The Dallas Opera pulled off something quite remarkable on Saturday. They presented a simulcast of a live opera to an audience of more than 15,000 at Cowboy's Stadium on Saturday.
The production was Mozart's The Magic Flute, simulcast from the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. It would have taken at least six sell-out audiences in the Winspear to fit that many. Plus, you can't buy a hot dog at the Winspear. A small plate of tea sandwiches, perhaps, but a hot dog…please.
What made this happen was an odd confluence of personalities. Keith Cerny, CEO of the Dallas Opera, is all about reaching out to the community. Gene Jones, wife of Jerry Jones and owner of the Dallas Cowboys and her daughter Charlotte Jones Anderson, are all about reaching out to the arts community. After all, how many football stadiums are also world-class art galleries?
So, it was a natural, but highly unusual, decision to simulcast an opera at the new stadium. It certainly was a mix of audiences. Attending football verses the opera can split a family. Who knew who would want to attend an event like an opera in the very sanctuary of testosterone? Well, 15,000 people, that's who! (That was less than half of the number of tickets that were requested for the event─34,000─but twice the number of tickets originally announced for the simulcast, 7,500.)
And they loved it!
Many unjust stereotypes about Texas were destroyed on Saturday as the audience poured in. Sure, there was a contingent there who just wanted to see the stadium without paying the high fees for admission and parking. The opera was free, after all. But, it was more than that. They were curious.
Some left after intermission, but that happens even at the Metropolitan Opera on a regular basis. Kids were restless. Cell phones rang. The eating of pizza and nachos was a sound and smell you couldn't avoid. However, most stayed and were enchanted by Mozart's centuries-old forerunner of the musical comedy.
Part of this had to do with the production. It is a fantastical concoction that is part Lord of the Rings, part Narnia, and part Disney. The forest bursts into bloom. Lion statues come to life. The three boys who act as guides sail overhear in a sailboat in the clouds. The animals in the forest snuggle at the hero's feet and the lessons of truth and honesty are underlined so boldly that none can miss them.
What was interesting to notice in the non-opera crowd was how poorly Mozart's anti-feminist message played. This "men rule over women" subtext is hardly noticed in the opera house. We are so used to the opera that we don't really pay attention to the underlying sexist message. But this audience did.
There were groans throughout, but when the most taxing trial that our hero Tamino has to bear is to ignore, in silence, his carping wife-to-be, there were some knowing laughs in the audience. One guy was overhear to say, "That's you, honey" when the ignored Pamina thinks that life is over because Tamino won't talk to her. "All he needs is a TV," he said with a laugh.
The fact that the cast was perfectly suited for a television production was pure serendipity. Jonathan Pell, Artistic Director of the Dallas Opera, cast the show years ago when this simulcast idea didn't exist. Age-appropriate and attractive singers made all the difference. Even the most gloriously vocally gifted cast could not have pulled this off if they didn't look the parts. A plump middle-aged pair of singers pretending to be young lovers would have been laughed right out of the stadium.
Back at the opera house, the cast was well aware that this was no ordinary performance. Tenor Shawn Mathey, playing the leading role of Tamino, said that when they heard the National Anthem being played, it reminded them that this was not an everyday presentation.
"Everyone in the cast was extremely excited about being able to do something different," he said. "It heightened the stakes. You are now singing for 30,000 [as was assumed from the number of ticket requests] instead of a couple of thousand in an opera house. Either a thought like that can destroy you or you just forget about it and do your best. For us, because it was out fourth performance of the production, with three behind us, a circular energy from the stadium brought everything up a notch."
"It was really cool," he said in summary.
In a news release sent Sunday by the Opera, Cerny said "The fact that we attracted requests from tens of thousands of people from all across the country and, ultimately, drew approximately 15,000 to Cowboys Stadium in our first offering there, makes this event an unqualified success."
For me, a long time fan of the opera, it was revelatory to hear it in a non-opera venue. Schikaneder (the librettist) and Mozart were Masons and this opera is full of Masonic symbolism. It is, on one level, intellectual to a high degree. However, the Theater auf der Wieden, for which the opera was written, specialized in popular shows. Thus, Mozart was writing as much for the audience at the stadium as he was for the one at the opera house on Saturday evening.
Nothing could have pointed this up more than the Stadium's overwhelming response to the adorable Papagano/Papagana duet in the last act. It was the mega-hit of the evening in Cowboy land. And the "pa-pa-pa-pa" bird-like sounds of the two bird people, and all of the children produced by this happy union pa-pa-popping out on the stage, was totally delightful. You can just imagine a modern day producer telling Mozart and Schikaneder that the second act was way too heavy and they needed a novelty number to bring the opera into the finale. This duet fits that prescription perfectly, and so it did on Saturday at the Stadium.
I will never look at that duet in the same way again.
Although my assignment was not to review the opera, but the event, I do have a few comments.
The hits of the evening for me, opera addict that I am, was the lovely singing of tenor Shawn Mathey throughout, and the stunning version of the aria "ah ich fühls" by soprano Ava Pine. I also liked the bumbling Three Ladies, with their outrageous hair and the poseur attitudes of the Three Boys. The satin gloved and extravagantly bejeweled hands coming out of the prompter's box , with the required props at the perfect time, was sheer genius. All the rest of the cast was absolutely first class.
Going back to my assignment, there were some technical glitches here and there. Why wouldn't there be with something so original?
The critical subtitles, which translated the German to English, blanked out twice, both times in critical plot moving occasions. Also, the wide-shot camera was grainy, a fault made more obvious by the crystal clear image the other cameras were projecting.
The sound became strident at the top of the voices, but the fact that opera requires a range from the very soft to the very loud presents a challenge to sound engineers used to the mono-dynamic football game or rock concerts. The scrim at the Winspear, a theater trick mosquito net-like curtain that allows you to see behind it while projecting something on the front, looked like you were watching the opera … well, through a mosquito net. You could even see the repairs. Must have been great at the Winspear. Further, some of the facial gymnastics that singers go through to produce some notes were obvious, when they rarely are in the opera house.
None of this mattered one wit to the assembled opera fans and hopefully soon-to-be opera fans. The end of the opera was as lustily cheered, and the standing ovation as sincere as the response from the Winspear audience.
Maybe even more so. We had hot dogs and beer, after all.
◊ Here's video from the event, with an interview with Cerny conducted by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs. Emily Trube does the voiceover work, and the video was shot and edited by Trube and Eric Shaddix.