This has been a pleasant enough summer in the Big Apple, with no shortage of cultural offerings on hand, but one longstanding tradition I miss is the Met's Operas in the Parks, whose forty-plus-year history of bringing free, full-length opera performances to tri-state-area parks has to stand among the greatest gifts any arts organization has ever offered to its public.
One of the great joys of summer is listening to music al fresco — preferably on a lush lawn, with a group of good friends and a lavish picnic spread before you. There's something about the fresh air that enhances both the love of food and the food of love and makes the whole experience transcend the sum of its part. Yes, the mosquitoes can be annoying, the ground is hard and sometimes damp, and the speakers, especially if one is a bit removed from the stage, can hardly be said to transmit a lifelike surround-sound effect. Indeed, it's often hard to tell whether what one is hearing is a transcendent performance by a great virtuoso or something more run-of-the-mill. Worst of all, the company outside one's own blanket can be noisy and noisome. We've all had to sit next to the chain-smokers, the chatty Cathys, the cell-phone addicts, the parents who think their children's shrieks of delight or whines of sheer boredom add something to the musical texture. Still, it is always great music being played or sung at a high level under the inspiring vault of nature, and even on occasions when all the aforementioned irritations have conspired together to detract from the hoped-for idyllic setting, I have seldom regretted spending an evening in this fashion.
Of course, New York still has the Philharmonic's summer concerts, and the Met, even in these hard times, has been generous enough to provide its own free Summerstage events, featuring up-and-coming operatic artists alongside some seasoned stars. But one of my favorite things about those complete opera evenings of yore, when I lay stretched out in the grass with thousands of my fellow New Yorkers as bel canto or verismo filled the air, was the pleasant awareness that many of my neighbors were just dipping their toes into this fabulous art form I love so much for the very first time, taking advantage of the chance to let a whole opera wash over them without having to commit to the price of a ticket or put on their Sunday best or sit still in a red plush seat for hours at a time. Despite the limitations of the sound system, a live, full-length performance gives a sense of what opera is all about that cannot be had from a concert of excerpts. (A week's worth of HD screenings on the plaza does provide the complete-opera experience, but not the thrill of living the music in real time along with the singers, or the decadence of lolling about on a blanket in the midst of a lofty cultural event.) I used to love to eavesdrop on the pre-concert and intermission conversations of my neighbors, as they tried to make sense of the often perplexing synopsis or offered their awed newbie takes on the singing, and on the astonishing scope and scale of the whole endeavor. And for every rambunctious child that spoiled my enjoyment of a favorite musical moment, there was another, rapt and open-mouthed at this novel sound-world, whose wonderstruck enjoyment exponentially multiplied my own.
It's great that some of the Met's young artists are getting a new kind of exposure via the free concerts on Summerstage. But I cannot help hoping that one summer soon the grand-scale, full-cast-and-orchestra performances that once captivated seas and seas of people on the Great Lawn will be back in business again.
— LOUISE T. GUINTHER