Monday, September 12, 2011:Opera in the Wild

The official symbol of Šárka Park's opera, a mask first used in 1913. The program is on its reverse side.

Opera in the Wild

Although set in the 15th century, the outdoor performance of Bedřich Smetana’s opera Dalibor in the natural amphitheatre of rugged Šárka Park in Prague 6 was not without modern inconveniences. But the 14,000 people and assorted creatures that saw the performance last week on what was possibly the last tropical day of a somewhat dreary summer, were definitely at ease.

The opera itself is a Czech classic in three acts. First performed at the New Town Theatre on the 15th of May, 1868, the opera was initially criticized for being overly influenced by German opera. Smetana passed away thinking it was a failure, but its revival in 1886, two years after his death, showed it to be a success, and it went on to be produced in Zagreb, Munich, and Hamburg in the 1890s.

The story is that of Dalibor of Kozojed (who was operating around the year 1490), a Czech knight who is accused of attacking the town of Ploškovice and killing the burgrave. Initially he is sentenced to life in prison by King Vladislav II. When attempts to free him are discovered, he is sentenced to immediate death. When the string of his violin snaps – an ill omen – he is unable to signal his followers and a tragic conclusion ensues during the final skirmish.

The poster for this year's edition of an old tradition, opera in the park

In its heyday between 1913 and 1922 (excepting the war years of WW1), Šárka Park played host to 16 performances of Czech classic operas of the National Theatre. At that time there was seating in the park for 10,000 and standing room for another 8,000 people, which considerably dwarfs the seating capacity of the National Theatre. For financial reasons, performances were discontinued in 1922.

The modern history of opera in Šárka dates back to 2005 when the tradition was resurrected by Prague 6. It hosts an opera here every year on the first Sunday in September. But today’s amphitheatre would be practically unrecognizable to audiences from the past: the dressing rooms, orchestra and sound booth are scattered about in tents, and there is no seating for the audience. People find places to sit on the ground among either fruit trees or forest which were planted to manage environmental concerns. Both for financial and recreational reasons, the amphitheatre will not be restored to its original form.

Dogs and children are welcome, and those who do not bring a picnic lunch may find typical Czech fast food refreshments: mainly hotdogs and beer. Of course this means that the usual somber and quiet setting of a dark stuffy opera house is contrasted by sunlight and open skies; the arias are interspersed with dog barks, children crying, insect attacks, airplane and helicopter flyovers, and even punctuated by gunshot-like crackles whenever someone accidentally kicks into one of the microphones.

For both actors and audience, the proximity adds a new dimension. When The Bartered Bride was performed here during the early 1900s, not only did 600 extras take part, but also the sheep and goats of the local breeders. The Sept 4, 2011 performance of Dalibor included three beautiful horses for the King and his entourage to ride in on. People were easily able to approach the performers for autographs and photos as everything was at ground level.

The open air performance of Dalibor was very well received, matching the attendance record of 14,000 from two years ago. This is more than twice the number of people (5,000) that came to the first-ever modern day performance in the amphitheatre. And at that time only 1,000 were expected.

Evidently, with an event so popular, organizers may soon need to scare people off … perhaps by having someone kick more microphones. – oo

– Hana Škrdlová

Photo Credits: Top: Hana Škrdlová; bottom, Prague 6

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