Opera Al Fresco
August 24, 2009
As I headed over to San Francisco's industrial Mission Bay neighborhood to experience Urban Opera's outdoor production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas yesterday evening with a couple of friends, I was a little worried. Lacking the necessary acoustics and stage set up, opera generally plays badly al fresco. Plus, there was a strong wind blowing in from the Bay and the temperature was dropping fast. I was particularly concerned about how standing on a blustering promontory in a toga would affect the singers' vocal chords and general health.
I need not have worried. For one thing, Chip Grant and Kue King's slick, sculptural production didn't involve any Grecian drag. Simple, elegantly-cut monochrome costumes contrasted with knotted-twig-like headdresses and other ornamental pieces that gave off a more natural vibe. For another, the grassy, waterfront plaza where the opera was performed felt like a natural amphitheatre. New, glass-fronted buildings on two sides of the arena allowed the voices to carry very well, even as the wind howled past, and acted as a bit of a windbreaker for the audience and compact string / keyboard ensemble. The sunset view over the bay was also spectacular.
I could have done without some fussy and over-literal staging elements such as the sight of Kindra Scharich's Dido singing her way through most of the work with Cupid's broken arrow stuck in her front and back. Some of the performers didn't seem comfortable singing in the range at which Purcell pitched their parts. And the whole look and feel of the thing felt a bit post-modern in the 1980s sense of the word, with lots of human sculptures and sudden frozen tableaux.
But I could hear every word that the performers sung, felt transported by the story and was impressed by the strong and committed sense of ensemble -- these qualities are no mean feat for a brand new organization. By and large, Urban Opera's inaugural production bodes well for the company's future.