“Second City Guide to the Opera” provides quirky laughs, yet little opera for newbies

Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 2:14 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Renée Fleming, Clarisa Barreca, and Patrick Stewart in a skit from “The Second City Guide to the Opera” Saturday night at the Civic Opera House: Photo: Todd Rosenberg

If the principal goal of “The Second City Guide to the Opera” was to draw a whole new audience to the Civic Opera House and give them a few laughs, then count this sold-out event as a huge success.

If, however, the aim was to introduce that new audience to some semblance of what it might experience if it were to take the daring move of say, actually attending an opera, then the first collaboration ever between comedy troupe Second City and Lyric Opera needs some serious retooling.

From the moment that noticeably younger and jeans-clad audience members began taking drinks back to their seats—to say nothing of coming and going as they please during Saturday night’s performance—it was clear that this was no typical night at the opera.

The evening began with music director Sir Andrew Davis’s usual pre-recorded announcement about turning off cell phones, but there were curious addenda: “If you have the license plate ‘FLEMING DIVA 1,’ you are blocking the alley”; “Someone’s mink coat came alive at coat check, please claim immediately as this is not a kennel”; “Please remember that coughing is strictly forbidden: you are expected to choke, quietly.”

A small chamber orchestra took the right of the stage while eight singers came out and began singing a pop-infused mock overture in a light, show-voice cabaret style with excessive and tinny amplification about what to expect in an overture, noting that if it’s Rossini, there would be twenty minutes more, that if it’s Verdi, “we will all die,” and if it’s Wagner, “we will all die, but you won’t mind.”

Co-hosts Renée Fleming, Lyric Opera creative consultant, and actor Patrick Stewart took the stage. Stewart admitted to being a “Flemhead” and Fleming noted that there was only one man to call to co-host such an evening—but that “Steven Colbert was busy.” “Ah, opera,” said Stewart: “beauty created for old people to sleep to,” while referencing the indifferent elite at the front of the house as well as the “paupers” in the gallery, the “shelf of shame.”

Skits included an operatic master class with a street diva who motivates prospective opera singers to be “a little bit more like me and a little bit less like yourselves,” and reminding them that “the audience is here to see me sing and to see you fail miserably.”

Arnold Schoenberg as a stand-up comedian? “How about that Dvořák ‘Requiem,’ eh? “I’ve heard better counterpoint from the Middle School Debate Team.”

The best running gag of the night was a “Doctor Opera” pre-recorded segment where a psychologist counsels various opera characters. A bickering Mimi and Rodolfo come in, but Mimi is hopelessly coughing. “Why don’t you go to a doctor?” he chides. “Why don’t you get a job so I can afford to see a doctor?” A later live segment has the doctor waiting for his next patient when a fish-eyed woman with blood-soaked extended hands comes in. “And you are?” the doctor asks, “Elektra,” she says, while the jagged Richard Strauss leitmotiv is intoned. “Cancel the rest of my afternoon,” he tells the receptionist.

Several of the segments had only loose connections to opera, such as the generic couple skit where an aroma therapist and an M.D. discuss “commitment” while testing the concept waiting to see Wagner’s Ring cycle, or a banker saga verbally done in pseudo-Shakespearian style.

The only actual opera heard in the two-hour evening were two short arias by Fleming, a club-like rendition of “Un bel di” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly where the amplification was so overdone that high notes distorted while the handful of over-vibratoed strings made for schmaltzy accompaniment. For her later, highly interpolated rendition of “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess the amplification had been mercifully toned down.

But two arias does not an evening at the opera make, and in this, it must be said, Lyric’s “Second City Guide to the Opera” proved something of a squandered opportunity. What is the point of verbally poking fun at the opera without offering this potentially new audience any idea what the art form is all about as a point of reference? Think of what Anna Russell could do lampooning Wagner’s Ring cycle or how Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach skillfully applies musical humor to a cultural world that becomes less alien to a wider public by intelligently revealing that world while also making fun of it? The comedians and the jokes were the real stars here, not the singers and certainly not the opera.

Posted in Performances


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