Diva X

La Traviata

Minnesota Opera

The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me

Arena Theatre and School

OPERA IS AN intoxicating universe. I learned this as a 10-year-old who landed a part as a non-singing extra in a big-budget reworking of Verdi's Falstaff in Los Angeles. Spending hours backstage with large, beautiful Italian women was a revelation. One of them took me under her wing, and she was just as you'd imagine an opera diva: big, blond, with a huge laugh and fine, perfumed skin. On closing night she gave me a white rose, and then she was gone.

Afterwards I decided I would move to Italy and marry someone named Giuseppe--a whim which lasted about two weeks. In high school, my friends and I were occasionally turned on by opera: Malcolm McLaren made a record of funked-up Puccini and Bizet arias, the flamenco film version of Carmen came out, and Amadeus and A Room with a View flaunted seductive operatic soundtracks. But for me, there was no way around it: Opera was infinitely more fun from backstage.

Nevertheless, we're told opera is enjoying a nationwide renaissance among boomers and Gen Xers--Minnesota Opera sold out last season and will probably do so again this year. They, like their peers of classical music establishment, are banking on a younger audience. It may happen--operagoers nationwide between 18 and 24 increased by 18 percent between 1982 and 1992, while that age group's population decreased overall by 16 percent, according to a 1995 National Endowment for the Arts study.

At the opening night of Minnesota Opera's La Traviata, I didn't see anyone who looked under 30. And for what it's worth, while the press has made a lot of noise about opera's "multimedia" appeal to young people, this beautiful production talks down to no one. Originally conceived by renowned director/doctor/historian Jonathan Miller for the English National Opera last fall, this production is a simple rendition with lean, understated staging, elegant costumes, thoughtful small touches, and some gorgeous acting.

Brenda Harris is the show's best element as Violetta (Helen Todd performs in the alternate cast), a character who's a relief for all of us weary of that European slut/saint dichotomy. She manages to be both: a prostitute and a fine person, a sensualist and a moralist. As a member of the mid-1800s Parisian demimonde, she is asked to forsake her lover at his father's request. This being opera, she's also dying of tuberculosis. Harris's deathbed scene betrays naked terror--she really seems like a 23-year-old facing the void alone. She and her her partner, Stephen O'Mara as Alfredo, have the kind of comfortable chemistry that can't be fabricated, and O'Mara brings depth and a luscious voice to his part (making my cheeks tingle repeatedly).

Strangely, this is a somewhat dialogue-heavy affair, and the party scenes, complete with someone passed out on the couch, were a relief from its grave introspection. (My companion and I also amused ourselves by reading the projected translations as if they were fortunes from a cookie: "What's done is done. Look into the future!" "In the ecstasy of love the past is forgotten." ). But Verdi's music is lovely (if not as hummable as, say, Carmen). The orchestra sounded fine, and while I'm no connoisseur, the singing struck me as generally strong, with the occasional reminder that Harris is but a mortal in the world of opera.

During the show's quiet moments it occurred to me that boomers might love opera for the way it slows time--so unlike the speedy thrills of Hollywood product. Whatever some might say about the art form as a visually overblown, music video-like event, it really can't compete with MTV, let alone any disco or rave, for sensory overload, even at its most grandiose. In fact, opera like this production of La Traviata offers something antithetical to MTV's bite-sized aesthetics. Like a beautiful old church or temple, it reminds Euro-Americans of where they came from--even if they're not Italian or German--and is a cultural Rosetta stone for anyone interested in Western Civ 101. And like church, it reminds people of what matters--morality, love, loyalty, myth--but does so unaccusingly. If our so-called Gen X is really as spiritually starved as I sometimes feel, this is one reason we're responding to opera.

Speaking of divas, David Drake's one-man piece The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me also takes a less-is-more approach successfully. Starring Daniel Douthit, the play is a homecoming for gay white men and an educational tour of latter-day gay life for sympathetic straight folks (the club scene, the gym scene, AIDS activism, gay-bashing, etc.).

Actually, it isn't about divas at all, but a map of a man's life, from a childhood of Barbies and butterflies (played a bit too kid-ishly) to the life-after-death of those left behind by AIDS. We also see how theater has changed his life: West Side Story, A Chorus Line, The Normal Heart. Douthit stays energized throughout, loving every word of Drake's lovely, funny play. As far as I could tell on the night I went, the audience did, too.

La Traviata plays at the Ordway Theatre; call 224-4222. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me plays at the Music Box Theater; call 870-0309. Both shows run through February 2.

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