Minnesota Opera's "La Traviata," opening Saturday, reminds us that we know more opera than we think we do.
You've possibly heard the title "La Traviata." Perhaps you even know it was written by some composer whose name ends in "i": Puccini -- or Rossini or Donizetti or Verdi. Yes, that's it: Giuseppe Verdi.
Opera has a standoffish reputation for many people. It's old, European and most of the tunes just don't stick in your head. And in this country it is rarely considered popular entertainment. It was written as high art and intended as grand theater.
If you're not familiar with "La Traviata" itself, you probably have rubbed shoulders with its influence in pop culture. Perhaps, for example, you've heard of Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge," the 2001 film starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. Poet meets party girl, falls in love, she dies: It's pretty much the same story.
In fact, you probably know more opera than you think. Remember this one: "No more Rice Krispies. We've run out of Rice Krispies and I shall not stop, until I hear snap, crackle, pop." The iconic music behind that classic commercial was not the product of some jingle writer. It's the aria "Vesti la Giubba" from Leoncavalla's "Pagliacci." You've heard it elsewhere, too -- on "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons" and "The Untouchables." Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" also did a stint on "Seinfeld," as well as with WoodyWoodpecker, Our Gang (sung by Alfalfa) and Bugs Bunny ("The Rabbit of Seville"). And who doesn't know "Figaro," another tune from "Barber"?
Bizet's "Carmen" has many hooks that have found their way into pop culture -- how many young piano students recall playing the "Toreador Song"? You've heard of "Rent"? Substitute tuberculosis for AIDS as the cause of death for the heroine, and you have "La Bohème."
Opera has provided the musical iconography in myriad contemporary expressions. Freighted with grandeur, the music instantly comments upon the action with sonic images greater than pictures. Could the famous beach attack scene in "Apocalypse Now" be accompanied by anything other than "Ride of the Valkyries" from Wagner's "Die Walküre"?
"The overriding thing with all of these is that the directors don't have to work too hard," said Michael Christie, who is conducting the Minnesota Opera's production of "La Traviata," opening Saturday. "The music speaks for itself, and it's the perfect way to say, 'This is the hero's moment.'"
Christie confronted this phenomenon himself as a young man watching "Pretty Woman." There, he encountered the very opera he will conduct in Minnesota. Julia Roberts portrays a high-priced prostitute in the movie, hired for extended escort duty by the wealthy Richard Gere. At one point, Gere's character takes his pretty woman to the opera for a performance of "La Traviata," where a high-priced courtesan falls in love with a young bourgeois gentilhomme.
"It fits the story of 'Pretty Woman' exactly," said Christie.
"La Traviata" was intended as a pop-culture piece when it premiered in 1853. Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, based the opera on an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel and wanted the staging to be contemporary. That just wasn't done, and the powers that be insisted the drama be set in a previous era, where the blunt sexuality could be distanced in a dream world. It was 30 years before "La Traviata" received a "realistic" staging.
Cartoon to grand theater
Opera's influences and appearances in pop culture today have become a hot discussion, as practitioners hope that by talking about the subject, awareness will grow for the real thing. In 2009, the Paley Center for Media and New York City Opera hosted "What's Opera, Doc?," a title that plays off another Bugs Bunny cartoon. Moderator Cori Ellison, a dramaturg with City Opera, said her first exposures came through Mighty Mouse cartoons. Importantly, though, she said she recognized the style and form of the music, but said, "I didn't think of it as opera."
This is something that Christie, too, notes about the contrast between opera in the totality of a large theater such as the Ordway and the snippets that feel like really cool background music or humorous phrases for a 30-second commercial.
"People who haven't seen opera are often shocked at how big it is," he said. "In pop culture, it's very tight, even as it's portraying an intense emotion, but it can't quite capture that big experience."
Sorry, Bugs. Your Brünnhilde is just not believable.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299