Monday, November 4, 2013

The only thing better than opera: free opera

     Popular pleasures require no explanation. Nobody says, "You watched a FOOTBALL GAME on Sunday — whatever for?" Opera, alas, is not one of those assumed pleasures. I've had more readers say, "What IS it about opera?" or act like I'm constantly writing about opera, which I'm not — just a couple columns a year, two or three tops, including this one, announcing our Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric sweepstakes, which began five years ago to test the hunch that, once people actually go see and hear an opera, the mystery and fear falls away and they understand what the fuss is about. Which has proven to be the case. I was a little worried that the contest wouldn't get pulled together this year—it's like holding a high tea in a sailing ship rounding Cape Horn in raging seas—but the resourceful folks at the Sun-Times not only managed to get it together, but did so early this time. Thanks to everyone involved, both at the paper and at the Lyric.

Giuseppe Verdi
     A courtesan is not a prostitute. Let’s be clear about that from the start. Violetta, the heroine of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which 100 lucky readers will attend with me for free later this month in the 6th annual Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric Sweepstakes, does not sell her favors for money, though she is sometimes treated that way—cash is thrown at her by her angry beau at one point in the story.
     Which leads to the question of what a courtesan is, exactly. My New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines “courtesan” as, umm, “A prostitute, esp. one whose clients are wealthy or upper-class.”
     Well yes, but there’s much more to it than that. Prostitutes today are not public figures (insert your own joke about Congress here) and courtesans definitely were. They were widely known as fashion leaders, party throwers, famous wits and beauties who held salons and accompanied famous men: Marie Duplessis, inspiration for the Alexandre Dumas fils novel that the opera is based on, also inspired composer Franz Liszt so much he wanted to move in with her.
     “There really isn’t an equivalent in our world,” said “Traviata” director Arin Arbus, making her debut with this production at the Lyric. “I actually think that’s one of the aspects of the opera that’s most challenging to convey to contemporary audiences.    Certainly it’s very different from our contemporary understanding of prostitution.”
     Not that courtesans were necessarily popular when "Traviata" debuted in Venice on March 6, 1853, one of the most famous fiascos in the history of opera. "Foul, hideous and immoral," one critic squawked.
     Though that wasn't the reason for its initial failure. The audience hated it, in part, for being put on in modern dress (modern then, though now, thanks to the turning wheel of time, it has become colorful elegant Italian fashion, bumped into the 1860s by designer Cait O'Connor, who added some massive wigs to give what she calls a "Victorian going for Baroque" air to the opening party). The soprano playing Violetta in the original was also portly, as sopranos sometimes are, which made her . . . spoiler alert . . . death from consumption a moment of hilarity for the audience at the debut, and not the tragedy Verdi intended it to be.
     That isn't an issue with the Lyric's star, Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, who makes her Lyric debut with this production but is no stranger to the part, having sung Violetta in Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin, Florence — around the globe. She has definite opinions on the courtesan question and Violetta.
     "She was not simply a prostitute," said Rebeka. "She was like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. If you paid for her, if you had her at your party, it meant you were very rich. She was a beautiful, clever, cultured woman, but also a girl, irritated by the illness that made her subject to such changes of mood."
     To me, getting bogged down in the characters of an opera or, God forbid, the plot, is to risk missing the central point — the music — and Verdi outdid himself here. Anyone worrying about sitting through three hours of it should rest assured, "La Traviata" is one of those special operas you can listen to 100 times without it getting old: thrilling, vigorous, exuberant, mournful.
     Our time frame is compressed this year — last year we went to "Hansel & Gretel" in January. This year we're attending opening night of "La Traviata" on Nov. 20.
     Sixteen days away. Act quickly. You have from this week until Nov. 11 to go online and enter at (you'll find the full rules there) or to mail a postcard or letter (postmarked by Nov. 9, received by Nov. 11) to Sun-Times Goes to Lyric Opera, P.O. Box 3455, Chicago, IL 60654. Include your name, phone number, address and email. Winners will be notified by phone around Nov. 15.
     We give away 50 pairs of tickets, and each year about 1,500 people enter, so your odds — about 1 in 30 — aren't bad. We've had 500 people win so far, and I've never heard a complaint. The only risk you run is that you'll get hooked on opera and want more, which is the whole idea, from the Lyric's point of view.
      This is a brand new production, created here at the Lyric, and then heading on to the Houston Grand Opera and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. But you'll get to see it first, the color and decay, the parties and loneliness, feminine wiles and male power, and the flash of real love, which of course is swept away in the profane heartbreak of regular life, with a moral you'll be chewing on long after you leave the theater.
     "One has friends only when one is well," sings Violetta.
     Well, yeah, that sounds about right.


  1. I received online from the SunTimes the chance to win a ticket to the opera. If I win, can I stay at your house? After all, don't you have some extra room now? :-) Just kidding.

    1. Sorry David ... The older boy doesn't go to school until the fall. We did give a reader a ride home at one of these ....

  2. Whenever I see that photo of Verdi, I think "soldier in the Civil War." It was used all over for his birthday celebration and so you'd think I'd be trained by now, but no, I kept thinking "Civil War." So now, instead of humming something he wrote, I think of that mournful music that played behind all the letters being read in the Ken Burns documentary years back.


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