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San Diego Opera: The Verdi Requiem

Part one began our interview, it continued with part two, and concludes here.

SB: Last night, for the first time in my life, I watched How Green Was My Valley. Oh my God, it’s a great movie. It takes place in a Welsh mining town and I sat there weeping through this film because I saw my mother in this movie, I saw my dad, I saw people I’ve known in my life. My family in the Pittsburgh area, of course, were all steel workers. I didn’t live it first hand but I had this experience watching this movie because I could see people that I knew and I saw myself in it. That is what it’s all about.

SDR: Do you think audiences put a barrier between themselves and opera characters because they don’t have that association?

SB: I think that most audience members never think of themselves as being intrinsically part of the performance, which they are. And I have actually said to audience members, thanked them for being such a good audience member. “What do you mean, you could see me?” Yeah I could see you, I was singing right at you, couldn’t you tell? That’s number one. When it comes to opera, I think that sometimes people don’t connect with the character perhaps because they are expressing themselves singing. Maybe that’s it.

I think that the theater can be a remarkable place to be if everything is open to everyone having an experience and to having an active experience. It’s the difference between showing and telling — very big difference. In all of the recitals I do, I keep the lights up and I don’t give any translations to texts. I do it because number one, an audience that can see one another becomes responsible to one another. I find that if the lights are up, they don’t talk as much, they’re much more active. Some people can’t take it. It really pisses them off. More often than not, they couldn’t care less if the lights were up.

But I don’t give them any texts anymore. If I’m doing something in English that is particularly difficult poetry then I recite the poetry first. I’ve been touring a recital where I sing twelve poems of Emily Dickinson, and Dickinson’s not the easiest poet. It’s the very first thing on the program and before I sing them, with my pianist, we recite all twelve poems. I want to give the audience an opportunity to react to the poetry before they hear how someone else reacted to it. In that respect they become an active audience. If you have an audience that’s just staring at the program and counting lines down to the end of the program, they’re not hearing the song. They’re just counting lines to the end of the song. I’m putting together a program that I’m going to be doing in May in San Francisco. The first half of the program’s all in French; before I sing those songs, I’m gonna recite the translations and then I’m gonna sing the song because I really believe that creates an active audience. A killer for me is a passive audience. And we, as a people, have become a passive audience.

SDR: Yeah. I mean there’s that great Tosca live from Parma with Corelli. The audience went nuts every time that dude sang. Apparently he was in good voice that night. I was kind of sad listening to it realizing I would never experience opera like that in the United States.

SB: What we’re feeding off now is sort of like the Three Tenor phenomenon, or the stadium phenomenon of opera; it’s not what it was. Now it’s about hits in a different way and audiences hear things in a different way. They are much more passive. It’s so much harder to really get to them because they’re used to information passing in front of them very quickly. They’re used to seeing a picture, anyone now can look at the TV and it doesn’t even register how many images you are seeing in one minute, any television show, I mean, you have between ten and twelve cameras?

SDR: Two or three seconds between frames.

SB: That’s it, I mean, my PBS special had twelve cameras. It looked beautiful and I was very happy it didn’t change position constantly. There was lots of beautiful fading in and it was gorgeous but you can’t look at opera that way. You can’t go into an art museum and look at art that way. You actually have to go into an art museum and stand there and look at it. To actually see a painting you have to look at it for a while. There’s so much in a piece of artwork. There’s so much that you can take from it. Opera moves at a relatively slow pace, it takes a lot longer to say something in opera than it normally does, and in some operas, even longer. We’re creating a society that needs everything to move very, very quickly. It’s like we’re all a bunch of children and if you don’t keep our attention, we’ll just move on to something else. And now that we all have smart phones and iPads and computers and God — how much multitasking are we doing?

SDR: It’s amazing what happens when we lose the power. We had a massive power loss here a few years ago. The atmosphere was so different. People came out of their homes and talked to each other and, of course, the ice cream had to be consumed before it melted.

SB: It was the same thing the last time we had a blackout in New York City. It happened just as the sun was going down, which isn’t the best time for a blackout. I was living on Central Park West at the time and I hadn’t seen that many people walking since 9/11. It was summertime and everybody was out in the park. Everybody. Mothers and aunts and uncles and everybody sitting out on their stoops, children running around the streets. Heaven!

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