Thursday, February 22, 2007

Turning a La Scala Tradition on its Ear.

As I prepped for my shift this morning with the BBC World Service in the background, my ears perked up at the mention of La Scala. The host was saying the world's premiere opera house has all sorts of rules, such as: you can’t wear purple there (I wish he said why!), and no encores, except on special days.

Bear in mind, an encore in an Italian opera house is not the same as an encore in most places – that is, at the very end of the concert. Rather, their version of an encore (a French word) is called bis (the Italian word for again, as in biscotti, the twice-baked cookie.) The bis is done in the manner of an instant replay. The audience doesn’t want to wait for the very end of the opera (or even an act of the opera). So with prolonged applause, cheering and calls of “bis! bis!” the conductor picks up the aria again, and the singer pipes up - this time usually out of character. I’ve read that the bis has been requested at the end of a death scene, which entails the now-dead character resurrecting temporarily to appease audience demand, then reassuming the death pose when the opera action resumes. As I’ve noted in previous posts, ludicrousness is just one of the things that make me love opera so! But Toscanini hated the way these encores broke the flow of an opera and put a ban on the practice.

Anyway, back to this week’s breach of the 74-year old bis ban.

On Tuesday night’s performance of La Fille du Regiment by Donizetti, rising Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez stirred the La Scala crowd in the aria Ah mes amis that has NINE high C’s! Count them! The applause went on for four, five minutes. The conductor caved. Picked up the baton, Juan let ‘er rip – and Toscanini rolled in his grave.

The BBC talked to opera critic Michael White about the incident this morning. He’s always very entertaining. He said Juan Diego Florez has immense appeal. “He looks like Errol Flynn,” said White.

As a point of comparison, White mentioned another top-notch young tenor, the Mexican Rolando Villazon, every bit as accomplished as Diego Florez. But, White said, he's not likely to cause the same stir, because "he looks like Mr. Bean!”

You decide.