The two women in my life represent the extremes of opera appreciation. My mother (born between the end of Caruso and the beginning of Callas) can sit through all five hours and 15 minutes of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg like it’s something by G&S. On the other hand, my spouse, who favours AC/DC over Dvoák, says opera gives her physical pain.

Their contrasting approach to the oft-misconstrued-as-elitist art form is typical. Opera is divisive. Love it or hate it. There is little middle ground. It will be loved or loathed until the, uh … fat lady sings.

Opera companies have recognized this because they’ve begun searching for fresh, new audiences, winning over converts by scheduling lighter fare in seasons bogged down with Britten, Bellini and Barber.

Pacific Opera Victoria (POV), who stage two Italian pieces and a German piece this year, are squeezing in some English, designed to fill seats with patrons who subscribe to both ends of the opera-appreciation spectrum. A lively concert version of Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 Tony-winning musical Camelot imports a sampling of The Great White Way right between the first part of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle and Donizetti’s take on feuding Scots.

Not Just “Pops”
Opera purists might sniff, but even those who refuse to listen to anything but the original, incomplete version of Alban Berg’s atonal Lulu, wouldn’t dare suggest this Camelot is just a “pops” concert.

“It’s not fluff,” asserts Giuseppe Pietraroia, who will conduct the Victoria Symphony in this co-production with the opera company. The orchestra, which will be on stage with the singers, will perform the full score rather than the usual, watered-down pop arrangements. And each of the cast, including David Ludwig as King Arthur, Benedict Campbell as Merlin, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson as Sir Lancelot, Tyler Fitzgerald as Mordred and Rachel Fenlon as Guinevere, is operatically trained.

Pietraroia likens big, technical operatic voices singing a musical to a classical musician doing jazz. And he would know — he started out as a frustrated jazz sax player.

“For a singer, you don’t want it to sound like you’re singing it like opera. But you do need to have a properly trained voice to sing these well.”

“Many of these big roles of the day were taken by opera singers,” adds the POV’s founding artistic director Timothy Vernon. “Hearing the full orchestra and hearing mature, trained voices enhances the musical experience. Besides, this is a repertoire to be taken seriously. I don’t think we should denigrate the genre just because it’s more popular.”

Vernon points out that the experiment of doing the same thing with South Pacific last year proved fruitful enough for a show tunes redux.

“Audiences liked the idea of South Pacific. They knew the title, they knew the tunes. We got people to cross the barrier and had people who would not necessarily come to the house to see an opera.”

The Indestructible Opera
There are at least a dozen operas based on the Arthurian legend. Wagner alone wrote three (Tristan and Isolde, Lohengrin, and Parsifal). The story, says Vernon, is indestructible.

“It’s a story in people’s imaginations.” And for Pietraroia, the idea of love in a time of knights and chivalry has an operatic bent to it.

“It’s not seen as doing something completely out of context with an opera company. There are certain works that lend themselves to the mainstage of an opera company and are held in high regard by the public.”

Camelot is one of them, a classic with a certain pedigree — even the suggestion of “regal” approval.

The musical became indelibly linked to the charismatic John F. Kennedy administration. Jacqueline even alluded to it in a famous post-assassination magazine story. Her take on Alan Jay Lerner’s show-closing lyric, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot,” forever branded those White House years as America’s Camelot.

Nor will there likely ever be a cast as legendary as the one assembled for the 1960 debut on Broadway: Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Roddy McDowell, and a newcomer named Robert Goulet, whose “If Ever I Would Leave You” became his signature tune.

And, if the comparison to real opera is to be made complete, Camelot’s pre-Broadway premiere (at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre) was an overrun of all overruns, clocking in at four and a half hours! Now that’s opera.

If Camelot is a hit, the logical step may be to start programming full productions of Broadway musicals as regular shows in the upcoming POV season.

What’s next … a Starlight Express version of Die Walküre? Siegmund in roller skates? Probably not, but West Side Story, with all that finger snapping and those great dance numbers might not be out of the question. Just keep it under three hours, OK?

Camelot runs from November 22 to 23 at the Royal Theatre.

By David Lennam