In the wise words of Homer Simpson, “I enjoy all the meats of our cultural stew,” but even an art stew connoisseur such as myself always felt opera was too high brow and dense to be accessible. That was before the Michigan Opera Theater’s production Twilight: Gods, a drive-thru Opera.
Now I may not know much about art, but I certainly know what I like. And I liked this very much.
I originally bought tickets as something fun and interesting to do. I didn’t really intend to cover it, but after experiencing a performance from the comfort of a car I have to say, it might be the best way to experience art for a casual consumer like me, even without a pandemic.
The performance was the brainchild of Michigan Opera Theater’s new artistic director Yuval Sharon, who was looking for a creative way to bring Opera to people while still observing COVID-19 safety regulations.
“Even as the performing arts face unprecedented challenges in this country, this moment offers an equally unprecedented opportunity for change—for artists and institutions to re-imagine the future of opera,” Sharon said in a press release.
I didn’t realize until much later that this is the first Opera of any kind to be performed in America since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The answer to how to bring these high art performances to socially distant masses presented itself in the form of the Opera House Parking Center directly next to the downtown Detroit Opera House. Instead of theater seats, cars in groups of six were usher at 5 miles per hour through minimalist sets on each floor of the parking garage. Each scene had its own radio station for cars to tune to in order to hear the performance. During each act, each driver was required to turned off their engines and switch into accessory mode as to not gas the performers.
The performance was a highly condensed telling of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, or Twilight of the Gods. The one-hour show played out in four of the most famous scenes from the Opera, as well as a prologue and a light show entitled “Siegfried’s Funeral March.”
The unusual setting didn’t just give the scenes moody lighting and incredible use of space, it helped lead to some really interesting moments. When the Opera’s hero Brünnhilde’s love and champion Siegfried died, a hearse from a local funeral home (owned by famous Michigan poet Thomas Lynch) showed up and turned the audience’s cars into the funeral procession. The play ended on the roof of the parking garage surrounded by Detroit’s Art Deco skyscrapers for Brünnhilde’s fiery exit. Although in this production she sings among the smoking ruins of burned-out cars and rides off in a white Mustang, rather than on her warhorse. (Yes, Ford was one of the sponsors of the show, and the Mustang was the 10 millionth.)
Filling in the story, (the whole opera is normally six hours) was original narrative verse by Detroit-based poet Marsha Music. Music’s spoken word poetry was one of my favorite parts of the show. It was incredibly useful, not to mention beautiful and soulful, to have this complex story described in her clear, modern verse. It was just another way that Sharon made the entire show approachable.
Before this experience born out of COVID necessity, I never would have paid to see an opera. Now I feel certain I could enjoy a full four-hour performance, but I also don’t want to lose this incredible experience if “everything returns to normal.” This bite-sized chunk of culture allowed me to see close-up the real power of these performers all without the distraction of other audience members. I got to go to the opera in my sweatpants while sitting in a cushy Mazda CX-9 and, despite that enclosure and distancing, I felt like I was part of the performance more than if I had ever passively watched it on stage.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see a stage production of a full opera at the Detroit Opera House, I hope I do, but if it ever does another drive-thru opera, I’ll definitely be there.