Sunday, January 10, 2010

There's Something Engaging About 'Merry'

Opera Review

The Merry Widow
Lyric Opera of Chicago

Let me start by saying that I am not an opera buff. While I have attended several operas, I am not all that well versed in the genre. And although I have become quite an aficionado of musical theater over the last decade, rock 'n roll is still first & foremost in terms of my musical tastes. But several years back, in hopes of expanding my horizons, I started to explore jazz and classical music, and started attending some operas.

I appreciated the operas and artists enough to become a Lyric Opera season ticket holder for several years, but although I enjoyed most of the performances at face value, I never "felt" them, like I do with the best of rock, theater and jazz. Without ever developing the emotional connection or learned interest (i.e. listening to opera recordings, studying up before or after a performance, vividly recalling & discerning one opera from another, etc.), after five 8-opera seasons of trying to "get into" opera, I cut back.

Now I only go to 1-2 operas per season, with last night's performance of The Merry Widow being my first visit of the 2009-2010 Lyric Opera season. I will also be seeing Puccini's Tosca in a few weeks.

The reason for this rambling preamble is to establish that while I am not truly an opera beginner, in many ways I still am. And if perhaps you're like I was a few years ago--wanting to explore something new, albeit with no prior predilection for opera and likely some hesitancy--I can tell you that The Merry Widow is the perfect starter opera.

To begin with, it's not really an opera, but an operetta. Which I think essentially means that its music and story are more light and airy than a standard opera, although very few of those involve high drama. Although the 1905 piece by Franz Lehar was originally sung in German, the Lyric is doing it as an English version, with lyrics and dialogue based on a 1970 transliteration by Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof and other Broadway classics.

There are a lot of melodic arias (songs sung as solos), vibrant choral pieces, substantial dancing and more than a good bit of humor. This production is being directed by noted theater director Gary Griffin, who has inventively staged several well-received shows around Chicago, as well as the Broadway & touring versions of The Color Purple. Even from the top of the upper balcony, the scenery was splendid and the performers, led by Elizabeth Futral, Roger Honeywell and Andriana Chuchman, not only sang beautifully, they infused the stage with genuine glamor (i.e., the 3-hour piece was over before any "fat ladies" sang).

Granted, some of the reasons I particularly enjoyed The Merry Widow--English lyrics, a Broadway director, attractive people to look at, etc.--may have caused some more traditional opera lovers to turn over in their seats. And to be fair, while quite enjoyable, the whole experience was still short of life-changing. Though I liked the whole thing aesthetically, I still didn't savor it emotionally, as I imagine true opera fanatics often do. So I am not suggesting that it will in itself convert the uninitiated into aficionado.

But if you're looking to start exploring opera, or think it might be fun just to check one out, The Merry Widow is an ideal place to start.

But be fast, after a matinee this Friday, it closes after Saturday evening's performance. And as it's been 23 seasons since the Lyric last staged it, who knows when The Merry Widow will roll back into town.

If you're interested, you can learn more and purchase tickets here.

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