Opera made thrilling, hilarious, and deeply personal.
Sometimes, doing things "the right way” means doing them the “wrong” way. Till Bleckwedel appears on stage to introduce an evening of opera. The audience is taken aback when he explains, "As you all know, THE OPERA has strict rules you must abide by.” You could hear a pin drop. A ripple of concern passes through the crowd. Most are seeing The Cast perform for the very first time. Bleckwedel manages to look even more severe and says, “Photos, videos, and mobile phones…” he takes a deep breath, “... go ahead, as much as you like. Anytime!” The audience starts to smile. As for when you’re allowed to clap, and when not: "We want you to clap when the spirit moves you. You’re also welcome to sing along, or get up and dance in front of the stage.” Keep in mind, Bleckwedel is opening an evening of opera here.
The last time a lot of us went to the opera--if ever--was when we were kids. We remember the horrors of being forced into absolute silence and the withering looks from self-proclaimed "opera lovers" at the slightest hint of a sound around them. Bleckwedel explains that, as the only German currently in The Cast, he still can’t quite free himself from German ideas about the arts. German society commonly divides music into “E-Musik” (E for “Ernst” - “Serious Music”) and “U-Musik” (U for “Unterhaltung” - “Entertainment Music”) ... as if some music has a higher purpose, and that mere, base enjoyment isn't good enough. “In other countries, especially in the United States, this question of division doesn’t even come up, which I find really nice.” Nowadays, when musicians tell him they only occupy themselves with one sort of music, “I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re artistically impotent.”
When American Bryn Vertesi and her Canadian husband, Campbell Vertesi, founded The Cast in 2012, they had this elitist perception of Classical music, and especially opera, directly in their crosshairs. In its place, they wanted to bring back the fun that composers had in mind for their audiences when they wrote their operas 200 years ago. “That’s why we design our performances around storytelling,” says Bryn Vertesi, “In traditional opera, I don’t get anywhere near the actual story. The whole cramped atmosphere holds me back. I love the music itself, just not what people have come to think of as its traditional presentation. As a singer, I am not just a vehicle for producing some notes. There’s a lot more to it than that.”
Way more to it. Especially when this enthusiastic, international group of artists--Americans and Germans, Chileans and Canadians, and sometimes Chinese or Tiroleans--come together in this ensemble. They share the passion for creating something wonderful right then and there. At first glance, it might appear that The Cast is a “Best of Opera” revue, with arias by Verdi, Puccini, or Mozart, filled out with a couple of numbers from musicals and operettas. In reality, they take this old genre apart, and reassemble it into something shiny and new, taking it places it hasn’t been, at least not recently. When was the last time you spontaneously laughed out loud in the opera? Right. But when the charming, American mezzo-soprano Anne Byrne arrives on stage telling you that Carmen is the only mezzo role who’s not a “stupid cow” or an “old witch,” you know something different is going on. She proceeds to laboriously drape herself across the piano to sing in a comic burlesque pose. The old number you’ve heard a thousand times suddenly becomes profoundly funny (and a little bit sexy), without either of those devices acting as cover-ups for vocal deficits--there are none of those to be found in The Cast.
The voices of the equally balanced sextett--three male and three female, accompanied by a pianist brilliantly replacing the orchestra--are like an extraordinary opera ensemble, but so much more entertaining. “That’s why we attract,” according to Anne Byrne, “astoundingly mixed audiences of opera lovers and others.” How can you tell who is who? Byrne grins, “You can usually tell by looking at them. When we say what we’re singing next, some faces light up, knowing what’s in store for them. I always hope for people who don’t know anything about opera, but aren’t afraid to try new things.” Byrne and the fantastic Chilean tenor, Guillermo Valdes, play the class clowns in The Cast. “I love it when people tell us that they came to the show with their father, but next time, they’re bringing their kids.”
The Cast could be considered the ultimate test for opera haters. After seeing this show, they’ll never make that claim again, no matter how firmly held their conviction once was. Till Bleckwedel makes an interesting observation about this: “You can tell people love what we’re doing, and I think that has something to do with the voices, with singing itself. Listening to the human voice moves us more than any instrument ever could.” He says he’s currently reading Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who died in 217 BC. “He talks about passion, about what makes life worth living. Right after food and sex comes song, and the facts speak for themselves.” Maybe it’s time the opera’s ‘royal reporters’ asked its prominent voices about the intersection and interaction between singing and sex. “If someone is passionate, everyone can see that in an instant. Of course, this helps a little more on stage than working at the tax office …”
By the time Campbell Vertesi is performing “Ol’ Man River,” the old barriers between the genres are long blown away. Petra--sitting next to us, from the hinterlands of Holstein--is receiving tissues from her husband to dry her tears. She says the opera always scared her away, “So stiff, so formal, so many bow ties,” but she’s wondering if she had it wrong all along. Maybe it’s like that elsewhere. Bryn Vertesi has a theory about the success of The Cast: “This is how we explain it,” she offers. “We start the evening with each of us talking about why we’re in The Cast. Our audience gets a sense of what this thing we're doing together is about. By the time we get to our grand finale, they have seen where that can lead. It’s organic, a process.” We’re not going to spoil the show by giving away what that finale is like, but we can confirm that it is indeed grand.