I had the good fortune this summer to visit Venice, Italy, one of the wonders of this world. Wandering through the canals and alleys of this amazing city, I happened upon La Fenice, the major opera house in Venice, and was surprised that a tour was available in the depths of August.
La Fenice is most appropriately named; its name means "The Phoenix." Several times in its history it has been destroyed by fire, most recently in 1996, and has re-emerged more beautiful than before.
La Fenice has been one of the most important opera houses for over two centuries. Donizetti, Bellini and numerous other composers were commissioned to write operas for this amazing house. Verdi alone wrote "Attila," "Rigoletto," "La Traviata" and "Simon Boccanegra" for La Fenice!
Walking into its astonishing, ornate, albeit intimate, hall today, one cannot help but be impressed by the dedication of those who saw to the most recent reconstruction efforts. Every detail has been attended to, every element of the reconstruction seems as fresh today as it did seven years ago when it reopened. The theater literally takes one's breath away.
I was fortunate to visit La Fenice with a friend who had never been in an opera house before, let alone seen an opera. He has visited many impersonal, modern venues for pop concerts and could not believe what a special place this was. He left our tour wanting to attend an opera performance as soon as possible.
My friend was drawn to opera because of his visit to La Fenice. My entry into the performing arts came over 50 years ago in a very different but equally riveting way. My parents took my brother, my sister and me to see The Music Man at the Majestic Theater on Broadway starring the amazing Barbara Cook as Marian the Librarian. I was dazzled by the theater, the curtain, the orchestra and the buzz of the audience. And when Miss Cook sang Goodnight My Someone on the porch of her home, we could suddenly see through the walls of the house into its interior. I didn't know about scrims at the time. I only knew this was truly a magical moment in my life. I knew I would be spending much of my life trying to experience this magic again. And I have.
I think we forget about the impression that a beautiful theater can create. Bringing newcomers, especially children, to a glorious theater, and allowing them to enjoy the heady cocktail of art and architecture is certainly one important way to build our audiences. In an era when so much of what we experience comes to us via electronic transmission, when we listen to iPods, talk on iPhones, watch performances on television, and play on our laptop computers, we forego the pleasure, the excitement and the mystery of the live performance in the magical theater. While electronics offer an efficient way to introduce people to the arts, I dare say they are not nearly as effective as experiencing the real thing in a real theater.
Especially if the theater is as stunning as La Fenice or the performers are as astonishing as Barbara Cook.