Quick, a quiz. Someone says the word "opera." What comes to mind?
1) Opera Man, who used to yell things on "Saturday Night Live."
2) "A Night at the Opera," when the Marx Brothers misbehaved.
3) "Phantom of the Opera." Paris' Opera Comique must have been one weird place!
4) Mozart, Puccini, Wagner and Verdi.
If you said (4), you can ascend to your box at the Metropolitan Opera. We won't keep you.
But if you answered any of the others, you're sure not alone.
On Friday, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra singers and BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta will be at Artpark presenting an evening of opera arias. Some people will recognize the melodies, and perhaps even want to hum along. Listeners not used to this kind of thing, though, would shrink back in confusion.
Contestants don't sing opera on "American Idol." You don't hear it pouring from the speakers of passing cars. In today's high-tech world, opera could be seen as exotic and anachronistic.
"It's the one type of performance now that's completely acoustic," says Jay Lesenger, the creative director of the Chautauqua Opera. "If you go anywhere else, they're micing everything. In opera, the sound is completely created by the performer standing there."
Because opera was around several centuries before amplification, opera singers undergo special training to be able to reach the far corners of a hall. On first hearing, it can sound strange.
Tim Kennedy, whose Buffalo Opera Unlimited has staged operas including Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" and Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte," has seen for himself how a classically trained voice can take people by surprise.
"Years ago, I did a program of Paul Robeson in Lackawanna," he recalls. "When I started singing, one young lady went into this hilarious kind of laughter. The teacher was so embarrassed. She made her go to the back of the room. I called the girl back. I said, 'I want you to tell me why you thought my singing was so funny.
"She said, 'I've never heard anything like that in my life.' Then I understood, that's how it affected her. She was just so shocked."
Tenor stabs the mezzo
Call it shocking, call it arcane, call it an ancient art. Even in our jam-packed, noisy modern age, opera is making inroads.
Buffalo has no full-scale opera company. But during the summer, opera is just a modest road trip away. Four operas a summer are staged at the Chautauqua Institution. Four more are staged at opulent Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown.
Last winter, opera got a big boost. New York's Metropolitan Opera began simulcasting live performances on screens at theaters across the country. Several broadcasts at the Imax theater on Transit Road were sold out. Playbill magazine reported that the Feb. 24 simulcast of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," starring hunky Russian bass Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the celebrated Rochester-born soprano Renee Fleming, drew more than 50,000 viewers.
So successful was the venture that for the 2007-'08 season, the Met is increasing the number of simulcasts from six to eight.
Thanks to technology, smart marketing and increased musicology, the opera world is broader and more varied than ever before. You can sample Renaissance opera, contemporary opera, the worldly wise operas of Mozart or the recently rediscovered operas of Handel.
In other words, if you've never given opera a try, maybe now's the time.
"Is it any weirder than a rock concert where people are screaming their lungs out?" Lesenger asks, laughing. "It's a different kind of music, no question."
Sometimes, to make opera less off-putting, Lesenger calls it simply "music theater." It suggests that if you can appreciate the continuous singing that takes place in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera," it's just a short leap to the world of classical opera.
"One of our strengths is, we do opera in English," Lesenger points out, referring to a Chautauqua tradition. "That's one reason we're a great place to go see opera for the first time. We want people who have never been to opera before to come and enjoy the experience."
Lesenger considers Bizet's "Carmen," which will be performed in Chautauqua on Monday, to be a great first opera.
"'Carmen' is very colorful," he says. "There's lots of action, and one great tune after another. And it ends with the tenor stabbing the mezzo on stage. What could be better?"
The Chautauqua Opera often organizes seasons by theme. This summer's theme, Lesenger laughs, is drinking. It's the first summer beer and wine are allowed in restaurants in the Chautauqua Institution. And all the operas Lesenger had programmed seemed to fit the bill.
This summer, for the first time, Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown also has a theme. Michael MacLeod, the company's new British-born director, explains that the theme is Orpheus, the god of music.
The season boasts Jacques Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld," and "Orfeo" by the Italian Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi. Also on tap are "Orpheus and Eurydice," by Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose operas influenced Mozart -- and "Orphee," by the modern composer Philip Glass.
Glass' opera was inspired by a 1949 film by French filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
"Not only are we showing the Cocteau film at various times, but we're showing the 1959 'Black Orpheus,' which transfers the story to the slums of Rio de Janeiro," McLeod says.
While the offbeat operas will please seasoned operagoers, Glimmerglass' new Family Days might reel in folks who have never given opera a try.
"People don't just think, 'We're going to the opera.'" he says. "Rather, they think, 'We're going to a summer festival, called Glimmerglass, where they have film and Family Day, and they also show opera."
> The price of greatness
Part of the thrill of opera is its epic quality. That's what bewitched Tim Kennedy when he was growing up in Philadelphia.
As a black, urban teenager, Kennedy wouldn't have fit anyone's stereotype of the typical opera fan. But when a program offered free tickets to the opera, he went and was bowled over.
"I'll never forget it," he says. "As a high school student, I loved everything about it. The spectacle, it just amazed me. I wanted to be an opera singer."
Alas, the sumptuous spectacle of opera comes at a price. That's why Buffalo opera pioneers, including Kennedy, have not had an easy time of it.
"The history of Western New York opera is like opera," Kennedy jokes.
Buffalo has a small-scale opera troupe, Opera Sacra, which stages occasional productions with religious themes. But the last farther-reaching group, the Greater Buffalo Opera Company, went down in flames 10 years ago after an acclaimed but costly production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" at Shea's Performing Arts Center.
One singer involved in the Greater Buffalo Opera Company was a talented young bass-baritone, Valerian Ruminski. Ruminski now sings with opera companies around the world including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera and the Santa Fe Opera.
"It was a damn good company," Ruminski says, remembering the Buffalo troupe. "They created great art on a budget."
Now living in Manhattan, Ruminski dreams of starting his own company in Buffalo, Nickel City Opera. But he worries.
"Opera by its very nature is the most complicated of any art form to be able to mount," he says. "It involves all the art forms -- set design, dance, every possible aspect of art. Some people would say that opera diminishes all the other arts.
"You have to put together all the best artists, otherwise you have a ship listing from one side to another."
Adding to the stress, an opera company has to win over an audience that is, historically, fussy and discriminating.
Ruminski has considered North Tonawanda's Riviera Theater as a base for his opera company aspirations. The landmark movie house has beauty, lots of room and even an orchestra pit, which is a necessity in opera and a rarity in the Buffalo area.
"The problem is, people would look at the Riviera and say, 'You can't be serious,'" he says. "People think, 'If they were serious, they'd be at Shea's.'"
Kennedy says opera fans are too quick to assume that local productions won't be up to snuff.
"If it has 'New York' in the name, they'll assume it's good," he says.
Buffalo Opera Unlimited's production last year of "The Merry Widow," staged at Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall, lost money -- even though Kennedy went out of his way beforehand to pass out fliers to hundreds of folks at a Met simulcast.
"I can't afford to have opera and not have an audience," he says.
"When I saw these people go to the Met broadcast, I didn't know where they all came from. They had to open two movie theaters. And one of them seats 500! But they didn't come to my production. I don't know what the situation was. I said, 'Oh, my God, there is an audience here.' But maybe it's not for local opera."
> A ballpark yell
Such disappointments aside, most opera advocates welcome the Met broadcasts.
"We put some of our application materials out in the lobby," says Andrea Pope of Opera Buffs of Western New York, which sponsors talks on opera and also runs bus trips to performances in Chautauqua and Cleveland as well as Hamilton, Ont., and Toronto. "We got a lot of responses," she says.
Pope fondly recalls one Saturday when Opera Buffs gathered for a buffet at a nearby restaurant, and then had to navigate Transit Road traffic to the theater. "We had a police escort!" she laughs.
When the Met broadcast Bellini's "I Puritani," Ruminski was in the cast. Pope savored the moment. "The minute they flashed his name and picture, we all shouted and yelled like we were in the ballpark."
Film can't match the excitement of a live performance. But because most people can't trek to the Met on a regular basis, the broadcasts allow all kinds of people to widen their appreciation of opera -- or, in some cases, to discover it.
"You see kids at the broadcasts," Pope says. "They feel comfortable in that setting, because they don't have to dress up. They can sit there in their whatevers and munch popcorn. It's great just to get them in the door, let them hear the music."
New operagoers, before long, could find that they're hooked.
All the arts affect us because they tell us something about our own lives. Opera, though, has peculiar powers of its own.
Music can make a drama magical. The stirring anthems in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi roused crowds to political activism. Mozart had to face censorship because the melodies of "The Marriage of Figaro" made it clear that servants were the peers of their noble-born masters. Richard Wagner knew how to use orchestration and recurrant themes to tap into people's subconscious. When he first staged his smoldering "Tristan und Isolde" (an opera scheduled to be broadcast by the Met next season) husbands wouldn't let their wives see it.
The voices in opera are a thrill in themselves.
"There's a visceral quality," Lesenger says. "You can turn up mics and pound the bass, but that's not the same as hearing sound coming from one person and the live orchestra sound that comes with it."
Ruminski carries the theory a step further.
"Why do we tune in to 'American Idol'? We want to see someone crack and fall on his face," he says. "That's what makes the tenor so famous, what makes everyone want to hear him. He's doing a dangerous thing. It's like watching a skater doing a triple axel.
"Art is grace under pressure," he adds. "That's what we want to see."
MacLeod has his own has his philosophies about what keeps opera relevant.
"I think modern society is doing serious damage to our emotions," he says. "We see violence, sex -- we are becoming desensitized. In the opera house, that's where your emotions can be reignited in a powerful and yet safe way.
"Here in Cooperstown, I occasionally use the comparison, why do people go to baseball games? Opera has highs and lows, theatrical intensity. It is the field of dreams."