Under the influence of an opening night full moon, everyone is in his or her own private operatic drama.
As the Bird Ladies of the Parking Lot flutter into view, all covered in feathers and not much else, the true nature of opera and opening night at the Santa Fe Opera becomes vividly clear. It is what is commonly called, I believe, "the tipping point"-that moment when things begin to unfold, or simply fall apart, depending. In this case it is the instant when you realize, if you didn't already know, that the real cultural experience is actually going on here beneath the operatic sunset and sky on the crowded tarmac, and not soon onstage.
Back in the day, and by that I mean the ol' Honoré de Balzac days and before, people went to the opera to see and be seen. Between the first and second acts you'd admire and, more importantly, be admired, flirt, chat, and then repair to the private box of friends to hear and partake of the gossip, or to the private box of your enemies to thwart and deflect the gossip.
As it turns out, things haven't changed all that much since the days of Balzac, or Monteverdi two centuries earlier. Opera is really all about op-Eros. While there are no private boxes at the Santa Fe Opera, there is the parking lot. However, there is something slightly unsettling about seeing The Elegancia in black-tie and gownless evening straps a la table, on baking asphalt amidst a couple of acres of high-priced automobilia, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As if they were at Ascot, say.
The plastic, fluted champagne "glass" is probably the apt metaphor for this cognitive dissonance. The difference between the grounds at Ascot and the "grounds" of the Santa Fe Opera can be summed up thusly: at Ascot, in the Queen's Enclosure, say, there is only one constituency. No matter who, whether an Indian doctor or a Pakistani physicist or a Soho architect, everyone is more or less the same in top hats, tails, elaborate summer dresses, headdresses, and all. Here, at the Santa Fe Opera, there are a lot of lumps in the pudding. Rather like the United States itself, there are so many constituencies and anomalies evident that it becomes a frenzied culture and breeding ground of absurdities. And because we know the opera so well, it is these anomalies that we remember, even more vividly than the opera.
Take the Bird Ladies, for instance, being shepherded around the parking lot like a bunch of chicks with a mother hen. In my new opera, The Plastic Flute, one of these feathered beauties will certainly take the role of Mamageno (with apologies to Mozart and Papageno). One can only hope to be there when she begins to molt.
Under the influence of an opening night full moon, everyone from the post-modern cowboy to the old-fashioned floozy is in his or her own private operatic drama. One thing they all exude is how great they look. Under-confidence and humility are not the virtues of the moment. We members of the Chorus look around for some space to play our own little supporting roles. Several people, one very young blonde and her Escort of a Certain Age, in particular, are on fire, and I am absolutely the only person smoking. (This must be the one great social engineering success in America. You can't kill yourself if you'd like, or even save your mental health, by smoking cigarettes, but you can endanger the lives of everyone else whenever you want by getting in a car and driving around while talking on a cell phone, thus rendering yourself the equivalent of drunk. Whatever.)
And then of course there is the opera. And what about it?
"Dreams, illusions, and castles in the air, I'm truly a millionaire," sings Rodolfo in Act I of Puccini's La Bohème. This crowd, however, has no interest in castles in the air, not in such close proximity to the neighborhood of Taj Madobes-Heaven as the Never Never Land of gated-community and four-star championship golf course or two.
A few practical things to remember once the opera begins: do not, under any circumstances, turn on the LED screen in front of you. This announces to everyone around you that you don't know Italian, or the opera. Of course you don't. But you don't want to let them know that. And besides, you can actually read the translations much more easily on the LED screens in the row in front of you.
Second, maintain the strategic view and forget about opera glasses and the tactical perspective. Binoculars destroy the aesthetic illusion onstage and make it all rather like a spectacle of sport and not art. In the end, though, there's no need to worry. The opera has been with us for about four hundred years or so. We know all about that. And one thing we know for sure is that the Santa Fe Opera is still the heaviest cultural and artistic hit in the entire Southwest.