''It's sort of a negative image to 'Mamma Mia.' ''
So said one of the interviewees at last week's live, high-definition broadcast of opera from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, which was enjoyed by a sizable crowd at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House.
The ''anti-Mamma Mia'' was a new kind of very old opera, called ''The Enchanted Island.'' The point being made was that the smash Broadway show takes familiar pop tunes from the Swedish singing group ABBA, and sets them into a newly created plot.
Mezzo Soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the role of the sorceress Sycorax in the Metropolitan Opera Company's newly created baroque opera “The Enchanted Island.”
''The Enchanted Island'' takes two very familiar plots from the pen of William Shakespeare - ''The Tempest'' and ''Midsummer Night's Dream'' - adds a bit of style from Strauss' opera ''Ariadne auf Naxos,'' and stirs in a mixture of music by a long list of composers, including Handel, Rameau and Vivaldi.
The result was a wonderfully entertaining three hours, to which the Met then added a production of such gorgeous style and excess that it wouldn't be unpleasant to have to watch with the music turned off.
Let me share a bit about the spectacular singers involved, then tell you about the blended music and plot, then discuss the production values, and finally share something about the experience of enjoying grand opera in Fredonia.
Like the plot of the new-old opera, the singers cast in the principal roles were a diverse mixture of types. There were the well-established superstars, including Placido Domingo, perhaps the biggest living star in opera today, joined by Joyce DiDonato and William Daniels, joined with a collection of young, attractive and athletic young singers who are just breaking into casts on the grand stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
Chautauquans among our readers will recognize the names of Elizabeth DeShong, soprano; Paul Appleby, tenor; and Elliot Madore, baritone, all of whom quite recently have studied at the Institution with Voice Department Chair Marlena Malas, and have performed in the intramural productions which she presents each year, relatively unknown to those of us outside the walls.
Thanks to friends who live on the grounds who called that to my attention.
It is lodged in my memory that Ms. DiDonato has performed with the company of Chautauqua Opera, but when I go to their website, it offers me a long list of previous year's cast lists, none of which will load when selected.
Midway between the recent students and the superstars, are established names such as Danielle De Niese and Luca Pisaroni.
Spanish Tenor Domingo is an international celebrity. He was one of the famed Three Tenors, who sold out football stadiums all over the world not many years ago. He is currently the general director of the Washington National Opera, in our nation's capital, and the Los Angeles Opera Company, while continuing to sing in the world's major opera houses.
While his voice is not as large nor as agile as it was at the peak of his performing career, he is just entering his eighth decade of life, and still produces beautiful sounds when he chooses his repertoire wisely - which he has done in this case - giving performances which require not the slightest apology.
Traditionally, the Met is where audiences go to hear famous singers perform familiar music with a world-class orchestra, using elaborate costumes and scenery. A ''rising artist'' on the stage of the Met has, until recently, been someone who has had a decade of critically acclaimed performances in principal roles, at smaller opera houses around the world. Ironically, throughout the years, an artist who is a headliner at the Met has traditionally been one whose singing is brilliant, but perhaps isn't quite what it was, a year or so back.
The recent idea of simultaneous broadcasts of productions, in which a singer's face and form are shown 10 times normal size, while their singing is presented in high-definition, is driving the company to seeking singers whose voice can survive being heard by millions of people, so perfectly reproduced, and whose face and form resemble reasonably the character the singer is portraying.
The day of the 250-pound singer, clicking her castanets and shaking from side-to-side for a ''sexy dance'' as Carmen, isn't extinct, but it's certainly on the endangered species list. If she sings well enough, it's still worth overlooking if she doesn't quite look the part.
MUSIC AND PLOT
Baroque music was written largely between the years 1600 and 1760, meaning that it had gone out-of-style before the American colonies declared their independence from England.
That was a period in which absolute rulers - France's Louis XIV, for example - sat in grand palaces and commanded artists to create operas, plays and music which praised and glorified the rulers and provided not only entertainment, but a visible demonstration of how much money the ruler had to throw away on a production, so that other countries would want to make treaties with them, and would think twice before tangling with them.
The kings and nobles who funded those compositions didn't want to stop and think about the morality of their decisions, and they certainly didn't want anyone else to be encouraged to evaluate them. The operas, in particular, involved people in wildly extravagant costumes, strutting their ways through plots which involved celebrations of how things already were.
As a result, while singers often choose selections from baroque operas for recitals, the full productions themselves are very rarely heard and seen today anywhere.
Peter Gelb, director of the Met, wanted to show modern audiences how splendid baroque operas could be, without sending them out into the cold night, numbed by the wooden plots. About a year ago, he commissioned director-writer-composer Jeremy Sams to create a production which would present excellent baroque music, made appealing to contemporary listeners.
Sams quickly contacted conductor William Christie, whose specialty is music from the Baroque Era. Christie, by the way, was born in 1944 in Buffalo, so though he became a French citizen in 1995, he is - to some degree - a Western New Yorker.
Sams and Christie spent a year listening to recordings of obscure baroque pieces of music, during which they prepared a ''greatest hits'' list, preparing to build their new opera out of the finest and most audience-pleasing music from the correct historical period, regardless of who wrote it, and changing the words to suit the newly contrived plot.
Meanwhile, Sams decided it would require a familiar plot to get audiences to accept this pastiche of musical approaches. He started with Shakespeare's ''The Tempest,'' but was stymied by the fact that it is a political play which has only one, very short romantic element. Since his list of baroque hits was full of lovers lamenting their bereft standing or celebrating their passion to the heavens, he knew he needed a love story.
Sams was far from the first director to note that both ''The Tempest'' and ''Midsummer Night's Dream'' involve a magical spirit playing funny tricks on people. So, he simply borrowed the two pairs of mis-matched lovers from ''Dream,'' and moved them onto the magical island of ''Tempest.'' Instead of Puck making the wrong men fall for the wrong women, it became the air spirit Ariel who did it.
To bring the Renaissance couples from Shakespeare to a degree of baroque excess, he added the characters of Miranda and Caliban from ''Tempest,'' making six mismatched lovers to chase around the stage.
The opera's plot concerns Prospero, a magician, who is usually described as an embodiment of Shakespeare's own personality and interests. He was once Duke of Milan, but was illegally overthrown by his evil younger brother, and set afloat in an intentionally leaky boat, along with his infant daughter, Miranda.
Aided by his magic, Prospero survived the ploy, and has drifted to the exotic island of Bermuda, which was ruled by a female enchantress named Sycorax. Prospero overcame her, and banished her to the dark side of the island, while he took from her the magical spirit of Ariel, who is usually claimed to represent Shakespeare's intelligence and creativity, and her son Caliban, who is usually claimed to represent the author's baser instincts, including sloth, lust and the like.
Now, Prospero has ordered Ariel to stir up a storm which will drive the ship of his wicked brother to his island, where he hopes to punish his brother and to regain Milan, and at the same time, to bring the son of the King of Naples, who is also aboard the ship, to become a husband for Miranda.
Sams arranged for Ariel's storm to go awry, because Caliban had monkeyed with the magic ingredients in Prospero's trunk. Instead of the intended victims, the storm brings a ship containing the two couples from ''Dream'' to the island. Soon Ariel's magic has all four visitors and Miranda and Caliban all running around, under a magic spell which causes them to love someone other than their intended partners.
Eventually Prospero needs to turn to an even greater doer of magic - the Sea God Neptune - to straighten everything out. Domingo sings the role of the god.
The music flows easily from Handel to Rameau to Vivaldi, and unless the listener is actually familiar with the works performed, he might never guess that he had heard music from several different composers.
Baroque opera houses were traditionally inside the homes of kings or other wealthy patrons. They were narrow and high and intended for small audiences of the patron's guests. Since the stage of the Met has famously the same measurements as a seven-story building, lying on its side, it was necessary for production designer Phelim McDermott, assisted by costume designer Kevin Pollard and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt to build a smaller stage at the center of the Met stage, which can be pulled apart in moments when the opera moves from the intimate problems of one or two individuals to a grand scene, such as the entrance of Neptune, which is set at the bottom of the sea, with graceful mermaids on wires, floating in the ''water'' - actually the air - around his head and a huge chorus of sea creatures, including a company of dancers, all around his throne.
The music for that grand scene, by the way, is the traditional coronation anthem which has been used at the crownings of every English king or queen since George II: ''Zadoc the Priest'' by Handel.
The false proscenium of the stage upon the stage, serves as screens for projections. When Ariel waves her arms to produce a magical spell, projected lights re-create the movements in giant scale, above and around her, for example.
Everything is way over the top, as baroque creations were, frequently, yet for the most part, we can easily accept it, because our eyes and ears have already been dazzled, to set us up for the change.
I think those who attended the showing of ''The Enchanted Island'' at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House seemed both to enjoy and to learn from it greatly.
The fact that we can have such an experience so near to home is close to being a miracle.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept was the use of countertenors. In the Baroque Era, it was commonly practiced that boys who had beautiful singing voices were castrated, so that they would put an adult man's large lungs and muscular diaphragm behind the pure, beautiful unchanged treble tone. Castrated singers developed huge followings, often including swooning female fans, and typically they were cast in roles as conquering heroes, gods, and other super-macho roles.
Today, fortunately, we no longer castrate singers, but ways have been found for male singers with certain natural qualities to be trained to sing in what sounds quite similar to a female singing range. This is true singing, not falsetto.
''The Enchanted Island'' employs two such singers: William Daniels, who sang the role of Prospero, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, who sang the role of the son of the King of Naples, intended to be the husband of Miranda. I heard some people who had difficulty accepting the unusual singing, while others expressed surprise that after a few bars of music, they simply accepted it and moved on.
Four productions remain in the current series of simultaneous broadcasts from the stage of the Met, in New York City:
Feb. 11 at noon, delight to the fourth of the operas in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, ''Gotterdammerung.''
Feb. 25, hear an early opera by Giuseppe Verdi, ''Ernani.''
April 7, delight to beautiful Anna Netrebko as the morally challenged ''Manon.''
April 14, it's Verdi again, with one of the most-produced operas in the world, ''La Traviata,'' featuring French soprano Natalie Dessay.
Tickets to hear the Met in person can cost as much as $1,000. Tickets in Fredonia cost $20. Give it a try, why don't you.
Tomorrow, at 8 p.m., the Department of Music at SUNY Fredonia will present a recital by clarinetist Deborah Andrus and pianist Kristin Ditlow, in Rosch Recital Hall, on the university's campus. The performance will include works by known composers and the world premiere of a new composition by Roshanne Etezady. The recital is free of charge, and open to the public.
Monday at 8 p.m., critically acclaimed flute quartet Flute Force will perform on the Fredonia campus. The performance is free of charge, and open to the public, in Rosch Recital Hall.
On March 3, the Music Department of SUNY Fredonia will offer a full day of teaching and other musical experiences for high school age pianists, called Piano Experience.
Advance registration is required by Feb. 15, for participation. Cost is $30, and includes lunch. Parents and music teachers of entrants may attend without charge.
Five teachers from the university's piano faculty will participate, including concerts, receptions, discussions, piano lessons, and more. A registration form may be downloaded from the fredonia.edu web site. To register or for additional information, phone 673-3151 or email sean.duggan.@fredonia.edu.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, recently celebrated their 50th year of presenting one of the finest collections of recent and contemporary artworks in the world.
The gallery opened its doors, Jan. 19, 1962.
The gallery is located at 1285 Elmwood Ave., in Buffalo.
Speaking of the visual arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will offer an exhibition of works by Flemish artist Vincent Van Gogh, opening Feb. 1, and running through May 6.
Titled ''Van Gogh Up Close,'' the exhibit includes 45 landscapes and still lifes, and includes works by the artist which have never before been displayed together. The museum has prepared a long list of lectures, demonstrations, films, and other activities, related to the exhibit.
Also on display at the museum, from now through April 22 is another exhibit: ''Zoe Strauss: Ten Years.''
For additional information, phone the museum at (215) 684-7860 or go to their website at www.philamuseum.org.