, plays Roméo alongside Netrebko.
Metropolitan Opera, New York
Roméo et Juliette/Juliette
Dec. 8, 12, 15, 20
• Julie Taymor, famous for the Broadway play “The Lion King,” directs “Across The Universe,” a musical film about love and revolution in the turbulent 1960s. Artful cinematography and music from The Beatles reinforce these themes.
Opens Sept. 21
• Elizabeth Futral, coloratura soprano, plays Adina, who is caught in a love trial that is only exacerbated by a clever con-man’s “magic love potion.”
(The Elixir of Love)
Nov. 10, 13, 16, 18
Photo: Two of opera’s hottest stars, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, starred in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera