Friday, January 24, 2014

Open Air Opera in Cincinnati

MUSIC AND MONKEYS   

One of the things I enjoyed most about my years in Cincinnati was attending opera at the zoo. Yes, you read that correctly. The Summer Opera was performed in an open-air pavilion in the Cincinnati Zoo. The monkey cage was fairly close to the pavilion, so part of the evening’s entertainment was watching the monkeys before entering the pavilion for the performance. It wasn’t unusual to hear the tenor sing “Celeste Aida” in competition with roars from the lions or shrieks from the peacocks, but it just made the experience more fun. At intermission, what I enjoyed most was the otter exhibit, also close to the pavilion. Watching those wonderful little creatures cavorting in their watery world was enchanting.

It was truly an open air pavilion, with the stage and orchestra pit covered, but still somewhat exposed to the elements. The backstage dressing rooms were also enclosed, but there was an open space between the dressing rooms and the stage itself. The audience was covered by a tent with sides that could be lowered in the event of bad weather. It was interesting if a sudden thunderstorm blew up and the crew hastily dropped those sides, often during strong winds that left audience members damp if not soaked. But that also was part of the experience. Everyone was good-natured about it – it was just opera at the zoo at its finest.

Of course, the operas themselves were often well worth seeing. As I recall, during my college years the opera seemed to be somewhat mired in money problems that resulted in productions that were a little frayed around the edges. The old guard, I think, were still running things. Still, I saw some memorable performances by once-great stars of “opera world” ... Rise Stevens, Charles Kullman, Jan Peerce, Licia Albanese come to mind. My most memorable experience during those years was seeing Puccini’s Turandot on that stage. I knew nothing about the opera other than having heard a couple of arias sung by my schoolmates, and I found it incredibly thrilling and completely enthralling. Turandot has been one of my favorite operas ever since.

A few years later, a dynamo from South America, Tito Capobianco, breathed new life into the zoo opera. New productions of more contemporary operas were presented, notably Floyd’s Susannah and Of Mice and Men. I saw an exceptional production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman sung in English with the incomparable Beverly Sills playing all three of the female roles. The bass-baritone Norman Treigle also starred in that production, in my opinion probably the greatest operatic performer I ever saw.

A year after I moved away from Cincinnati, the opera moved indoors to Cincinnati’s Music Hall, a beautiful old edifice with splendid acoustics. My family returned for a visit in the late 70’s and we saw an excellent performance of Aida that summer. But I missed being at the zoo. I missed the monkeys.