Fuse Opera Review/Commentary: A Magisterial “Lost in the Stars” at Glimmerglass

When the performance ended and I sat there, silent, reveling with the rest of the audience in the goose bumps that inevitably occur after such an experience, I knew, in my bones, that no movie, however good, could be as good as this.

Glimmerglass Festival, 2012. At Cooperstown, New York, through August 25.

By Roberta Silman

Eric Owens as the South African Anglican priest Stephen Kumalo in the Glimmerglass Festival production of LOST IN THE STARS. Photo: William M. Brown.

For several months now I have been wrestling with the idea of writing a piece about how our attitudes towards opera have been altered by the HD movies, addressing questions that have been raised by music critics all over the country. My approach is more that of an opera lover, and I admit there have been times when I have felt that the movies have approached the real thing in ways I could not have imagined: they allow the viewer an intimacy possible only if you are sitting very close in the theater or looking through good opera glasses, and you are in an audience, a community reacting to what is on the screen with you. That sense of community, which has been so enhanced by the use of subtitles, is one of the things that makes it so pleasurable and worlds apart from watching a DVD of your favorite opera at home.

This last season my husband and I were especially taken with the movie of Anna Bolena and Gotterdammerung. Indeed, my feelings that the movie experience surpassed that of sitting at The Met when we went to Verdi’s Ernani, which we had never seen, and sat in the Grand Tier and felt too distanced from what was happening onstage. Somehow the magic of the new American soprano Angela Meade eluded us. Yes, her voice was beautiful, but we missed the pleasure of seeing everything up close.

It was with these mixed feelings that we went last week to the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown to hear Lost in the Stars, a co-production of Cape Town Opera and Glimmerglass, and starring the great American baritone Eric Owens whom we had last seen in the Wagner Ring as Albericht and directed by Tazewell Thompson, who, in his own words, “rejoices in the medium of opera-theater, in the opportunities to connect with the words and music of Anderson and Weill and the many artists who have brought this show to life in Cape Town and now here. . . this collective expression connects us, in the dark, facing a lighted event, behind a corrugated tin curtain. It reminds us of our violence and prejudices, our terror and pity, our loves and hopes, our capacity to change.”

Lost in the Stars is based on Alan Paton’s wonderful book, Cry, The Beloved Country about South Africa which was published in 1948. It was transformed for the stage by lyricist Maxwell Anderson, who had always wanted to write about the plight of the Negroes, as they were called in the 1940s. His collaborator was Kurt Weill, and the final product is a masterpiece.

Which is not surprising because Weill was a composer of first rank who died, unfortunately, far too young, at age 50. Born in 1900 to an observant Jewish family Weill had come to the States in 1933 to escape the Nazis; he was already known for Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, both fabulous works that are metaphors for what Europe, and especially his native Germany, was now enduring. Already his immense talent was recognized all over the world, and once here, he was invited by Gershwin to see a rehearsal of Porgy and Bess. With Gershwin’s encouragement he ventured into the realms of the Broadway musical with Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus.

But he was always intrigued by the idea of writing something more in the line of a folk opera, an American opera that would express his own vision of a more optimistic future. His inspirations were Porgy and also Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which he once said was “an ideal example of the union of popular music and the highest degree of artistic power.”

When you arrive at Glimmerglass whose centerpiece is the beautiful Alice Busch Opera House that seats 914, you have the feeling that you are in good hands. The seats are comfortable with good leg room and sight lines. Anthony Palmer has already written a piece for Arts Fuse about discovering Cooperstown and Glimmerglass, so I won’t dwell on the physical aspects more than to say on a nice day it is, simply, very close to Paradise.

What I wasn’t prepared for, and what, in the space of a few hours, rid me of any notion that the movies can match the real thing was this marvelous production of Lost in the Stars. As soon as the curtain went up, we were in Stephen Kumalo’s home in a tiny town more than a hundred miles from Capetown. The sets, the costumes, the way The Leader commands the narrative which moves from folk song to comedy to tragedy and operatic arias are all masterful.

Chrystal E. Williams as Linda with ensemble member Thesele Kemane in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s LOST IN THE STARS. Photo: Karli Cadel

But, in the end, it was being in the same space as great singers and actors who projected this story filled with irony and sadness and also hope and redemption that truly mattered. The production was seamless, with the spoken words (projected above) as beautifully nuanced as the most tragic arias. All of a piece, it pierced the heart, and was as moving an experience as I have ever had in opera. It beautifully illustrated what Weill described, in an interview with Boris Goldovsky just months before he died, as his “very strong reaction in the awareness of the suffering of underprivileged people, of the oppressed, the persecuted.”

When the performance ended and I sat there, silent, reveling with the rest of the audience in the goose bumps that inevitably occur after such an experience, I knew, in my bones, that no movie, however good, could be as good as this.

So here was the answer to all my mulling. I love the Met’s HD Operas, I love that they bring opera to people all over the world who may never get to New York to see a Met production, I love that they have proved a wonderful source of revenue for an institution that is so much a part of New York City as I know it and love it, and I also love the medium of the movie to help me see things in a production I may have missed before.

But the truth is that when a production comes together as beautifully as Lost in the Stars has this past summer, you come away feeling as if you have witnessed something totally unique and something special that, with time, will grow in your memory as only live cultural events can truly do.

Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection; three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again; and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She writes regularly for The Arts Fuse and can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

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