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Through the drizzle at Austin's Circuit of the Americas, the opera must go on

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Latonia Moore as Tosca and Adam Smith as Cavaradossi in Austin Opera's "Tosca" at Circuit of the Americas. Performers went on through an almost steady drizzle Thursday night at the amphitheater.

Under ideal circumstances, producing a full-scale opera is a mammoth task.

Now try doing that during a pandemic while outdoors on a wet spring night in Austin.

Envisioning an epic show that companies many times its size would not risk during the current health crisis, Austin Opera, surely the bravest of its kind in America, decided to stage "Tosca," Puccini's masterpiece, at Circuit of the Americas, the city's Formula One racetrack.

Just to outfit the Germania Insurance Amphitheater stage for the job of handling an opera must have seemed overwhelming. Yet the COTA leadership graciously gave Austin Opera two full weeks to adapt to the space — and the troupe ran with it.

During the week prior to opening, violent storms pummeled Central Texas. Yet on April 29 in the early afternoon, Austin Opera sent out the word: A distanced "Tosca" was on for that night.

Traveling to the racetrack was no problem. Neither was parking. We chose a free lot and a shuttle quickly ferried us to the 14,000-guest amphitheater, which stands less than a mile away.

We sat in a slightly raised section not far from the stage. A steady mist enveloped us. I heard what I thought was thunder, but grew to recognize as the muffled sounds of planes taking off from the nearby airport.

A few minutes after curtain time, opera CEO and general director Annie Burridge and stage director David Lefkowich addressed the audience, which included attendees spread out on a high lawn behind the seating zone.

The duo explained how light rain might unduly affect the orchestra's instruments. So there would be a wait to see if the weather dried out a bit.

The duo amused us with tales of other challenges. The orchestra, for instance, normally rehearses three times. Yet twice at COTA, temperatures plunged into the 40s, which would have endangered the instruments, so the musicians moved inside. Still, they needed at least one rehearsal outside to set sound levels, so big diesel-powered heaters were hauled to the stage.

To make matters worse, Friday before opening night, another one of those spring storms tore through the amphitheater and ripped up the scenery. Big letters that were supposed to spell out "Viva Il Duce" for this staging set in fascist Italy ended up as simply "Viva."

"If you know this opera," Burridge joked from the stage on opening night of Puccini's bloody melodrama, "there's not a lot of viva-ing going on. In fact, the opposite."

About 15 minutes later, musicians packed up the last of their instruments and left the stage. The first act began, instead, with the diminished back-up of an electronic piano, which, while well played, made the church scene with its shattering "Te Deum" sound like an old-time silent movie.

All that said, the three main players proved magnificent.

Adam Smith's tenor soared to the heights of the surrounding track, while he behaved with upright fidelity and heroism as the painter Cavaradossi. Attired in Mussolini garb as the brutal Scarpia, Aleksey Bogdanov commanded the stage, while his baritone roiled up our dislike for the lascivious tyrant in "Va, Tosca." Latonia Moore, as the mercurial opera singer of the title, revealed the humor and humanity behind the diva's petty jealousy, while her soprano provided a brilliant display of vocal colors.

After Act 1, the night was no longer young, and the mist melted ever so slowly into light rain. My guest and I decided to get back on the road before it was too late.

My editor, sitting on the other side of the house, stayed. She reports that a deliberative onstage meeting at the end of the break sent the musicians and their instruments back to safety offstage. 

And yet, the show must go on. And it did. A good number of people remained in place as the rain picked up, but the crowds on the hill grew more spotty.

Everyone, however, witnessed a miracle: live and in-person opera on a grand scale in early 2021. We've missed that sorely during the past 14 months.

With all my heart, I can't tell you how proud I am of Burridge and her team, as well as all the trustees who backed them, for this noble outing. 

At 10 a.m. April 30, Burridge released this comment about the next performance:

Ticket holders from Thursday and Saturday nights will be invited back to the next performance on Sunday. The forecast looks pretty definitive right now with a 90 percent chance of rain on Saturday night and 1 percent chance of rain on Sunday night.

"We will also make the HD capture from the next performance available to all ticket holders as a live stream," she said, "and the best capture of the two performances will be made available on demand to ticket holders in the coming weeks."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.