Arts - Opera Lost in space

Lyric Opera's Don Giovanni almost manhandles the giant Municipal Auditorium

The Lyric Opera of San Antonio has definitely come of age since its first performance in 1997. Originally a small, semi-professional company called the San Antonio Pocket Opera, the Lyric closed its 2004-05 season with a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni featuring sets from the Metropolitan Opera, its own professional orchestra, and singers with national and international reputations contracted through the Lyric's annual auditions in New York City. To top it all off, Artistic Director Mark Richter announced this spring that the Lyric will officially call Municipal Auditorium its home, beginning with last weekend's production of Don Giovanni. The performance was good, a truly professional full-scale production. But filling the cavernous space of the Municipal, either with ticket holders or singers' voices, is an ambitious undertaking. It's not just a matter of professionalism, production value, or community support. Frankly, it seems a little unfair to the performers and the accomplishments of the Lyric to have to battle the architecture.

Mayor Phil Hardberger (right) shares a toast with the Lyric Opera of San Antonio's Mark Richter during a special VIP champagne toast prior to the opening performance of Don Giovanni at the Municipal Auditorium. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Municipal Auditorium is a beautiful structure built in 1926. Since the '40s it was used as an opera venue among other things until a fire in 1979 destroyed the interior. Completely renovated and reopened in 1985, it is awe-inspiring but woefully underused. It is marketed primarily as a conference venue, but lots of people would like to see the 5,000-seat theater used for more artistic purposes. Yet, few performing arts organizations need that kind of space, and few un-amplified art forms can produce enough volume to fill the hall. Even the Lyric's orchestra, which played beautifully on Friday night, sounded muffled.

Still, the Lyric's production of Don Giovanni was excellent and the performers overcame some of the physical obstacles with sheer artistry. Puerto Rico-born mezzo-soprano Jossie Perez dominated as a fiery, passionate, betrayed Donna Elvira. A frequent performer at the Met, Perez has both the voice and stage presence to become a major opera star. Australian Rachelle Durkin graced the stage with her clear, powerful soprano voice in a convincing portrayal of the grief-stricken good girl Donna Anna, caught between a desire for happiness with her fiancé Don Ottavio and their dark oath to avenge her father's death.

All the singers were good, but ironically the male characters were a little overshadowed by the powerhouse female leads. This is a bit of a problem in a tale of male-dominated seduction and unrepentant debauchery. Terry Cook's Giovanni was vocally strong and dramatically convincing as a dismissive playboy but, up against the sexual power of Perez' Elvira, it takes a serious dose of virility and commanding presence to drive the manipulative seduction side of the story. As Don Ottavio, Matt Morgan's lovely, easy tenor voice was no match for the female leads and certainly no match for the vastness of the hall. His solos were beautiful, but in an opera with many duos, trios, and sextets it's important to have the right balance. It's also important to have the right acoustics.

So why mitigate a really good performance with such a huge space? Richter says it's sheer necessity. After several years at McAllister Auditorium, the Lyric had outgrown its 1,000 seats and limited stage. Municipal offers a 45-by-75-foot stage to accommodate lavish sets, a full orchestra pit, wings, and green rooms for professional performers and crew backstage, lighting, and sound systems - in short, everything a professional opera company could ask for. As Richter enthusiastically puts it, "It gives us plenty of space to grow into."

The Lyric uses limited seating to ensure clear sightlines for all ticket holders, and sales for Don Giovanni are encouraging. The company is also considering adding acoustic drapes to create a more contained theatrical environment, counteracting the lost sound and the sunlight that leaks in through lobby doors and balcony windows. If the Lyric can grow into this space, continue evolving into a major opera company, and lobby for improvements to one of San Antonio's landmark auditoriums in the process, I'll be there to watch.

Season tickets are available for the 2005-06 season, which will feature the Rossini's Barber of Seville, Mozart's The Magic Flute, and Lehár's The Merry Widow.

By Diana Lyn Roberts


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