Other Side of the Curtain

What Really Goes On Behind the Curtain
When a Former Opera Singer Takes the Stage — as a Castle Concert Organizer?

A prince, two women, and a spell ... recipe for love and loss in Rusalka (Dana Burešová, Eva Urbanová, Valentin Prolat)

Enchanted Evenings

By Elizabeth Haas

The connection between setting and repertoire can be powerful: La Traviata at the amphitheater in Verona. Tosca lakeside at Bregenz.

Don Giovanni at Průhonice Zámek?

Indeed, the recent gala opera concert at Průhonice’s medieval castle complex, a stone’s toss from Prague, joins the Continental tradition of staging opera in glorious locales.

So why did baritone Vratislav Kříž, who performed the opera classics on the boards inside the National Theatre for 25 years, decide to produce open-air opera highlights for non-connoisseurs?

“Organizing an open-air opera project is a huge undertaking that needs to be prepared for months,” Mr Kříž admits. But, he says, “In 2004, my friend, who used to be a castellan [castle overseer] at Jindřichův Hradec, told me about the opera performances there in the 1950s with the soloists of the National Theatre in Prague. I come from South Bohemia and I love to return there. So I thought it’d be great to bring back that (opera) tradition.” Mr Kříž established Agentura Croce, devoted to producing concerts in glorious venues.

The agency’s Opera Czech Republic presents light summer concerts with familiar melodies — Mozart, Puccini, Bizet. “These composers are more suitable for this than Janáček, who is considered a composer for connoisseurs,” Mr Kříž explains.

What’s so unique and special about opera highlights presented outside a traditional concert hall?

Dramatic fun with Rigoletto - Ivan Kusnjer, Valentin Prolat

“In 2009 at Konopiště during the big Rusalka moon aria, there was a moon above the lake and it was just a mystic scene,” he recalls. “Last year at Jindřichův Hradec, we played The Barber of Sevilla and a light shower began just as we started the overture. Once it ended, so did the rain. What a sight––hundreds of synchronized colorful umbrellas going up then going down again!”

And even animals can get into the act. “We had a circus crew last year in Bartered Bride with animals and artists,” he says. “For many kids, this was their first opera experience and they loved it, so they will probably come again.”

Rain, Rain, Go Away?

There is a down-side, Mr Kříž admits: “So far we’ve been lucky with the weather, but visitors who come to this kind of performance are more ‘weather-proof.’ Our regular visitors know that warm clothing is a must!” Information on the company’s website warns that any performance may have to be moved indoors, according to the weather. He adds that the only other requirement is to always have the orchestra under cover, because of their instruments.

Last weekend at Průhonice, it appeared that the audience would be in for an evening spoiled by rain and cold, so at the last moment the performance was moved indoors. And then — of course — it didn’t rain. Any unhappy customers received a refund of their ticket price upon request, according to Margareta Křížová, marketing and public relations director.

To perform outdoors, the orchestra doesn’t have to play any differently than in a theatre, Mr Kříž says, because the Opera Czech Republic performances take place in venues with good acoustics. In addition, the orchestra usually rehearses first in a theatre. Only the last, general rehearsal is held right at the open-air venue, necessary for setting up and adjusting the lighting and sound.

Opera Czech Republic presents Don Giovanni at Jindrichův Hradec

The success of the Jindřichův Hradec concert (scheduled for Aug 27), now in its eighth year, has also led to annual performances at Konopiště (July 2), and now the addition of Průhonice. “For two years, together with the town, we’ve been organizing Christmas concerts in the Knight’s Hall. These concerts have been sell-outs, so we thought it would be great to use the ambiance of the castle court yard to organize a big gala opera evening,” he comments.

Old Friends Reunite

At Průhonice, Kříž took the stage with Prague opera luminaries Andrea Kalivodová, Alžbeta Polačková, and Tomáš Černý, accompanied by the National Theater orchestra. “They are top singers, and we sang together many times in opera performances,” Mr Kříž notes. “The chemistry is always important and it works great among us. We always enjoy being on the stage together.

Eternal love portrayed in Rusalka at Konopiště

“I remember singing Přemysl in Libuše with Eva Urbanová on the open-air stage in Litomyšl,” the National Theatre veteran, now a “freelancer,” continues. “People loved it. Or the Šárka opera organized every year by Prague 6. I sang Jakobín there, and the atmosphere was just different even for us, the singers.”

Promoting Czech opera abroad via outdoor performances there is another dream for Kříž, whose superstitious nature prevents him spilling too much about future plans to do so. For now, he’s pleased to count visitors from Austria among audiences who come to experience Smetana and Mozart in enchanted settings, along with plenty of local folks and their families.

“I think people simply like a different experience. They know how the opera looks like in the theater. But in the garden? By the lake? This is a distinct summer pleasure.” – oo

Photo Credits: Opera Czech Republic

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