The classics. The very mention -- be it literature, orchestral music, or opera -- guarantees some resistance. Especially this time of year, when school's almost out, there's still mud on your shoes from the Beale Street Music Festival, and the barbecue contest is barely over. Yet this weekend's "All the Good Stuff!," a collaboration between Opera Memphis and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, is the perfect event to temper this season of pop-culture overload.
And, insists Stephen Carey, Opera Memphis' assistant conductor, it won't hurt one bit. "Whether or not they realize it, people know these tunes. Everyone's exposed to the classics through venues like TV commercials, movies, and cartoons," Carey says.
"An interesting example that's pretty recent is the movie Closer. The music used in the soundtrack came from Mozart's opera Cosi Fan Tutte, and the film has a similar plot," he says, describing the entangled roles of dual couples/unfaithful lovers played onscreen by Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, and Jude Law.
As Carey is quick to point out, Closer's Mike Nichols isn't the only contemporary director to use classical music in his films: Hollywood A-listers Peter Jackson and Martin Scorsese have both mined material from composers such as Verdi, Wagner, and Mascagni to great effect and multiple Oscar nods.
Jackson, director of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, used Wagner's Ring cycle, and in an interview broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera last February, Scorsese talked about how the Mascagni opera Cavalleria Rusticana assisted the process for his 1981 Academy Award-winning drama Raging Bull even before he began directing the movie.
"[It] was a vehicle for me," Scorsese said. "I imagined stories. I imagined camera movements. I was putting stories together in my head to this music. It touched a certain emotional chord."
Scorsese went on to employ Mozart's early symphonies for his 1985 flick After Hours and his '90 mob film Goodfellas. He also used Bach and Beethoven to tell the story in last year's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.
Raging Bull is one thing. Bugs Bunny is another. The "wascally wabbit" took on the classics in such madcap vehicles as "Rhapsody Rabbit" and "Long-Haired Hare," then destroyed Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, and Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" in the episode "Rabbit of Seville."
Lots of other Warner Bros. cartoons use opera. Elmer Fudd gets tortured by Sylvester, who sings Figaro's aria, "Largo al Factotum," Brahm's "Lullaby," and a sextet from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in "Back Alley Oproar," while Fudd later rips through several Wagner operas (including The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Die Walküre) as he hunts down Bugs Bunny in "What's Opera, Doc?"
"With 'All the Good Stuff!,' we're trying to stage the classics in as relaxed a setting as possible," Carey says, explaining that obvious crowd pleasers like "Largo al Factotum," "Caro Nome" from Verdi's Rigoletto, and other signature pieces -- including a set of Gilbert and Sullivan songs -- have been culled from larger works for an evening of entertainment that even the most casual music fan can appreciate.
According to Carey, Opera Memphis constantly battles its image as an elitist organization. "That's a misconception," he says firmly. "Few people realize that, thematically, we're on the same level as popular music. Attending an opera is similar to going to a musical or a play. More people should give it a chance."
The company does whatever it can to make opera music more accessible. "We do touring shows like Aesop's Fables for elementary school students and a program called Operatizer for high school kids," Carey says. "Our artists-in-residence ensemble travels as far east as Nashville, north to Missouri, south to the Mississippi Delta, and west to El Dorado, Arkansas, doing these concerts -- about 75 performances per season.
"For adults, we have preview parties before each opera, which take place in a rehearsal setting. By seeing the development process, people can recognize the similarities to other staged productions. We also have educational outreach concerts in places where you wouldn't expect to hear classical music, like the Tunica Museum in north Mississippi or the newly restored Fair Theater in rural Somerville.
"It's harder here in the U.S.," admits Carey, who spent two seasons working in Graz, Austria, under the aegis of the American Institute of Musical Studies, which stages numerous classical concerts throughout the summer months. "Most European towns will show a major symphonic work or opera on the town square every weekend. It's just like going to any other music festival, but they feature classical entertainment." n
"All the Good Stuff!," featuring artists-in-residence Erica Cochran, Nathan Wentworth, David Schmidt, and Piper Pack with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, will be Saturday, May 21st, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 22nd, at 3 p.m. at the Clark Opera Memphis Center. For more information, go to OperaMemphis.org.