On a recent Saturday night along the south shore of Lady Bird Lake near Riverside Drive, an eclectic crowd shuffled together toward two very different live music experiences. A bearded skateboarder dressed in a flannel, down vest and beanie zipped politely past a round, tuxedo-clad man carrying opera glasses. As the skateboarder crossed the street to Auditorium Shores, where the second night of Fun Fun Fun Fest was in full swing, the man in the tux continued in the direction of the Long Center.
Austin is a town full of people looking for experiences and that makes it a great town for opera to thrive in.
On November 8, on the terrace of The Long Center for the Performing Arts, posh Austinites gathered around a 12-foot by 20-foot art installation of a neon-lit, glowing opera mask in celebration of the debut of Austin Opera’s 2014-2015 season and its opening production, A Masked Ball. The two-story tall, custom-welded steel mask sculpture was unveiled Saturday and will be on display for free to the public through November 15. The display also features 3D projections of life-like art scenes that wrap around the mask nightly from 6:30-10:30 pm.
The sounds of hip-hop and metal bands reverberating from Auditorium Shores mingling to create a strange mashup with the opera music coming from the pre-show performances on the terrace wasn’t a coincidence, says Austin Opera General Director Joseph Specter. This project is one of the ways that the Austin Opera (formerly the Austin Lyric Opera) is hoping to reframe the conversation around opera and engage the community in new ways.
After a rough patch in 2011-2012, the company has seen a 33 percent subscription increase over the past three years, and in October announced a new name and updated logo. One of the main goals of the rebranding is to engage a younger generation in opera. “It’s really just about exposure,” Specter recently explained over coffee. “There’s no prerequisite required to enjoy the opera."
Austin is a town full of people looking for experiences — whether it be trying new bourbons at a beautiful speakeasy or crowd surfing at Fun Fun Fun Fest — and that makes it a place where opera can thrive. "The thing that we want to emphasize is that it’s a great experience. What Austin loves is a great experience,” says Specter.
The opening night of A Masked Ball certainly proved that to be true. Inside the lobby, women wearing long gowns held masks in one hand and sipped Prosecco with another. There were top hats and bejeweled headpieces and — since it is still Austin — there were cowboy hats and jeans, too. The house crackled with an energy that seemed driven not just by excitement, but by a sense of novelty. While there was that collective buzz that comes before the very best live shows, there was an entirely different buzz from the full bars in the lobby, which allow you to bring your drinks to your seats in sippy cups and pre-order your second (or third!) drink to be waiting at intermission. (Yes, this is as awesome as it sounds.)
The show itself — which has two more performances on Thursday, November 13 and Sunday, November 16 — is the first time in eight years the company has been able to produce a show entirely of its own creation. Based on a 1792 assassination of Swedish King Gustavo at a masked ball, Verdi’s A Masked Ball is full of all the classic dramatic emotions including illicit love, loyalty and betrayal. Yes, it’s sung in Italian, but it is easy to follow along. If all else fails, the English translation is projected above the stage.
The set is a series of digitalized projections designed by renowned theater artist Wendall Harrington, whose impressive credits include the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense and the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast. The projections are digitally manipulated and blended images, gathered with the help of students in University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theater and Dance where Harrington is the guest artist-in-residence this fall. Fluid and ephemeral, the projections modernize the show without taking away from its timelessness — or the impressive cast of singing actors whose voices will be as thrilling to lifelong opera lovers as they are to first-time attendees.
If you can’t make either of the upcoming performances, there’s plenty more opera to experience this year. In January and February, Metropolitan Opera leading tenor Stephen Costello will star as Romeo in Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet. In April and May, the Austin Opera will stage Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “There’s never a bad time to come out to the opera,” says Specter, “but this is a really good time.”
A Masked Ball runs this Thursday, November 13 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, November 16 at 3 pm at The Long Center. For more information and to purchase tickets for this weekend's performances, click here or call the Long Center box office at (512) 474-5664. For general information about the Austin Opera and the 2014-2015 season, visit the website.