Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Why Opera?" (My Address to CITS Annual Dinner)

Below is the text of the keynote address I offered the attendees of the Center in the Square (CITS) Annual Dinner Sept 16, upon the request of some inquiring minds. I should say it's the text upon which my speech was based, since I didn't stick literally to the "script."

(I will return soon with an article or two about the upcoming MET HD broadcasts, and Opera Roanoke's season opener, Faust & Furious).

Thank you, Steven. I can't begin to express the depth of my gratitude for not only this opportunity and all those you've afforded me, but for one of the most important friendships in my life. Roanoke is incredibly fortunate to have you and Elizabeth in our midst. I also want to thank Jim (Sears) and George (Cartledge), all the CITS staff, the volunteers, and everyone involved in the capital campaign. It is a sign of your visionary leadership and commitment that you have mounted such a successful campaign in this climate. I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes. Writing on the eve of WWII, C.S. Lewis observed:

"If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."

Why Opera and why Opera Roanoke? I will try to answer both in about 7.’

We are about to begin our 35th Season: Hear, See, Believe:
Hear the Drama; See the Music; Believe it’s Opera Roanoke.

The experience of opera itself is one of the WHY’S. Looking for inspiration where other answers go, I turned to one of my heroes, Clint Eastwood. There are many days when I look in the mirror and ask "Well, punk; do you feel lucky?" And the answer most days is yes. Seriously, I was inspired by Clint's recent film Invictus, where Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) inspires the captain of the (mostly) white rugby team (played by Matt Damon) with the question HOW?

“How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing less will do?
How do we inspire everyone around us? It is by using the work of others…"

So, I'm going to follow that advice and use the words of others to describe our opera season...

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work… Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

The Chicago Architect, Daniel Burnham, writing at the turn of the 20th century, could have been talking about our Opening concert, Faust and Furious, A Ride with the Devil. Mo. White will lead more performers than ever assembled on the Shaftman Hall stage in bringing an immortal tale to life. Joining three world-class, internationally-fêted stars will be the RSO & RSOC, my professional chorus, the Virginia Chorale, the Liberty University Chorale and our own Roanoke College Children's Chorus. 300 performers in a concert like you've never heard!

And if you don't recall that Goethe was the Shakespeaere of Germany, don't worry. If you need to "brush up your Goethe," fear not. Like all opera, it’s about love & death. Eros & Thanatos. Served with a twist. In this case, Satan. So save the date or be damned. You don’t have to sell your soul, just buy a ticket. Even if the Devil makes you do it, be there!

Opera is “larger than life”—it is so emotionally direct; it “takes the basic human emotions, pinpoints them, and magnifies them” (Bernstein), unfurling them towards you in the most splendid way imaginable! We don’t call it GRAND opera for nothing! The sheer range of expression in Opera is unsurpassable—and the means—the raw power of the naked human voice is like nothing else. The poet William Meredith puts it this way, in “About Opera:”

An image of articulateness is what it is:
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?

But it’s not GRAND in the exclusive sense, that it requires a special degree or indoctrination in order to GET it. The person sitting next to you doesn’t speak Italian either. But you both speak “human.” Opera was always meant to be a popular art, and a social one. And long before it was PC or necessitated by recessions, opera has always been the most collaborative, the most inclusive art form we have: music, word, drama, design, dance, & stagecraft & on…

Opera is the “total work of art” and makes for the grandest of experiences. And that grand, one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life world is at the heart of our season in a fully staged production of Madama Butterfly. Puccini’s masterpiece is the most popular opera in the US. If you’ve seen a great production, you know why. If you haven’t, you have two chances right here: March 18 & 20. And you can help guarantee our future as we consider the "how," "what" and "where:" join our matching-gift production fund campaign to ensure staged productions return to stay.

Our Season offers a rich variety of offerings. In between Faust & Mme Butterfly we get Intimate & personal with our Stars in the Star City Recitals. Think of these concerts as Opera Unplugged. One singer. One pianist. Nothing between his soul and your ears. Nothing between her voice and your experience.

This weekend, our colleagues in the Kandinsky Trio open their season at Roanoke College. I can’t wait to sit among the audience, forget about the rest of the world for a few blessed moments, and be transfixed by the power of Elizabeth Futral’s singing in the inimitable setting of the recital. Elizabeth will be gracing us with her beautiful voice and arresting stage presence in our Season finale, Mother's Day Serenade. Whenever I watch a great artist like Elizabeth, I feel the magic of the vicarious experience—those moments where we lose (or at least forget!) our selves and experience something other, something special, something extra-ordinary! Whether it’s attending the theater, looking at a painting, watching a film, reading a book—the vicarious experience is central to our existence. Why opera? Why NOT is the tougher question.

In Invictus, Mandela also says: we must all exceed our own expectations...

CITS is doing just that with its visionary campaign. And we at Opera Roanoke are thrilled to be a part of it, excited by the possibilities for collaboration, innovation, and rejuvenation. Among our new ventures this year are the MET HD broadcasts, hosted by Virginia Western Community College, and through their generous sponsorship, benefitting Opera Roanoke. These live, High Def movie broadcasts are a perfect entrée into the wonderful world of live opera. We are continuing our Sempre Libera program. That’s Italian for “always free” and it describes our ticket policy for students: always free. Just call us. We are launching an Apprentice program for local and regional college & university students this year. That’s the "why" and "where" for right now. And our future?

Looking ahead I envision an Opera Company that features a festival season with varied offerings of full productions in repertory, collaborating with not only our current partners like Center, the RSO & the Jeff Center, but our museums and galleries, the Ballet and MMT, and local businesses. This Opera Festival would help turn Roanoke into the tourist destination it could be, and build on the vibrant cultural center, that thanks to friends like you, it already is. Leonard Bernstein’s description of what makes opera great also applies to cities like ours:

Any great work of art is great because it creates a special world of its own. It revises and readapts time and space. And the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world; the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air…when we come out it, we are enriched and ennobled.

This is YOUR Opera Company. The great American conductor (and "father" of choral music in the US), Robert Shaw, speaking to his newly formed Collegiate Chorale in NYC, said:

This choir no longer belongs to one man. It belongs to each of us, everyone.
And what it does or fails to do from now on is your credit or your fault…
You don’t join the Collegiate Chorale. You believe it.

I will see you at the Opera. Thank you very much.

Postscript: below are the most famous couplets from the poem, Invictus. Below that is the excerpt Mandela actually read to the Rugby captain to inspire the team.

from Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul...

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs… because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. (Theodore Roosevelt, April, 1910)

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