We watch YouTube clips and listen to Katy Perry singles, but judging by the audience in the Tennessee Theatre Friday night, our generation does not, usually, go to the opera.
I know this because I was there at the Tennessee Theatre Friday night, excited to see the Knoxville Opera present Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love." Considering the Valentine's Day timing, the romantic comedy drew an unsurprisingly large crowd.
But as the lights went down and the curtain opened, I couldn't help but notice the lack of student patrons. Sure, there were a few kids from the United Residence Hall's living and learning communities scattered throughout, and I spotted a handful of students from the Chancellor's Honors Program. The rest of the audience struck me as decidedly more sophisticated than the college-aged crowd you might have encountered that same night at Tin Roof.
I have been to Tin Roof, and I have been to the opera. But contrary to what you may think, the two are not so different – both provide a spectacle.
Directed by Brian Deedrick and conducted by Brian Salesky, Friday's performance of "L'Elisir d'amore," centered on a classic love story. A country boy named Nemorino, sung to buffoonish perfection by Joshua Kohl, falls hopelessly in love with a wealthy landowner named Adina, sung by the sexily coy Stefania Dovhan. In order to woo her before she marries Sean Anderson's dreadfully pompous Sergeant Belcore, Nemorino buys the titular "elixir of love" from Dr. Ducamara, a sketchy traveling salesman sung by Rod Nelman. The elixir is actually not an elixir at all – Nemorino simply gets drunk on Bordeaux wine, and the subsequent comedy drives the rest of the show.
A guy relies on liquid courage to talk to a seemingly unattainable girl? The story may play out differently in the bars on the Strip, but the central theme remains the same as it did when "Elixir of Love" first hit the stage in 1832.
And the similarities run through more than plotlines. When Kohl sings a heart-wrenching aria in the second act, the entertainment is intentional. The symphony echoes his trailing melodies, the lighting shifts to a more somber blueish hue and the stage empties so that his grief may have room. You don't need a translation to tell you he's broken-hearted – you can hear it in the tenor's lament.
When you see that lonely heart at the bar drinking himself under the table at Hanna's or chasing freshmen girls at Rumorz, you see the same sadness. It just sounds better sung.
That's the power of an opera – it exaggerates the reality around us so as to more deeply expose the reality of ourselves. It puts a score to the heartbreaks and an extravagant costume on the background characters of our lives; when Sergeant Belcore continually fails to keep his troops from bumping into each other, it doesn't make you laugh – it tells you that you're supposed to.
I'll probably keep watching YouTube clips and listening to Katy Perry singles, and I'll certainly keep going to Tin Roof, but I hope I get a chance to see another opera, too. "Elixir of Love" demonstrated things I encounter in real life, interpreted plainly and expressed directly in a very fictional one.
It's honest entertainment, the opera.