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Opera in small spaces

Angela Meade as Norma (photo: Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera)

Angela Meade as Norma (photo: Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera)

Famous opera houses are almost invariably large. The Met seats 3,800; the Vienna State Opera, 2,280; the Royal Opera House, 2,250; Teatro alla Scala, 2,800. Rarely will a major company perform to an audience of fewer than 1,500–it simply isn’t sufficient to justify the production expenses! While I love that there are lots of seats available for operas (especially because this allows companies to have tiered pricing and student ticket deals), this arrangement has its downsides. Once a singer has ‘made it’ in the opera world, opportunities to hear his or her voice in a more intimate setting become rare.

I recently had one of those rare opportunities, at the dress rehearsal for Portland SummerFest’s Norma. Portland SummerFest is an annual free opera in the park, and it plays outdoors (in concert, mic’d) to an audience of thousands. The dress rehearsal, however, took place in a small auditorium, with only the singers, orchestra, chorus, and a handful of spectators. Voices that impress in the Met or the park bowled me over in such a small space. Angela Meade played the title role, and I occasionally had to cover my ears to avoid being blown away by the sheer power and volume of her sound. Those moments contrasted markedly with perfectly floated pianissimo notes. I’ve admired Angela’s dynamic range ever since first hearing her, but I’ve previously only admired it from a distance of more than a few feet.

The experience left me wishing for opportunities to hear more star singers with big voices in intimate settings. Plenty of opera exists in small spaces. Studio performances by Young Artist Program members at big companies are common, and groups consisting of ’emerging performers’ usually pick small venues. I often feel more engaged in and impressed by those performances than by the ones I see from far away in big houses. But I’d like to be able to have the same kind of experience with  famous singers, too. Economically feasible? Probably not. But a girl can dream…

  1. Ann LanderAnn Lander08-10-2014

    That rehearsal must have been thrilling. Hearing top class singers from close range is so exciting but as you say, the opportunity rarely arises. Wigmore Hall (London) attracts top singers and is small (545 capacity) but it’s a recital venue and too small for opera. Iford Manor (Wiltshire, UK) stages a festival each summer and operas are performed in the cloister which has a seating capacity of less than 100. I saw a wonderful Acis and Galatea there last summer, the singers were so close I could have reached out and touched them.

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