Opera on a Budget

Forget the fat lady — Kristen Barrett stars as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin.

Opera for the masses? Not in this country, where the great unwashed can go home to watch a hundred low-effort channels of quality TV — or at least Temptation Island. But Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera aims to change that sad fact in some (ahem) small way. Maestro Pippin has translated dozens of classic librettos into English fluid enough to sing with nearly all the flourishes of the original tongues. This season, 10 different shows will go up for one or two nights at a time; each boasts its own standout cast, accompanied by Pippin and a chamber-sized orchestra dubbed the Pocket Philharmonic.

In addition to playing piano and serving as artistic director, Pippin prefaces each act with a brief synopsis read from the front of the stage, endearing himself to old-timers and newcomers alike with his eggheaded earnestness. Pippin's glosses amuse in and of themselves, but they also ease the pressure of trying to parse the more complicated dramatic passages. The Pocket Opera plays to great acclaim in schools, and it's easy to see why — the shows assist the audience without patronizing it.

Next on the Pocket Opera's schedule is Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Based on a poem by Pushkin, the opera is acclaimed as a masterwork of the Russian tradition for its stylized realism. The classic elements of operatic narrative are at hand: class divisions, spurned love, and a duel to the death. Yet the careful portrayal of the main characters comprises the soul of Eugene Onegin, and because understatement is presumably the natural virtue of a small company, the Pocket Opera can be expected to do it every justice.

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