Memories Above the Seat

7 February 2013 in Music, Theater

I attended West Edge Opera’s Poppea this past weekend and was reminded how much I enjoy the little companies, the ones that reside in the cracks between the Bay Area’s more venerable institutions. In a small theater (Poppea was presented at El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater) I can sit in the cheapest seats (a comparable row at War Memorial would command a premiere price) and feel an immediate connection to the performers onstage. The company, in turn, can articulate character, style, setting, and ensemble in ways that might be lost in a three-tiered grande opera house. Granted, this production of Poppea was pared down in terms of both the script and the cast (seven singers, two acts, and a nimble seven-person baroque band) but that served to imbue the melodrama with playfulness. I can only imagine Poppea, in larger forces, as a fierce moral and political construct. Serious, and thoughtful, but maybe far less fun.

It’s with the small productions that I find myself “imagining” afterwards about the things “I would have done differently,” to a much greater degree than when I hear professional companies such as San Francisco Opera. I feel, somehow, that I’ve been given the green light to participate. While Lucas Krech’s grid-like video backdrop, for example, helped fracture the timeline, easing the 17th-century tale into the 1960s, its looping, distorted, clips felt a little more 2013 than mid-century modern. The high-contrast images never stopped moving, and the constant flickering layer of imagery just behind the scene(s) onstage sometimes distracted. A few well-chosen still shots might have given punctuation and dynamic shape to what was essentially an added character (or two). But there I go, directing.

The morning following the show, I delighted in this serendipitous commentary by Pete Miller on the importance of sending the audience out of the theater with memories … and a desire to communicate them. He, too, acknowledges how performers can turn the tables on the audience, empowering the concert- (or theater-) goer to participate, engage, and further the experience of something ephemeral. For me, this tends to happen with smaller productions à la West Edge Opera’s Poppea.