Ravinia 2022, Issue 4

Lawn Clippings By John Schauer Top: The actual Estates Theatre, where Don Giovanni premiered, was shown in the 1984 film Amadeus . Bottom: The Three Tenors’ Dodger Stadium audience would have filled the Estates Theatre 86 times over. Size Matters CONDUCTOR JAMES CONLON is returning to Ravinia this summer, and that’s always cause for rejoicing. [Full disclosure: although I was employed to edit Ravin- ia’s program magazines from 1994 to 2015, I am not being paid to say nice things about Maestro Conlon. Well, okay, I am being paid to write this column, but the subject and content are up to me, so I am sincere when I declare I am a fan.] During my Ravinia years, the crushing pressure of publishing deadlines usual- ly kept me at my desk until 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., so I missed a lot of concerts. But I invariably made a point of attending the magnificent opera performances Conlon led over the years. Otello , Tosca , Rigoletto , Madama Butterfly , Aida , Salome , The Flying Dutchman —all performances that stand out in my memory. His interpre- tation of Verdi’s Requiem in 2006 was so galvanizing that I was moved to tears throughout the performance. Then, starting in 2008, the Maestro embarked on an inspired project: every other year, he would conduct two of Mozart’s operas in repertory. There was a lot to like: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Conlon’s masterful conducting (he is, in point of fact, one of the great opera and Mozart conductors of our time), and revelatory casts he hand-picked. But strange as it may sound, what fired those productions into the stratosphere for me was the building where he chose to perform them: Ravinia’s little 850-seat Arts and Crafts jewel, the Martin Theatre. Those performances gave lie to the entire notion of progress and evolution in the construction of opera houses. During the 13 years I worked at San Francisco Opera before Ravinia, I had the luxury of friends in the box office who would help me purchase front-row seats. From that perspective, I could forget that much of the audience behind me in that mammoth auditorium (the 3,200-seat War Memorial Opera House) needed to peer through “opera glasses” (the high-tone term for binoculars) to see what was happening on stage. The process that brought us to this sorry situation can be told through num- bers. The Estates Theatre in Prague, where Mozart conducted the world pre- mieres of Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito , seats (it still exists) a mere 648 people. But opera, odd as it might sound today, was really the first democratic art form in that any member of the general public could purchase a ticket. Since those ticket sales were so vital to the economic survival of opera companies, opera houses naturally began getting bigger. Venice’s La Fenice opera house, which replaced a theater that burned down in 1774, originally seated 840 but later was enlarged to accommodate 1,000. Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, completed 1778, doubled that, at 2,030. The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden raised the ante to 2,256 in 1858, and the Vienna Staatsoper, completed 11 years later, was slightly larger, at 2,276. But in America, where bigger is always better, the original Metropolitan Opera House went off the chart when it opened in 1883 with a honking-huge ca- pacity of 3,625. And when the new Metropolitan Opera House opened in Lincoln Center in 1966, its capacity ballooned to 3,850. That’s practically six times as large as the theater that Mozart knew in Prague. You can imagine what this means to singers, who have to produce enough sound to fill such enormous spaces, and they don’t always succeed. I remember when a friend attended her first opera at Chicago’s gorgeous art deco Civic Opera House, itself no slouch at 3,563 seats, and complained that the tenor was barely audible. “Why didn’t they give him a microphone?” she innocently asked. I tried to explain that it would be like giving motorcycles to participants in the Tour de France so they could go faster. It was a logical question to anyone who attends productions of Broadway mu- sicals that nowadays are routinely amplified to ear-splitting volume. In the days before microphones, Ethel Merman became a Broadway legend by being able to knock the socks off listeners in the back row of the balcony without any technical assistance, but today anyone can achieve that without even trying. Will that ever happen to opera? “The microphones are coming,” legendary singer Marilyn Horne predicted when I interviewed her back in 1985, and cer- tainly operaphiles accepted amplification when the “Three Tenors” concertized in massive sports venues holding upwards of 50,000 fans. Fortunately, that won’t be necessary in the 850-seat Martin Theatre. Thank you, Maestro Conlon. I’m sure that somewhere, Mozart thanks him, too. John Schauer is a freelance writer and opera aficionado who likes to be able to see the perspiration on the singers’ faces. RAVINIA MAGAZINE • AUGUST 1 – AUGUST 14, 2022 20