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Crowds define opera. They're also keeping it from returning
MOST of Verdi's Aida is focused on intensely dramatic scenes for only one, two or three singers at a time. But it's crowds that define the experience of this opera.
It's not just the spectacular Triumphal Scene. In the first act, priests, ministers and military officers, summoned by the King of Egypt, assemble to learn who has been chosen to command their troops against advancing Ethiopian invaders. Full-throated choral outbursts shift from avenging threats against their enemies to stirring expressions of Egyptian resolve.
Crowds are essential to this moment - and, really, to opera as an art form. Choruses fill the stage; musicians cram into the orchestra pit; thousands of people sit shoulder to shoulder in the theatre. The Metropolitan Opera, one of the world's largest houses, seats an audience of nearly 4,000. And it would probably have been packed for the season's opening night Sept 21, the premiere of a new Aida production.
But it's no longer certain when opening night will happen. The Met announced last week that its coming season's performances would be cancelled at least until New Year's Eve, as social distancing measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic continue to keep theatres across the United States shuttered. Opera fans will have to endure once-unimaginable disappointment, although this loss is nothing compared with the devastating impact that the virus has had on countless lives, and that the shutdown has had on the livelihoods of artists and innumerable backstage staff.
Of course, opera revels in glorious solo voices; I'll never forget my first Aida, starring a radiant Leontyne Price, when I was a teenager. Yet in this dismaying moment, as an opera lover, a Met regular and a New Yorker, it's crowds that I miss the most. They add to the mystique of classical music in spaces of all sizes, from an intimate recital room to Carnegie Hall's spacious auditorium. In opera, they are not only crucial but special: When a rousing chorus breaks out, the audience feels swept away, pulled right into the music and the drama.
Every aspect of going to a Met performance involves mingling closely with others. You take the subway to Lincoln Center. If you're grabbing dinner with a friend beforehand, you count yourself lucky to have a little table during the preperformance rush at a nearby restaurant. You walk across the plaza, which is usually bustling. Then you settle into your seat and wait for the crowds to assemble onstage.
If the opera happens to be Puccini's La Bohème, in Franco Zeffirelli's enduringly popular and extravagant 1981 production, the Café Momus scene offers a glorified - some would say prettified - representation of the buzzing streets we in the audience just left behind. The set depicts a small cafe opening into a large square in Paris teeming with nearly 240 revellers, street urchins, vendors, soldiers and a marching band. It's shamelessly spectacular, musically infectious and utterly enjoyable.
I've always been most affected by the crowd scenes in which choristers, following a long-standing convention of the genre, face the audience and voice their phrases collectively. Take the final scene of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, when the beloved master singer Hans Sachs arrives to attend the annual song contest in Nuremberg. In the Met's vividly old-fashioned Otto Schenk production, it seems like the entire town has assembled onstage. The choristers, facing Sachs and the audience, sing a stirring chorale in tribute to this decent, modest man, a cobbler, and hail him in full-voiced salutations. It's a glorious, overwhelming sound.
Another such moment comes at the end of Beethoven's Fidelio, which was to have returned to the Met in November in Herbert Wernicke's splendid production. Beethoven's ode to joy in this choral scene is just as thrilling as his setting of Schiller's actual Ode to Joy in the finale of his Ninth Symphony.
Solemn crowd scenes can be soberly beautiful, like the chorus of priests at the temple of wisdom in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, which was to have been presented in a new production by Simon McBurney opening on New Year's Eve. Nabucco is slated to return to the Met in March. We have to hope that New York performing arts institutions will be able to welcome exiled artists and audiences home by then. NYTIMES