This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I ran into an old friend at a Clayton Starbucks the other day, a fervent opera aficionado and Opera Theatre of St. Louis fan, a man whose family lives and breathed opera, promoted it passionately when he was growing up and continues to support it enthusiastically now. He’s a partisan, and this time of year he is busy bringing his particular talents and expertise into play to help move things along.
In about as long as it took the barista to concoct a skinny latte with an extra shot of espresso he gave me his assessment of this, Opera Theatre’s 38th season. Just about everything is terrific, he said; “Love those Pirates”; but he allowed as how “The Kiss,” which opened Sunday, is a snoozer.
Bedřich Smetana and librettist Eliška Krásnohorská’s opera is long on beautiful music and short on dramatic substance.
The story unfolds in the Bohemian countryside. Everyone in the show seems to belong to the peasant class, one rung or another of it, even a gang of smugglers that appears out of nowhere in the middle of the show as a sort of distraction or as an attempt to inject a bit of exotic excitement.
Because everyone is pretty much on an even social playing field, there is no need to assault the barricades of class segregation. The conflicts, therefore, are strictly interpersonal and microcosmic. The two leading characters are a young widower named Lukáš, who loves Vendulka, whose reservations about involvement with him include a refusal to kiss him.
It’s a flimsy thread to hang an entire opera upon, even one hanging in the middle of an art form rife with flimsy dramatic threads. Furthermore, today, this no-kiss zone seems mighty bizarre, rather like chaperones and love seats. But in the mid-19th century, when this opera was first brought to the stage in Prague, a time so very different from ours, audiences attending the numerous performances of it must have been familiar with (if not respectful of) the value of this sort of formality and extraordinary sexual propriety. Sure enough. Vendulka’s no-kiss policy was maintained until a happy ending with Lukáš.
Reduced to essentials, that’s “The Kiss,” except for the smugglers who add nothing other than a distraction from the foolishness of the plot. Having seen the show Sunday, I say my friend’s assessment was correct. Snoozer it is, or snoozer with qualifications.
The singing was memorable, after all, and when all memories of disagreements about kissing or not kissing have faded into the special obscure place where flimsy opera plots go to rest, there will remain the beautiful singing of Smetana’s seamlessly controlled and genuinely magnificent music.
Now, should one care enough to takes this opera completely out of context and places it in a bell jar, the snoozer judgment would certainly obtain, especially in this production, which yanks the show from the 19th century (where it belongs) to the mid-20th and dresses it down accordingly. If one looks beyond all those Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy dresses and skinny lapels, there is a broader historic context. And approached that way, “The Kiss” assumes a greater dignity and perhaps a greater relevance, and, yes, certainly, a measure of human importance in the great sweep of 415 years of opera-producing history.
This is because Smetana was profoundly deaf when “The Kiss” was composed. As with Ludwig van Beethoven a half a century or so before, the Czech composer’s immediate reaction to having gone deaf was a descent into a not-surprising depression.
But as did Beethoven, Smetana transcended his deafness and soldiered on, and composed numerous new works, including two other operas and the magnificent set of six symphonic poems, “Má Vlast,” generally considered his greatest accomplishment.
The fresh, splendid, exultant singing of the appealing cast and the fact that “The Kiss” offers a picture, however fragmented, of rural life in Eastern Europe and the courage and persistence of its composer help us to tease value from this show.
Yet I am left wondering why the considerable forces and resources necessary to bring an opera to the stage are devoted to somnolent trivialities such as “The Kiss” that affect the intellect and the consciousness so ephemerally.
I know about balancing darkness and light in a show-business season, and understand completely the imperative to sell tickets. Both are vital considerations, and the company’s attention to its bottom line and efficiency is commendable. Juggling artistic and financial pressures is an art form itself. Yet having been there once, it seems a more thorough combing the music library just might yield something more satisfying than “The Kiss.”
I am inclined, however, to forget “The Kiss” and to pay attention to the messages of “Champion,” the triumphant opera given its world première Saturday evening.
This extraordinary opera, reviewed yesterday by the distinguished author and critic Harper Barnes, is the work of many minds and many hands.
Yet one must marvel once again at the sheer courage of Timothy O’Leary, the company’s general director, and his staff not only for seeing to the creation of such an affecting and stimulating work of art but also for bringing to the public an opera that digs fearlessly and deeply into the complexities of subjects and behaviors considered taboo a decade ago.
“Champion” demonstrates art’s power to continue the forward progress of social change and to shine the light of justice and human kindness on those who experienced the performance, and those with whom the experiences gained are shared.
The reactions were clear as the audience left the opera house Saturday night. As much the opera moved members of its audience to speak of having been transfigured on Saturday evening, “Champion” effectively moved the needle -- now, and, one hopes, for all time.