At the Academy, an opera debut

At the Academy of Music, “Oscar” made its East Coast premiere last week.

David Levy snapped his fingers and listened to the echo reverberate throughout the theater.

The chandelier hanging from the painted ceiling at the Academy of Music was the only thing left breathing among the recently buzzing seats.

The senior vice president of artistic operations at Opera Philadelphia looked out at the empty balconies and dimming lights of aisle seats. He snapped again.

Levy stood at the “sweet spot” and smiled with satisfaction when the echoed snap came back to him – he explained that the spot was the best place for singers to hear themselves at the Academy of Music – it was the perfect spot at the opera.

In its East Coast premiere at the Academy, the 2 hour, 20 minute opera “Oscar,” had been on the stage only minutes before.

“If you’re willing to let it wash over you,” Levy said, “it will really take you to a different place.”

The show tells the story of the latter part of poet, playwright, novelist, journalist and public personality Oscar Wilde’s life. Wilde, remembered for being a homosexual writer, was condemned for his sexuality and placed in prison for “gross indecency,” where he spent two years of his life.

Wilde was later released from prison and died at the age of 46 alone in Paris.

The show was co-commission and co-produced with The Santa Fe Opera, an outdoor theater, and ran until Feb. 15 at the Academy.

Levy said that opera, as an art form, “is a music storytelling spectacle.” By combining storytelling at the theater, music from the symphony and dance from the ballet, Levy said the opera heightens all three of the experiences.

“Opera explores all of these things and really takes the time to do it,” he said.

The opera showcased new performers to Opera Philadelphia’s repertoire, including David Daniels, who played Wilde.

Daniels, a counter tenor – the term for a male who sings in falsetto or in a female range – started the show with a single spotlight on him in front of the red and gold curtain.

In his high register, he sang, “Ladies and gentlemen! I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play [“Lady Windermere’s Fan”] as I do myself. Together, we have borne witness to an Immortal occasion.”

The theme of immortality was sprinkled throughout the performance – the symbolism of Wilde as a Christ figure was unmistakable.

In fact, the ending scene even reveals Wilde in an all white suit after his death, against a drab set and characters dressed in black, thanking the audience for making his name and work immortal.

The show was told by the ghost and omniscient character, Walt Whitman, played by Dwayne Croft. Croft, a booming baritone, made his Opera Philadelphia debut as well.

Whitman and Wilde met in 1882 when Wilde was nothing more than a celebrity lecturer in America. By the time Wilde’s life took a turn with his meeting of his famous lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie to those of his time, Whitman would be dead and Wilde would be very famous.

Levy, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, said he grew up as part of the opera. His parents and grandparents were an integral part of his love for the art growing up.

At the age of 6, Levy said he was already an extra in “The Magic Flute,” an opera composed by Mozart.

“So many of my colleagues are always saying, ‘I got involved when I was young,’ and I think that is so true for people who are working in the opera now,” Levy said.

As a show comprised of sung dialogue and arias, duets and ensembles with rarely any spoken dialogue, Levy said that the historical elements of the opera have begun to change for modern audiences.

At the Academy of Music, subtitles were displayed on stage, even though all of the music was sung in English.

“It’s one of those things, that the more you put into it, the more you’re going to take out,” he said.

Emily Rolen can be reached or on Twitter @Emily_Rolen

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