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A Magical Evening of Renée Fleming

By | January 28, 2009
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I am scribbling notes for this blog from Orchestra Prime seat G22 at the Metropolitan Opera. The gorgeous Swarovski crystal chandeliers have begun their ascent to the ceiling of this vast and grand auditorium, the lights are dimming, the maestro is about to appear in the orchestra pit.

Our Smithsonian travelers –   25 of us who have gathered from all over the country for four days of opera – are totally primed to experience the magnificent Renée Fleming as Thäis – a fourth-century Egyptian courtesan who is transformed into a true believer by a monk and enters a convent somewhere deep in the Sahara desert. The monk, Athaneal, belatedly acknowledges his love for her and is tormented by his unrequited passion. Not a likely story? Well, they seldom are – but with 19th-century opera, we are talking about grand emotions and larger than life characters, not cinema verité.

On tour, opera expert Arthur Kaplan met with us this morning to sketch out the story, putting Thäis and Athaneal into historical context, discussing composer Jules Massenet, and playing key arias and recurring themes, or leitmotif. Arthur manages to be both inspirational and totally methodical in sketching out the characters and their emotional journeys on a big chart with brightly colored pens. He told us why Thäis demands singers of the highest calibre (watch for Fleming's ascent of the grand staircase and the high C she unerringly hits at the top). He easily imparts his love of opera, but he also insists that you know exactly where you are in the story. Bless you, Arthur! I really need both.

This is my fourth opera tour with a Smithsonian group. I love having Arthur's guidance, and our great seats, available through our membership with the Metropolitan Opera. I never tire of the behind-the-scenes access we offer - our backstage tour of the Met provided a firsthand view of the dizzying array of talent necessary to get an opera onto the stage.

It's always a pleasure to join Smithsonian travelers - they are so varied and interesting! Among us, there were folks who were seeing their first operas ever and seasoned operagoers who not only love the Met, but also support their hometown opera companies. Your experience level was not important. What was important was that everyone was open, friendly, curious, outspoken, and full of questions and comments. We all became fast friends.

The nights are long at the Met – we never got back to our hotel before 11:30 p.m. – but for some of us, the end of the opera was far from the end of the evening. We’d repair to the cozy bar on the hotel’s second floor, and talk excitedly about what we’d just seen over martinis, brandies, or wine. Personally, I find these late-night conversations to be really rewarding. Fresh insights abound, and the stimulation of hearing one another's thoughts actually coaxes reactions from me that might not otherwise have surfaced.

Tomorrow we will be back in Orchestra Prime, awaiting the rise of those splendid chandeliers. The curtain will rise on Franco Zefferilli’s beloved production of La Bohème. Rudolfo will tear up his manuscript for the umpteenth time and toss it into the fire to produce a few moments of heat. We’ll be well-prepared to embrace Puccini’s iconic masterpiece, and to swill another post-opera drink while we toast the singers and musicians who brought such improbable stories to life!

Learn more about performing arts tours here.

Do you enjoy the performing arts? What's the best performance you've attended? Share your comments below.

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Amy Kotkin was Director of Smithsonian Journeys, the educational tour program of the Smithsonian Institution. She joined the Smithsonian in 1974 and retired in 2013. Over her 35 years of service she developed a wide range of educational benefits for Smithsonian members nationwide.

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