words | MICHAEL KEARNS photography | MICHAEL KEARNS & MATT STEFFEN
It’s that time of summer; the temperature soars and the air turns unspeakably humid. The fat lady sweats.
What’s a soul to do?
Many flee to the air-conditioned comfort of the movies. After all, what’s better than paying too much money to watch a banal Hollywood remake while sitting behind someone alternately slurping down a nine-dollar Coke and chatting on their cell phone?
Fortunately for you, we have the answer: opera.
I fell in love with opera ten years ago and have never looked back. I know, I know, opera suffers from its own PR problems. It’s said to be an elitist entertainment for the rich and over-educated; it’s sung in a foreign language that you don’t even know; and the tickets cost too much.
But the truth is that opera is not just for the anointed, nor is it the province of the one percent. Rather, opera today provides a democratic stomping ground where music lovers of all classes, and every stripe, can meet and enjoy the arts without spending a small fortune.
Locally, the Cincinnati Opera works hard to offer its performances in an egalitarian fashion. It offers free Opera in the Park performances every year. They also offer any number of ticket deals for working stiffs (like myself) and some especially sweet deals for students as well as ticket specials for groups, educators, seniors, individuals under 35, and discounts for veterans and active military personnel.
Which brings us to Tosca.
If you’ve ever wondered, “Could opera be my thing? Would I like opera?” then the current production of Tosca by the Cincinnati Opera is your thing. The current production, which is being staged at the Aronoff while Music Hall undergoes renovation, is a simple but riveting tale of love, lust, and violence.
There’s something here for everyone: sex and violence, aesthetic pleasures galore, and stunning sets and costumes from acclaimed designer Robert Perdziola.
There are also two-thirds of a romantic triangle, substantial bloodletting and, yes, singing that is powerful, graceful, and ethereal. And it all happens live before your eyes. And while the singing is in Italian, it’s simultaneously translated above the stage. You won’t be lost—only impressed, awed, and maybe even love-struck.
Because opera is proof that sometimes things do go stunningly right. Opera is life’s payoff for everything that is petty, crass, and harsh. Opera is a miracle.
Go to an opera and open your eyes fully. Think about the process of putting on an opera. Appreciate every little struggle that virtually every opera must overcome.
Each performance is a complex project capable of collapse—an ornate and stately house of cards ready to topple at any moment. Makeup and scenery artists collaborate with lighting technicians, singers, actors and actresses, and a pit full of musicians.
The multifaceted orchestra and its conductor must align with this splendid mass of performers, hundreds of performers, perfectly, on cue. Together, they must turn on a dime.
The chance for disaster—let alone a jarring misstep which could threaten an audience’s reverie—seems certain. To think about the process is to know that the process should be impossible. In short, a fully realized opera is like a flying rhinoceros.
“Opera, next to Gothic architecture,” said art historian Kenneth Clark, “is one of the strangest inventions of Western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process.”
Moreover, as the Cincinnati Opera proclaims, Tosca is a visual feast given both the enticing colorful period costumes and Robert Perdziola’s towering, earth-toned sets.
In fact, we were sufficiently impressed with the costumes and sets that we asked for an interview with Mr. Perdziola, who was kind enough, despite his very busy week, to give us a lesson in stage and set design.
Newcomers to opera might be surprised to learn that the sets and costumes are frequently designed by the same person. What are the primary advantages in having a single person perform both of these tasks?
I believe that the actor, singer, or dancer, is the most important person on the stage. This is the human element. The surround, although of great importance and expense, is secondary and must support the performer. In England and much of Europe, sets and costumes are usually done by the same person. It can give the entire thing a bigger unity, but not always. I have done costumes often with someone else doing the set, and you learn things being on a team with others who think differently. So each way has its advantages.
If you could design and create sets and costumes for any performance, in any place, what would be your dream job?
I would very much like to do Der Rosenkavalier somewhere. I have never done this opera, but Strauss is one of my favorites. Maybe a dream would be to do Der Rosenkavalier in Europe at one of the great houses.
With whom, if anyone, do you collaborate in creating the overall vision of your sets and costumes and, briefly, how does that process work?
My work must serve the opera’s composer, the librettist. And I must listen to the guidance of the director in how to tell the story. I do not work in a vacuum and I must honor the piece. With older operas I don’t object to new concepts, but I must try to figure out the original spirit of the thing with the director.
Designing the sets and costumes for this performance is obviously a very large proposition. How long did the process last?
I have been at work on this production for a year and a half. That is generally how long this process takes. There are numerous phases involved from drawing board to budgeting to meeting with artisans. This all takes scheduling.
It is an astounding process and a stunning show.
Do yourself a favor. Skip Tarzan and Bad Moms at Cineplex 37 and see Tosca instead. It’s three hours of magic that might just change your life.
originally published at Polly Magazine.com