What makes someone a devoted opera fan?
Is it the “gilterati?” If so, there was much in abundance Saturday night when the Washington National Opera hosted its Gala in the Opera House. From the fashion statements to the Austrian crystal chandeliers that dominate the auditorium’s iconic look, and from which a few “spares” were made as part of the evening’s gifting event, there was plenty of bling in the Kennedy Center fundraising event.
Women strolled up the red-carpeted stairs in beaded gowns or satin flounced affairs that looked more like constructed silhouettes than sewn apparel. A few males dared to sport equal extravagant plumage such as brocaded tuxedos shot through with metallic threads, and one Latinx wore an eye-popping Mexican or Guatemalan jacket, so 3-D in its embroidery it looked like jewels that had been hot glue-gunned.
Christine Ebersole, who served to MC the gala event, a star in her own right, suggested with complete modesty that while she lip-synced as an opera singer in the film Amadeus, the awesomeness of the art form comes from the sheer power of those other singers’ pipes. Surely a great wonder of the form is how world-renowned artists can show us what the unamplified voice is capable of when projecting to hundreds, even thousands? These singers might even be considered freaks of nature, whose sound can seismically shift our insides with their vibration.
If so, we were treated to four stars of opera on this evening.
Christine Goerke, coming fresh off singing the mind-blowing x-treme sport of three Wagnerian Ring Cycles in a row at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, can tear into space with the power of her sound and might indeed vocally be capable of pushing back an advancing enemy army should the US need a secret weapon. Sitting as close as I did, I detected one of her own “secret weapons” – her inhalation. The woman breathes in and sucks up air from all the way down to New Zealand.
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The other featured diva, Latonia Moore, sadly did not get the play time of Goerke, but her singing was so powerfully rich and emotionally expressive, it made us yearn for more.
I had just seen Alan Held as the villainous Scarpia in Tosca. Whatever sound the man makes, loud or soft, ferociously attacking or velvety melodious, he makes sound both authoritative and delivered with seeming effortlessness.
Then there was Soloman Howard, who is like some meteor shower his light is so bright as he bursts onto the greatest opera house stages. But as it was pointed out, a hometown boy, he came up through WNO’s Domingo Cafritz apprentice training program, and “we saw him first” – as a lion, a king, and a giant. When for this event, he delivered a great Verdi bass aria, showing the convergence of art and politics in extremis, and he dove deep to deliver that final ringing bass note, it’s as if he plunged down into some special ring of hell reserved only for the bravest.
So it’s their special sound to us, but what is it to them? I mean, what makes Latonia Moore, a Texas girl with music roots in her Black Baptist church, loving gospel and jazz, turn to love and deliver Italian opera? How can a guy like Alan Held, who hails from Wichita, Kansas, become one the world’s most sought after baritone-basses and, singing in German, an expert of the Wagnerian canon? Why does DC native Soloman Howard choose a career singing music of mostly dead white males? And what’s up with the Goerke woman? – what’s her attraction night after night to sing her guts out then often immolate herself, following a hero like Siegfried into the flames?
Fans of opera, it appears, can come from anywhere and from all walks of life. And maybe it’s about more than the individual voice.
On hand in a masterful demo enters El Maestro. Evan Rogister is WNO’s newly named permanent conductor. He was in his element at the Gala, with the full WNO orchestra on the stage displayed for all to see. Is this what makes real men weep and women swoon – the power of so many forces of music assembled? It was delicious, and the orchestra has never played better, especially pleasing in the Intermezzo Cavalleria rusticana. (We were promised that we should be gifted an annual concert by the Washington National Opera up on stage in full sight, rather than tucked below in the pit, and I say yes to that.)
Rogister is an event in his own right. His gangly body emphasized by the fashionably short, cuffed trousers and frock coat; he appeared to be part arachnid in his well-articulated appendages, reminding one of nothing so much as a Tim Burton character. His whole body seemed to undulate, swoop, and pounce in getting the attacks and power he demanded from his musicians.
So, are we still asking, what makes a devoted opera fan? We might take a lesson from a man who was very much honored in the gala evening, John Pohanka. He comes to opera an unlikely devotée. I believe I heard it correctly that, with an eighth grade education, he started an automotive business. But at age seventeen, he saw his first opera, and he was smitten.
He not only became a convert, he became a zealous proselytizer and has served on the WNO Board of Directors for almost 30 years. His daughter-in-law introduced him and extolled the energy and enthusiasm of this man in the name of opera. She admitted herself to have come from a household where the musical influence ran more to Johnny Cash, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. But that was before Pohanka took her by the hand and schooled her. Now, she told us, she can speak as an opera aficionado, noting that such-and-such work is “only five and a half hours,” and that “of course, the man goes on singing; he was only stabbed twice.”
It’s the package, the union of the arts, Pohanka had told her. The composer Richard Wagner called it “Gesamtkunstwerk,” one of those German compound that says and means “puts it all together.” Wagner forged work after work in his vision for a form where text, sound, visual design, and ideas might come together.
When Pohanka stood up and moved to the microphone to say a few words on his own, he brought tears to my eyes with his humor, his self-effacing modesty, his depth of knowledge, and his sheer love for the form.
Over the years, Pohanka has convinced both car dealer colleagues and more than a few bankers to put their money where his mouth is. (And he helped WNO surpass their gala goal of one million dollars that was rounded up as we listened to a neat $2.4 million through a challenge grant.) And, if any needed further convincing with the evening’s program, he reiterated his important message, “It’s all the parts coming together. And at its best, there is no form like it.”
There were so many moments this evening where his summation held up. Projections served as simple scenic backdrops to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, and the singers masterfully used the backdrops as focus to throw themselves into the full emotional content of their arias. Alan Held against a great starry night sang as the greatest king of the gods, “when night shrouds the earth” as if he were caressing every part of his creation (as he used to full effect those German vowels.) Nobody conveys text better in the opera world.
Soloman Howard “crossed-over,” musically speaking, to sing “Some Enchanted Evening” from the great American musical, South Pacific, first holding us in suspense as he stared upstage into a sunset, as the sun began to plunge into the ocean.
Moore’s aria from America’s great opera, “Since I Lose my Man” from Porgy and Bess, showed off the soprano’s almost magical vocalize, bending notes and grieving in the key of the blues. Then she built a powerful arc, leaving everything on the stage as only sopranos can, and the “bravas” were deafening.
Then Goerke walks onto the stage, and I swear the audience almost pitied her. (“How do you follow that?” we were all asking.) She calmly gave Rogister on his podium a brief high-five and then pulled out what you might call a dueling divas’ moment – nailing a kickass Brunhilde and bringing down the house.
An enjoyable surprise of the evening came when Held and Goerke entered wearing feathery boas, his scarlet and hers peacock blue, and launched into the Pappageno-Pappagena duet from The Magic Flute. To see these two, known more for darker, dramatic roles, ham it up and create bits of comic business and sing with effervescent sweetness. Their poppa-poppa-poppings were like delicious bubbles released throughout the Opera House and brought laughter and more cheers to the affair.
All these moments were delivered by opera’s equivalent of Olympic standards.
But let’s not forget Ebersole, who did double duty the whole evening. She entertained us with one of the evening’s lighter moments in the Kurt Weill number, “Jenny.” She may have delivered her art form of musical singing with the standard support of a microphone, but what accomplished phrasing this stylist has, and a truly lyrical and expressive voice. Later she showed us her emotional effectiveness with “On a Clear Day.”
If these weren’t riches enough, ambassadors from eighteen countries and the Organization of American States stepped up to “partner” WNO by hosting dinner parties at their residences following the gala.