In high school, during repeated watchings of Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, my friend Jesse and I always stopped the movie at the song “My Way.” We felt this was the scene that marked Sid Vicious’ point of no return, and we didn’t want to him spiral down any farther than he already had.
In Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring, which was first staged in 1947, a vicious joke by a different Sid and Nancy adds a little anarchy to the world. It also allows the title character to transform from mama’s boy to independent man. For Albert and his audience, his out-of-control actions make him a hero.
At the outset of the story, the aristocrat Lady Billows and a team of local leaders search for a May Day queen. Finding none of the young women of the town virtuous enough—a joke in and of itself for anyone who knows the fertility origins of the holiday—they settle on the only virtuous soul in town and are forced to turn the role of queen into king. Albert Herring, though thought to be a little slow, fits the bill; his reputation is clean as a whistle. The son of a widowed grocer, Albert doesn’t want the role of May Day king but takes it for the cash prize and to please his overbearing mum. On the big day of his coronation, Sid, a local bad boy, with the reluctant help of his flame Nancy, sneaks rum into Albert’s lemonade in an attempt at harmless fun and to loosen Albert up.
The moral here is: Drink a little rum and you, too, can have a threesome.
And loosen up he does. After the party, Albert returns home drunk as a skunk and decides to lose his virtuous reputation once and for all. Albert leaves his mother’s shop, and the next thing the audience knows, he’s found not one but two women, presumably prostitutes, for a little hanky-panky. That’s right, kids. The moral here is: Drink a little rum and you, too, can have a threesome. OK, that’s probably not really the moral, but it’s pretty shocking to watch this kind of naughtiness in an opera house, even if it’s mostly implied.
Alek Shrader, who plays Albert in this Santa Fe Opera production, does a fantastic job, mixing physically awkward traits with a strong voice that projects the subtleties in Albert’s growing self-confidence. As is common at the Santa Fe Opera, situated in a covered but outdoor theater, thunder and a heavy rainstorm fought with the actors for attention. Shrader, Joshua Hopkins and Kate Lindsey (who played the mischievous Sid and Nancy) had the most competition with Mother Nature, delivering their songs without strain over a rain so torrential it misted the audience on several occasions.
A three-hour performance might seem daunting to non-opera aficionados, but because Albert Herring is both modern and in English, it’s a good choice for both the novice operagoer or the musical theater lover. The Santa Fe Opera has brought in a fantastic cast, and it’s a crowd-pleaser all around. Unlike another Britten opera, Billy Budd, which was staged in Santa Fe a few years ago, Albert Herring is lighter in story and music. Budd’s dissonant themes alienated a notable chunk of its audience, whereas Herring’s catchy songs were sung post-performance in the parking lot by delighted audience members. Albert Herring doesn’t fall victim to the clichés of opera—it’s not overly dramatic and most of the lyrics are understandable—and that’s exactly what makes it so much fun. It has the modern story of the outsider we can all relate to.
It’s a commitment, no doubt about it, to head all the way to Santa Fe for a night at the opera. The great thing, though, is that it only has to cost a fortune if you want it to. The nosebleed seats start at $29, and there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Of course, you’ll want dinner—eating licorice on the road is fine, but the evening is more fun and you’ll get a chance to check out some of the best people-watching in Santa Fe if you pack a picnic. Yeah, tailgating at the opera probably sounds weird to Met-goers, but this is New Mexico, and we do things different. Bring chairs and a table if you’ve got ’em or just hop on the hood of your car. My date and I grabbed a snack of hummus, pita, smoked Gruyère, strawberries and a raspberry jam jar filled with the absinthe I smuggled into the country awhile back. The folks next to us were a little more meal-oriented with what looked like pasta salad, chicken and bottles of beer. The Santa Fe Opera’s website (santafeopera.org) has a whole list of rules about tailgating as well as tips for getting picnic tables and good parking. Booze is fine—granted you don’t get thrashed and wreck the performance for others—but barbecues aren’t, so bring grub that’s good cold or lukewarm. Heck, swing by a restaurant and get to-go food on your way up the hill. Watching the sun set over the Sangre de Cristos is amazing.
Oh, and don’t fret about dress, either. There are plenty of pearls and evening gowns but even more jeans and rain gear. Heck, there was even a lady all decked out in a designer dress, a fur coat and ear muffs. Seriously, anything goes!