Opera isn't just for affluent buffs and blue-hairs anymore. At least that's what the folks at the Houston Ebony Opera Guild think. Now they just have to convince you.
With Giacomo Puccini's Tosca as their Miller Outdoor Theatre season opener, they're off to a running start. Music aside, 19th-century opera story lines don't get much more dramatic than this. The heroine, Tosca, loves an artist named Cavarodossi, but the evil chief of the Roman police, Scarpia, is hot for her. When Cavarodossi is caught harboring a political prisoner, Scarpia sees it as the perfect opportunity to get him out of the picture, so to speak. Scarpia agrees to let Cavarodossi live if Tosca will give in to the police chief's lust. She says yes, but stabs Scarpia in the back, literally, as he's writing Cavarodossi a letter of safe passage. From the grave, Scarpia has the last laugh, his men executing Cavarodossi anyway. Then, of course, Tosca dies too -- by diving off a parapet.
"Tosca is certainly not full of family values," says Houston Ebony Opera Guild conductor Willie Anthony Waters, "but it's typical opera." Why, then, is it more popular than your typical opera? Well, for starters, it's short. But the conductor also thinks that Tosca's particular mixture of love, lust, violence and a bad guy wreaking havoc makes it just as juicy as television. And he plans to play the melodrama to the hilt.
Waters, the Connecticut Opera artistic director who has turned Houston Ebony Opera Guild's August concerts into full-blown productions, knows that good opera is more than just good music. "We create a really good theatrical experience for the audience," the conductor says. "The big companies couldn't care less about that. If this were Luciano Pavarotti on stage, he'd probably just stand there and sing. We don't want that. The whole experience of live theater is to give [people] a once-in-a-lifetime experience." Otherwise, you might as well just buy the CD.
There's a musical school of thought that says being emotional in Italian-style opera is over the top, out of place. But Waters, who has conducted the tragedy six times, thinks Tosca is extroverted. "Real emotion is expressed through the music," he says. "This is real drama. You have to take the [opera] out of the classroom situation and make it realistic." Thus, Waters's lead singers can act as well as they sing, and they'll be singing in English -- something else you won't see at the Wortham or the Met.
Powerful soprano Geraldine McMillian and rich baritone Richard Hobson are professionals who have both performed with the New York City Opera. Still, it was difficult for them in early rehearsals to understand Waters's vision. Occasionally they would gloss over the immense emotion of a brief scene between Tosca and Scarpia. To set them straight, Waters would say simply, but with much emotion himself, "This is Puccini."
The Houston Ebony Opera Guild performs Tosca on Friday and Saturday, August 27 and 28, at 8:30 p.m. at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park. Admission is free. For priority seating in advance, call (713)284-8350.