August 5, 2009

opera in a barn

Sometimes it's dangerous to rely upon a small N. But other times, it can really pay off.

The Barns at Wolf Trap, in Vienna Virginia, is a special performance space – two eighteenth-century New England barns, relocated and repurposed, joined such that one barn houses the theater and the other barn houses the bar – that seats fewer than four hundred people. The Wolf Trap Opera Company (WTOC) is a summer opera company dedicated to the development of promising young singers. Each summer WTOC stages two or three operas in the Barns - mainly baroque operas, which were written for smaller ensembles; the "pit" at the barns is small - with three or four performances of each.

It's a treat to see opera in a hall this small, because opera is usually produced in much much larger halls. At the Barns, events onstage become more intimate and less remote. And, for each WTOC production, if you ask how many people saw that? You multiply the audience size for each performance, times the number of performances, and get a total N of a bit more than one thousand. This is maybe twenty times smaller than for a major opera company, which fills an almost ten-time-times-bigger hall for maybe three-times-as-many performances.

Having recently warned of the dangers of relying on small N in other settings, today I'd like to celebrate the small-N WTOC productions. Simply because they are consisently as good as, if not better than, anything else in the world. [I have seen in total maybe two hundred opera productions, so I am no expert. But opera is something about which I do know more than nothing, and my job at NeuroCooking is to share my opinions.] Now, just how does this happen? How is it that the thousand or so folks who sit in a wooden barn over three evenings (or two evenings and a Sunday matinee) enjoy the sublime transcendence of a totally successful integrated artistic experience - combining words and music; singing, instrumental performance, oration, acting, choreography; sets, costumes, makeup, hair, props, lighting - more so (in your reporter's opinion) than the twenty thousand folks who (pay much more to) turn out over eight nights at most fancy state-of-the-art opera houses? I think the answer lies in the training mission of the WTOC – and in their excellence.

To save money, when I was in graduate school, I had my teeth tended by the student dentists at the dental school clinic, and I had my dog tended by the student veterinarians at the veterinary school clinic. These student clinics were not quick, but they were remarkably cheap, and the care was superb. Now, the primary mission of the vet clinic, say, was, in a real sense, not to take care of my dog, but to train the next generation of vets. And to do that, they gave my dog the best care in the world. Well, I think that the primary mission of the WTOC is not to please their audience, but to help grow the next generation of singers. And to do that, they consistently give their audiences the best opera in the world.

The WTOC is remarkably selective. Reminds me of some remarkably selective doctoral programs. If you ask, why do the best students in the world go there? They go because it is the best program. And what makes it the best program? Why, in large part, because they get the best students.

NeuroCooking friends, I hope to see you next summer at the Barns.

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