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Puccini to Give You the Shivers
On the Mall, a Soggy Opera Alfresco

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

After two of the warmest, most radiant late autumn days in memory, November reverted to form yesterday, with incessant gusts of cold wind and enough rain to turn the Mall into a gigantic mud puddle.

And so the second of Washington National Opera's annual simulcasts -- Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" transmitted live from the Kennedy Center to a gigantic video screen near Fourth and Madison streets NW on the Mall -- drew only a small fraction of the audience that had been expected. The U.S. Park Police no longer provides crowd estimates, but the WNO estimated that last November's staging of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess' attracted more than 13,000 people.

This year it was a different story. "Hey, you can be the first journalist in history to give a completely accurate crowd count for an event on the Mall," Scott Herron, a spectator from Arlington, said with a grin as he surveyed the sparsely populated lawn. "You can just interview everybody here!"

In fact, a quick tally suggested that between 200 and 300 people had chosen to spend the afternoon watching "Butterfly" in the rain. They wore raincoats and huddled around heating lamps. Some sat on grimy patio furniture lugged from home; others shared wet blankets and shivers.

"It's still a great deal," Herron said. "How can you beat free opera? The only tickets that were left at the Kennedy Center were $225 apiece. So of course we came down and we're going to do our best to stick it out."

Janet Chance and Catherine Simile, both of Silver Spring, agreed. Simile calls herself an "opera fiend." "I saw 'Porgy' at the Kennedy Center last year, and loved it so much that I came down to the Mall to see it again. I wish it were a nicer day, but I'll be right here as long as I can see the screen."

Chance has always enjoyed classical music but said she was just learning about opera. "I heard the Mozart and Puccini 'Welcome to Opera' program that was presented at the Kennedy Center a couple of months ago and thought it was fantastic." Still, she allowed that she "might decide to drop in at the Smithsonian" if the weather got much worse.

The weather was also very much on the mind of Rob Schneider, the technical director of the simulcast, who watched red, green and yellow shapes align and realign themselves ominously on a computer weather radar map. "I'd say we'll make it through Act 1 before the rain starts up again," he predicted as doomed Cio-Cio-San and caddish Lieutenant Pinkerton (here sung by Xiu Wei Sun and Arturo Chacón-Cruz, and conducted by WNO General Director Placido Domingo) broke into their rapt love duet. "And then we'll go on as long as we can, just so there is no danger to the crew or to the public."

The 18-by-32-foot screen was safely anchored, he said, unless there were 40 mph winds. "But everybody would have gone home long before we reached those conditions. It's no fun to be in 40-mile-per-hour weather."

The wind did grow colder, and there was some more rain, but the feared deluge never materialized and a hardy group of listeners made it through the afternoon.

"As far as I'm concerned, if even 20 people will come out on a day like this and listen to an opera outdoors, that's pretty terrific," Schneider said. "Talk about devotion!"

It was impossible to reschedule the performance because of the complicated arrangements necessary to present anything on the Mall. The choices were to cancel or go ahead with the show. The show went on.

A good call. The Mall was charged with happy energy yesterday, as visitors chose to make the most of an imperfect situation, suffer through the elements with friends, and listen to some fresh and exuberant singing emanate from speakers lined up to the sides of the screen.

At the first intermission, WNO board Chairman John Pohanka announced that there were plans to present Puccini's "La Boheme" as the next simulcast.

"In September," he added, which drew some scattered cheers.

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