Thomas Gazheli and Lori Phillips lead 'The Flying Dutchman.' (John Grigaitis)
Sit down to talk opera with conductor Steven Mercurio and right away you know this is a guy who loves his job.
“Opera is entertainment,” he says. “I want people to get their money’s worth, and I want them to leave that theater saying, ‘I want to come back.’ ”
People have been coming back to the Detroit Opera House to hear Mercurio’s work ever since he led the restored theater’s opening gala with Luciano Pavarotti in 1996. Saturday he’ll be in the pit to open the new season with Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” last presented in Detroit in 1997. After more than 20 productions and nearly two decades with the Michigan Opera Theatre, Mercurio feels at home in Detroit.
“I’m always reminded when I go to do opera in other places of the amount of time it takes to get to know each other, for them to get used to my New York sarcastic sense of humor, to get used to the idea that I want opera to be fun, and that I want the people who are performing it and playing in it to enjoy the experience. It’s my old (Leonard) Bernstein, very inclusive philosophy, that if we all love what we’re doing, the audience will feel that. But when I come here, it’s great because I know everyone and there is no ramp-up time. It’s my home away from home.”
Wagner’s opera is about a ghost ship, doomed to wander the seas until Judgment Day. There is, however, an escape clause: Every seven years, the captain’s allowed to leave his ship in search of a perfect love, which would break the curse.
“Not all opera is based on the idea of killing somebody with a knife,” Mercurio points out. “This is about something more. This is about mixing this ghost world with the real world, and redemption.” Mercurio describes a scene in Act III with considerable gusto: A crew of Norwegian sailors, partying on their own vessel, makes the mistake of trying to get the dark ship docked next to them to join in the fun, not realizing it’s the cursed ghost ship. Wagner uses two male choruses to portray the crews.
“It’s so incredibly hormonal, this double male chorus, the real sailors, drinking up a happy time and the ghosts singing, ‘Leave us alone!’ The ghosts get more and more aggressive, louder and louder, faster and faster. They start kicking up a storm, which ghosts can do. And the thunder comes out and the wind starts coming back, they chase everyone right off the port, just blow them out. It’s like a bomb going off at the end. It’s just a stroke of genius. And it’s so much fun to conduct, you have no idea!”
With the success of “The Flying Dutchman,” arguably his first unqualified hit, Wagner embarked on a career that would fundamentally change just about everything that followed in music.
“Everybody was affected by him. Everybody. Even the Italians. Having the orchestra be an essential part of the story, not just accompanying, was a Wagnerian trait that everyone loved. The fact is that almost all movie music is based on the Wagnerian philosophy of the music telling the story as much as the singers.”
By the end of the interview, Mercurio’s undeniable enthusiasm for this art form is persuasive, and irresistible.
“It’s entertainment; you’re not going to church. The fact that the opera’s in German, who cares? We have surtitles. You read along, you figure it out, the music is beautiful, the singers are great, the orchestra’s fantastic, and it’s entertainment so incredibly three-dimensional, like nothing else. Come to the opera.”
'The Flying Dutchman'
Michigan Opera Theatre
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 26 and 27
Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway, Detroit
Chris Felcyn hosts “The Well-Tempered Wireless,” heard weekday afternoons on WRCJ-FM (90.9).