Wayne Lee Gay Looks Back at the Best Month Ever for Opera in Dallas and Fort Worth

Hopefully, May of 2010 won’t be remembered as the good old days of opera in Dallas and Fort Worth—but instead as the beginning of long era in which north Texas becomes the sort of place where new operas share the limelight with the masterpieces of the past. It was (if we count the closing hours of April, during which Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick premiered), an extraordinarily exciting month for opera goers.  Whether it was a happy fluke or the beginning of an operatic golden age for our region remains to be seen.

Several elements fell into place to make things happen. Great opera demands a fine facility—which Fort Worth Opera has had for ten years now, and Dallas Opera now has in the Winspear.

It takes excellent singers—which both companies have a strong tradition of discovering and cultivating. It takes dedication to innovative and well-thought productions of the traditional canon.

But May of 2010 brought something else as well. Fort Worth Opera just happened to be at the level of artistic and financial development at which to commission and present a premiere as part of its compact, three-weekend season at Bass Performance Hall in May and June.

Meanwhile, the worthy tradition of opening a new opera house with the premiere of a new opera dictated that Dallas Opera should commission and present a new piece. In a slight variation from tradition, the company opted to put that new work at the end, rather than the front of the first season in the new house.

The happy result was an intense season in which opera goers in the area could experience three works from the operatic canon—Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Fort Worth and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in Dallas—along with two brand new works, Heggie’s Moby Dick in Dallas and Jorge Martin’s Before Night Falls in Fort Worth. The canonic favorites offered plenty to discuss and argue about—for instance, in the almost revisionist presentation of Don Giovanni in Fort Worth or the surrealistic (in the true meaning of the word) presentation of Butterfly in Dallas, while the new operas presented their own points of controversy and discussion, including the blatant neo-romanticism and the heavy use of special effects in both.

But the excitement level produced by those two premieres so close together, and so close to well-produced versions of three other operas, intensified the experience of all five operas. Ahab and Dulcamara and Giovanni, for instance, provide different angles on the eternal presence of greed; Butterfly and Moby Dick and Before Night Falls all capture and question the unprecedented—and sometimes deadly—pervasiveness of American culture in the world, and, for the insightful viewer and listener, the sexual subtext of American imperialism. And all five operas explore the durability—sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic—of the victims of aggression and exploitation.

Presenting reasonably innovative productions of recognized masterpieces from the canon results in entertaining, informative, enriching opera seasons, and well-entertained, informed audience members. Presenting reasonably innovative productions of recognized masterpieces along with new works, however, produces operatic excitement on an even greater level. A viewer confronted with events from his or her own lifetime in Before Night Falls can see Madama Butterfly (which was contemporary at the time of it premiere) with even greater appreciation, and greater realization that the events and dilemmas of Madama Butterfly are as real as ever. The viewer who understands that the monstrous obsessions that overwhelm Captain Ahab and Don Giovanni are rooted not in an inability to love, but in an intense desire for love, has experienced one of the most important insights opera has to offer.

And there’s one more reason to be thankful for, and one more lesson to learn, from the region’s best operatic month ever. Opera has become, in its four-hundred-year history, a singularly significant vessel for the preservation of the human experience. Whether we realize it or not, we are learning from Don Giovanni and Nemorino and Cio-Cio San—and Ahab and the operatic version of Reinaldo—what it is to be human. When we support new operatic settings of Moby Dick and Before Night Falls, we contribute to the preservation of our own experience of what it is to be human for future generations. In addition to having tremendous good fun, a community in which new operas are presented and produced along with traditional masterpieces not only absorbs and learns from the past, but contributes a new legacy for the future.

Beginning in the early 1960s, visionary leaders in Houston transformed what was once an operatic backwater into one of the world’s most important centers for the production of new opera. If the two very lively, healthy companies in Fort Worth and Dallas can emulate Houston Grand Opera’s dedication to new opera (which that company has steadfastly maintained, presenting a premiere every season, in spite of a notoriously fickle economy) by presenting frequent premieres and productions of relatively recent works, the Dallas-Fort Worth region can become a place where opera is not just pleasant, but exciting. If, acting on the wonderful audience enthusiasm generated in that glorious few weeks of late April through early June of 2010, the professionals who manage and operate the companies carry forward bravely in the next few years, and the benefactors who keep them in business—from the budget-conscious ticket buyer who chooses an afternoon at the opera over a new video gadget to the corporate executive who remembers that “to whom much is given, much shall be required”—our region and our opera companies can earn a unique place in the history of opera.

Photo: Rendering whale fat on in the hull of the Pequod. (Credit: Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera)