'Cunning Little Vixen' Leaps Into PBS Spotlight

[photo:© Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra]
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Long before summer blockbuster films dazzled us with CGI-enhanced super-heroes and villains, audiences got their dose of spectacle at the local opera house.  For centuries, lavishly costumed singers have walked through monumental sets. 

A high-tech version of that tradition will be in the spotlight Friday, September 8 at 9pm in the ideastream documentary - Opera Reimagined: Animating the Cunning Little Vixen - which airs on WVIZ/PBS. 

Czech composer Leos Janacek wrote The Cunning Little Vixen in 1924.  The opera tells the story of the title character captured by a woodsman who wants to domesticate her. 

In the opening scene, the vixen spots something she’s never seen before - a frog - and she asks, “What is that?” 

Director Yuval Sharon can relate, "I think that’s kind of how I first responded to opera, when I was a kid - 'What is that weird thing?'  Sometimes fascination is the best entry point," he said.

Sharon tries to create fascination in his production of The Cunning Little Vixen by having the bodies of the fox, the frog, a mosquito and other creatures animated on three giant video screens.  The singing comes from actual human beings in animal masks who stick their heads through portals in one of the screens at various times from backstage. 

The production design came to Sharon from a childhood summer memory. "A cardboard cut-out that you see at the beach where you stick your head through and it looks like your body has become a muscle guy’s body, or this woman in a bikini’s body.  Everyone takes delight in that and I thought, that could be the kernel of a really interesting theatrical experience," he said.

For example, at the beginning of Act Two, an animated badger lumbers onto the screen and pauses at a precise location.  The performer sticks his head through the screen and starts arguing with the vixen.  After this testy exchange, the performer withdraws, and the cartoon badger slinks off into the woods.  This allows for cinematic scene changes.

Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser Most says this technique addresses a problem he’s long had with Janacek’s 80-year-old opera.

"Every time I have seen a production of this piece, it’s a little strange, because you have human beings trying to behave like animals.  And it’s always close to ridiculous," he said.

 The visuals were produced by a Los Angeles animation studio.  Opera has long embraced the technology of its day, says David Bamberger, who directs the opera program at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

"In the 17th century and the 18th century, the stages were very well-equipped with mechanical devices, so that the gods could descend from the clouds and you could have a very dramatic storm effect, or sinking ships, or whatever solid scene we could do, they could do actually, in some cases, better than we could do today," Bamberger said.

It’s expensive to produce opera, and the costs of mounting productions have put many local companies out of business.  At the same time, opera directors are tasked with attracting new audiences more accustomed to entertainment on screens, big and small.  For director Yuval Sharon, the secret goes back to understanding how he felt as a kid new to opera all those years ago.

"The reason I always carry that 13-year-old with me is, just thinking, 'Is there a doorway for that 13-year-old?  Or is the door too tall?'  It’s not dumbing it down, it’s not making it more accessible, it’s just realizing what’s in the piece that can speak to as many different people as possible?" said Sharon.

The producers are hoping the TV documentary on the making of Cunning Little Vixen speaks to some new American audiences.  Later this month the Cleveland Orchestra stages The Cunning Little Vixen at Severance Hall September 23, 24 & 26. Next month, the conversation continues in Europe as the Orchestra takes the show on the road for a five-city tour.

The ideastream documentary Opera Reimagined: Animating the Cunning Little Vixen, premieres on WVIZ/PBS Friday night September 8 at 9:00.

Later this month the Cleveland Orchestra stages The Cunning Little Vixen at Severance Hall September 23, 24 & 26. In October the conversation continues in Europe as the Orchestra takes the show on the road for a five-city tour.

Airdates:

  • 9/8 at 9pm on WVIZ/PBS
  • 9/9 at 1am on WVIZ/PBS
  • 9/12 at 7:30pm on WORLD
  • 9/14 at 2:30am, 10:30am and 4:30am on WORLD
  • 9/15 at 10:30pm on WVIZ/PBS
  • 9/24 at 4pm on WVIZ/PBS

 

 

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