Opera and classic rock met up on Thursday night at the Tower Theatre thanks to Fresno Grand Opera’s presentation of “Opera Remix.” You might even call it a first date.
Were there sparks? Quite a few, thanks to the company’s gregarious, inclusive efforts to attract new audiences to opera as an art form. Awkward moments? A fair number — partly because it wouldn’t be a first date without them, but also because while the “Opera Remix” concept in theory sounds daring and exciting, the reality couldn’t quite match.
The idea was this: Take five operatically trained singers and back them up with a chamber orchestra and a rock combo. Then alternate the program between famous arias and classic rock tunes. The result: feel-good operatic melodies accompanied with a slightly rocked-up orchestra; and old rock anthems arranged with a beat augmented by strings and brass.
The best part of the evening was the event’s general ambiance. It felt fun and welcoming with a casual vibe and welcoming spirit. Participating in an experiment is a great way for an audience to feel on the inside.
The company’s general director, Matthew Buckman, had quite a busy evening. Not only did he act in his planned role as emcee, he also had to step in at the last minute as conductor when Stuart Sims — the co-creator along with Buckman of the Irvine Foundation-supported “Opera Remix” concept — fell ill.
Buckman did a valiant job keeping the evening running smoothly, and while there were some ragged moments musically, the “show must go on” mentality prevailed.
As for the arrangements themselves: Some worked for me and some didn’t. You’ve probably felt the same way hearing a cover of a famed rock tune and either loving it or hating it. An iconic rock tune can be a very personal experience wrapped up in emotions and memories.
For me, the Remix rendition of Journey’s “Faithfully” was drained of vigor and passion, rendering it little more than an inert puddle. And Styx’s “Come Sail Away” seemed pretentious and silly, coming across less as a powerful anthem and more a father-daughter show choir duet.
But other rock arrangements had more power and punch. My favorite, even though it was roughly executed, was a pure, piercing, haunting yet vigorous version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole.” I also liked the feel of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” with impressive guitar solos and a glossy, brassy swing.
As for the opera selections: They were generally amiable and nicely sung, although the expected challenge of balancing amplified singers with electronic instruments and a powerful brass section wasn’t always met. I liked the forceful arrangement of the Flower Duet from “Lakme.” “Nessun Dorma” brought down the house.
My opera favorite: a slightly weird, avant-garde-flecked version of “O mio babbino caro.” It sounded like something film director Wes Anderson would use, say, in a scene set in a 1950s East German high school dance involving a boy and girl wearing very thick glasses.
As the evening wore on, however, I kept picking at the concept overall. I understood the desire to add a rock quality to classic opera. But in keeping with that theme, shouldn’t the rock tunes have skipped the chamber orchestra? That way we really would have heard the juxtaposition of classically trained voices with the rawness of rock music.
I don’t think our opera-rock couple had enough chemistry to make it to a long-term relationship.
But “Opera Remix” isn’t as much about the music as it is bringing people together, making an inclusive statement, taking some of the pretension out of opera and — most of all — having fun. In that regard, the evening was a successful experiment.
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