Arts, Culture & Media

Opera at a different scale

Story by Megan Williams, PRI's "The World"

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In a small theatre in Rome, the doomed Cavaradossi sings his final farewell to his beloved Tosca in Giacomo Puccini's popular opera. Unlike most opera though, in this production you can not only hear the anguish, but see it up close on the singers' faces.

The audience is up close, because the theater is so small. In fact, everything about the production is pocket-sized. Here at Rome's Piccolo Teatro Lirico they call it "opera in pillole."

"Opera in pillole … how do you translate that? Encapsulated operas… done in miniature with wonderfully programmed keyboards and that way can fit big orchestra in small space," says Amalia Dustin, Piccolo Teatro Lirico's mezzo-soprano.

For the past two seasons Dustin has been singing the role of servant Suzuki in the other Puccini opera put on at the theater: "Madame Butterfly." An abridged Butterfly, that is. Shortened from almost four hours to less than two.

There's also no orchestra. The theatre, with less than 200 seats, is just too tiny to fit one in. It also can't afford it.

There is a conductor, though. One who carefully points her baton at the four young musicians keying away on synthesizers. They're supposed to replicate a 60-piece orchestra, though the results are pretty tinny.

Still, Dustin says the keyboardists give the singers the support they need.

"These operas have to be sung by big voices, but still roles are dramatic, therefore need enough orchestra surrounding them to give them space to sing."

Despite some initial reservations, this 32-year-old opera enthusiast from Naples loved this version of "Madam Butterfly." Especially the beautiful images projected on stage to make up for the usual props.

She says it was hard listening to the synthesizers at first, but once the singing began, it was beautiful. She also says it was impressive they managed to create something that feels so grandiose in such a small space.

Another member of the audience is a tourist from California. She says she’s not an opera fan. But the intimacy of "Butterfly" won her over.

"I think it takes some getting used to because it’s so small and you’re used to opera being big, but once used to it more pleasurable. You feel closer to the performers."

She also didn’t mind the brevity.

"The length was great. I prefer a shorter performance myself. Especially on the derriere."

Conductor Elisa del Buono says pocket opera isn’t meant to replace the real thing, but rather appeal to a segment of the public that doesn’t have the money – or patience — for full operas.

"It's different now. A hundred years ago people spent the whole day at the opera. Times have changed and our attention spans are shorter. But for those who want the full opera experience, there are still plenty of options around.”

So, the Piccolo Teatro Lirico doesn't aim to replace the real thing. But it's discovered that its shorter, leaner version of opera has plenty of fans too.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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