Let's Go, Verdi! A Change-Up At Nats Park

Opera fans at Nationals Park on Saturday during Washington National Opera's
Opera fans at Nationals Park on Saturday during Washington National Opera's "La Traviata" simulcast. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

Opera beamed into a ballpark has a distinctly different vibe than a concert-hall experience: It's T-shirts vs. tuxedos, baseball caps vs. opera glasses, chicken tenders vs. champagne, D.C. heat and humidity vs. central air.

It's Saturday night, and about 15,000 people have come to Nationals Park to see a winning performance. The anticipation is palpable. Across town, decked-out folks sit in the red-velvet womb of the Kennedy Center Opera House, awaiting the live performance of Verdi's "La Traviata." Here, though, everyone from the teething to the tattooed has pulled up a chair or a patch of grass for the Washington National Opera's first live simulcast into the stadium.

Watching in high definition on the JumboTron means that, as Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger stands in the orchestra pit, you can see the roosterlike combs in his gelled and spiked blond coiffure, shadows carving his face like a mask, as he stands motionless in his black frock coat. Suddenly, Ettinger lifts his baton, the fingers on his other hand vibrate and pulse as if playing the violin, and the music begins: gorgeous, symphonic sound swelling through the ballpark.

The curtain rises and we see a party, circa 19th-century Paris. There's Violetta (soprano Elizabeth Futral), flirting and kicking back champagne, singing, "Pleasure cures every ill and life is to be enjoyed. . . . Without pleasure, life isn't worth living."

Can the ballpark crowd appreciate this convergence? Italy's national pastime brought to a home of America's national pastime. Just ask Siobhan Robinson-Marshall and Samara Watkins, 10-year-old fifth-graders from Northwest Washington. They both inform you that, yes, "La Traviata" is a tragedy.

"The thing I don't like about opera is they have to sing about dying before they die," Siobhan says. "They sing for about an hour before they die."

Extended death scenes notwithstanding, Siobhan says she is a big fan of the tragic operas (Samara prefers pop radio). She's a bit of an opera expert: Her mom is a supernumerary ("which means she doesn't sing or dance, but flirts with all the guys in the party scenes," Siobhan says) performing this very night at the Opera House. Samara and Siobhan have seen the opera in rehearsal, but thought it would be more fun to watch it at the ballpark with Samara's mom.

"Not everyone wants a child there [at the Opera House]," Siobhan says.

Over at the concession stand, selling wine and sodas, Robin Bradley is pausing from the action before the next intermission rush. "I didn't think I'd do any business," Bradley says, adding that she didn't notice any difference in the gustatory appetites of the opera crowd and the beer-and-brats baseball fans.

"This is a great format," Bradley says, "instead of getting all dressy-dressy at the Kennedy Center, you can lounge on the green."

Lounging on the green is the choice of Keisha Dunston, a 31-year-old elementary school teacher, and her sister, Daphne Dunston-Wharton, an opera singer turned educator. They've spread out a blanket in the outfield, accompanied by their daughters and niece, who range in age from 1 1/2 to 15.

"I think it's beautiful," says Dunston-Wharton, 45, whose dreadlocks are regally piled high. "It's a great environment -- you can bring the kids. It's not as stiff and confined as the Kennedy Center. There's lots of freedom, and it's great to give them a little culture."

"I don't necessarily have the time or the money to get tickets to a live performance," Dunston-Wharton says. "This really brings it to the people. I was explaining it to my girls: This is live."

In the stands, eyes are turned to the big screen, following the action with English subtitles translating the Italian lyrics. Rapt. Somewhere after the "7th Aria Stretch," Placido Domingo, renowned tenor and general director of the WNO, makes a quick appearance. "It's so wonderful to see how music is connected to sport," he tells the crowd.

"It's phenomenal," he says backstage before he jumps into a limousine and heads back to the Opera House. "The sound is phenomenal. You see kids playing in the outfield. That is beautiful. We hope to do more productions like this. But this is special. It's opening night."

Act 3: On the grass, three girls somersault together. A toddler waltzes with his mother. Her motorcycle boots peep from underneath her ruffled skirt; the red lights from his sneakers flash on and off in the dark.

On-screen, Violetta's on her deathbed, singing the long goodbye that Siobhan had complained about. On the grass, a young girl leaps and twirls to the music, flinging her hair and kicking her legs, emoting, emoting, emoting -- an Isadora Duncan dancing in the outfield.

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