When I was invited to attend John Adams’ critically acclaimed opera re-imagining Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, I was cynical. Opera: it’s going to be too long, too late at night.
But as the curtain opened, Cleopatra’s performance took the audience like a California wave takes a Minnesota tourist. From Act One, Antony and Cleopatra are fickle and determined in equal measure. They remind you of yourself.
La Traviata (yes, I know so little about opera that I googled “famous opera”) this was not. It’s more in line with a Christopher Nolan movie.
I thought It would be a Shakespeare play. With stanzas that hit hard, but also with characters who drink poison kinda willy-nilly.
Adams lassoes the moon and packs the language, characters, and epic plot into a relatable, energetic box. Antony and Cleopatra rule empires. They cleave the world with their passion and romance. They also understand what it’s like to wake up with sleep in your eye, hear your partner flatulate, and fall deeper in love.
The heavy lifting is in equal parts the performers, the set design, and the orchestra, though to ignore the lighting designer or any one of the many opera-magic-making geniuses would be a sin. It’s the medley that makes the meal so delectable. If you're a creative who doesn't consider the Opera for inspiration, now might be the time, regardless of your chosen medium.
I’d like to feature every facet. The military costumes, Cleo’s gowns, the minimalist backdrops, the mind-blowing interplay between the music and the actors. But to keep things article-length and emphasize the sort of innovation that is going on in modern Opera. I want to take a minute to describe the unseen, and most-seen, star of the show, the set.
Antony and Cleopatra unfolds, or is revealed, or perhaps it unlocks. The set consists primarily of gigantic black panels overlayed and staggered. They shift and turn to create different spaces for different acts. The movement is not hidden behind a curtain, it invites the audience to watch. You never know when and how the parts will move or which panel will open. It’s like watching a play inside of a wooden Japanese puzzle box. Once opened, the spaces are stripped to their most fundamental elements. A single bed in one, a simple chair in another, battle scenes that are so complicated they look simple. Other spaces have no accents at all. Just a few stairs made of black wood for the singers to work with.
That’s not even a snack - not even a cheese cube - of how ingeniously the stage is used. With every movement it highlights the costumes, the music, and the performances.
I encourage everyone who has not seen opera with the exception of an obligatory sophomore year AP English field trip to check out your local offerings. Chances are good there have been modernizations to your local theaters’ opera in the last few years.
The centennial celebration of the SF Opera is as good an excuse as any, but for readers beyond the Bay Area: go ahead and find your local opera. I can assure you they have been inspired by Adams’ and similar works, and your local performances have probably been elevated to a place you never knew you were missing.
Check out www.metopera.org for local resources.
Or feel free to call the bigger operas. Don’t be shy. SF Opera has an enthusiastic phone bank of volunteers who will happily talk to you for 40 minutes about their King Charles Cavalier (Nancy, if you read this, thank you so much for your time, and I hope Lady MacBeth is doing better with her ear medicine!)
Tickets are cheaper than ever, and most theaters offer discounts for students, seniors, groups, and even young professionals. You can also get same-day standing room tickets in many places, SF Opera offers them for only $10!