Dallas — On the face of it, a harpsicord and a piano are very similar. They both have a keyboard at which the player sits. In both instruments, the music is created by a felt-lined hammer striking a string in the instruments box chamber. It is only when the music itself begins that the differences become most apparent.
The same is true for opera from the baroque period, the 17th and 18th centuries that generated masters like George Frederich Handel or Henry Purcell, and modern opera so familiar in its ubiquity. Both feature dramatic stories told with musical texts in place of speaking. Both are punctuated with star pieces known as arias—the solos or small group works that contain much of the artistry and emotion. But the striking differences between modern opera and its early forbearer are evident from the first chords of the prelude.
Dallas is poised to become much more familiar with the baroque art form with the opening this weekend of American Baroque Opera Company’s inaugural season. The group will tip off with a program of individual set pieces from composers both familiar and foreign called Masquerade: Opera Cabaret at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Hamon Hall on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, Sept. 14-16, kicking off the third season of ATTPAC’s Elevator Project.
According to company co-founder and principal viol da gambist Eric Smith, the concert is “an appetizer.”
“It is meant to be a taste of the art in preparation for the full opera programs scheduled for later in the year and in seasons to come.” Their first season culminates with a period staging of Handel’s Alcina, one of the classics of the genre, in early March of 2018 at Arts Mission Oak Cliff.
Although Dallas, like most cities in the country, has not had a dedicated baroque opera ensemble there is a tradition of early music in the area. Other opera companies and voice programs at local colleges have featured sporadic performances of works by Handel, Purcell and other familiar baroque composers. Meanwhile, The Orchestra of New Spain has produced musical performances of narrative vocal pieces from the baroque period although in a separate stylistic niche. But Smith feels that the time is ripe for Dallas to embark on a full-fledged baroque journey. “With the growth of the arts and the performance scenes,” he says, “the area has attracted some of the nation’s premier musicians and a lot of them are naturals with the baroque instruments. It was only a matter of time before we got together into a company.” Although the actual fruition has taken over a decade, Smith is confident that this is the right time due to the mixture of excitement and energy of the performers and the community about the upcoming season and beyond.
Smith feels that the pieces will attract audiences both from historical interest and for the works themselves.
“People listening to the baroque operas will be amazed by the energy and the passion of the pieces,” he says. “Those familiar with modern opera will trace some of the roots of those works but will also appreciate the artistry of the early composers. They’ll hear the cantabile singing that they recognize from Mozart and then Rossini and beyond. But the opera will be like nothing they have ever heard before. The early instruments and vocal technique are eye-opening in their vitality. People will be blown away by our approach to recitative, using it to further the stories rather than slowing them down. It will be very clear that these are living pieces and not just historical works.”
For those put off by the size and overwhelming nature of grand opera, Smith feels that the immediacy and intimacy of the early works will be particularly inviting. “Instead of listening to huge loud music in a large theater, the baroque operas will be played for a hundred or so listeners in a small setting. It is much more participatory.”
Preparing and rehearsing the pieces has itself been exciting because of the collaborative nature of the effort. “In a large opera company, the conductor does everything musically,” he explains. “In our group, all the performers [instrumentalists and singers] are experts. They have read the tracts and the information and are learning constantly. So we are always trying new things. Some of the early music is even more innovative than recently composed pieces.”
The group, whose staff includes Hillary Coyle, Executive Director and Miguel Cantú IV, General Manager, strives for authenticity of style and ornamentation, a thorny issue with any early art. They do so by constantly studying new interpretations and evidence. “Early music has changed so much over the 50 or so years that is has been back in the public eye,” Smith says. “It has grown even more so in the last ten years so we’ve had to constantly be watching the changes. And a lot of the performers now are young people but with a lot of experience who have grown up with the art. I think they are excited by the personal nature of the music and by being part of a recovery process. They are bringing back to life music that may not have been heard for three hundred years.”
Although for now the performances will refrain from traditional baroque elements like dances and masques, they hope to include these in future projects. Among other things, Smith is transcribing a new edition of an opera by Antonio Caldara which has not been heard at all by modern audiences. He is looking forward to every season including a World or North American Premiere. But even at its most familiar, authentic performance of baroque opera has an exotic variety that is both soothing and stirring. It does not engulf the listeners in the way that some modern opera does, but it engages them in its complexity.
Performed with period costumes and sets, coupled with the sculptural beauty of the early instruments and the embroidered virtuosity of its performance style, a baroque opera can be heady and spirited. We look forward with anticipation to the promise of having a regular and vital source of early music so close at hand.