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Robert Lyall: Bringing a New Take on Opera to New Orleans

by Brian Scott  Lipton
Contributor
Wednesday Aug 7, 2013
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Even after one phone conversation, I would be hardly be surprised to learn that Robert Lyall goes to bed thinking about opera, dreams about opera, and wakes up thinking about opera. Not only has Lyall been the General Director of the New Orleans Opera Association since 1998, but he has also spent the past quarter century deeply immersed in the world of this historic art form, working with leading companies -- as both artistic director and conductor -- such as Opera Grand Rapids, the Mississippi Opera, Knoxville Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and many more.

Still, little seems more important to Lyall than exposing the citizens of the Big Easy to his beloved passion. As he admits, he does have a bit of a head start. "Opera actually began in the United States in 1796 and the history of opera in this city is very rich," he notes. "Many of the world’s greatest singers, such as Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, and Leontyne Price have sung here, often while they were en route from New York to San Francisco."

Moreover, through good times and bad -- including Hurricane Katrina -- the modern incarnation of the New Orleans Opera Association has continued to entertain and enlighten local audiences. And now that the company is in its 70th year, Lyall is embarking on a major five-year-plan to reach even more patrons. "I would really like to broaden the tastes and interests of operagoers in New Orleans," says Lyall. "For so many decades, we have all marketed opera with what I call the ’castor oil approach.’ We say, ’You need to take it, it’s good for you.’ But in promoting the formality that many of us love about opera, because it speaks to the seriousness of the art form, we’ve posed a barrier that has often worked against us."

What exactly does Lyall mean by that last statement? "We are not fully reaching the younger audience," he says. "We are not reminding people that foreign operas are like foreign films; we project the translations above the stage. And there are English operas. And we need to tell people that it’s okay to come to the opera even later in life. There’s nothing wrong with not having seen your first opera when you were nine years old. In fact, the subjects of almost every opera are love and death, and for the more mature viewer, opera has a kind of power and universal message that appeals to them."

Accordingly, Lyall has crafted a season that speaks to all of his goals, beginning with a production of Heinrich Marschner’s infrequently-performed "The Vampire (Der Vampyr)" on Oct. 11 and 13 at the company’s main home, the Mahalia Jackson Center for the Performing Arts. "When people ask me, ’Why are you doing an opera about vampires?’ I say, ’Because I don’t know one about zombies,’ " Lyall says with a laugh. "To some extent, we’re selling titles. And lots of people -- especially young people -- are familiar with this subject. It’s not a well-known opera, but it’s worthy of performing, with lovely, German romantic music that needs no apology and a fun plot."

However, rather than keeping the piece in its original setting, 17th-century Scotland, Lyall is modernizing it. "I am going to move it into modern New Orleans," he says. "The staging will draw on the awareness of author Anne Rice’s writing about vampires, as well as the TV series ’True Blood.’ If you’re going to appeal to a new audience, you have to speak their lingo."

Up next, New Orleans Opera will offer three performances of Benjamin Britten’s 1957 opera "Noah’s Flood," (November 15-17) -- a choice that excites Lyall for a variety of reasons. "This is the first Britten opera we’ve been able to do," he says. "We’ve scheduled ’Peter Grimes,’ but it’s a very large-scale piece and one that proved too expensive to produce at a time when money was hard to come by. And this year is the centennial of Britten’s birth."

Most importantly, the production -- which will take place at the Jackson Church -- will be done in the way Britten envisioned it. "He wanted companies to eschew theatrical values and place a focus on community involvement," says Lyall. "So we’re engaging a lot of the public schools and having their music teachers and art teachers work with the students to create costumes for all the animals that go into Noah’s Art for the big processional. It’s true that The Bible doesn’t mention New Orleans-type animals, but you can be sure that I’ve cast an alligator and a pelican to go with all those horses and bears. We’re also using the New Orleans Youth Orchestra and a number of school choruses to performing alongside all our wonderful professional principals and musicians."

The 2014 section of the season is somewhat more familiar and traditional, featuring Massenet’s "Cendrillon" -- a.k.a. "Cinderella" (Feb. 14 and 16) and Puccini’s "La Boheme" (Apr. 14 and 16), but even those productions will be different from prior ones, says Lyall. "We’re not only selling new repertory, we’re also selling new encounters with old favorites."

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