|There’s an old joke that goes: “I went to a fight and a hockey match broke out.” I’ve just gotten back from the National Theatre’s new opera, “Nagano,” and am wondering if you could say the same thing about opera and hockey.
“Nagano” is an avant-garde opera set against the Czech hockey team’s surprise victory in the 1998 Winter Olympics. It’s a sharp satire with several ripe targets: sports hero worship and the Czech obsession with celebrity are two of the bigger ones. And it’s excellent on all counts.
“Nagano” names names and takes no prisoners. JaromÃr Jagr has a nice duet with the ice he skates on, Dominik HaÅ¡ek sings in a godly tenor, in godly Latin, with his padding looking for all the world like a cross between a samurai’s armor and an angel’s wings. Milan Hnilička’s parents are caricatured as the embodiment of the Typical Czechs, staring po-faced into their televisions, his beer-bellied father knocks back one after the other while his mother, in curlers and a muu-muu, knits away.
But for all the satire, “Nagano” has some lovely moments as well. Jagr sings a duet with the ice he skates upon. And we learn in a lullaby that HaÅ¡ek, wrapped in swaddling clothes and cradled by a geisha, was really born on the Japanese island of Hockey-do.
To see a hockey match depicted in the same theater where Mozart premiered “Don Giovanni” sounds at first like sacrilege to both hockey and opera. But “Nagano” pulls it off with both finesse and humor; HaÅ¡ek, the unconventional goalie in real life, manages to repel his opponents with breakdancing moves on stage.
As one might expect, the team behind “Nagano” aren’t your typical Safely-Dead-300-Years opera folks either. The libretto was written by Jaroslav DuÅ¡ek, who’s famous for his TV and film comedy work, which relies heavily on improvisation and wordplay. The opera’s director, Ondřej Havelka, is famous for fronting his 1930s swing band The Melody Makers.
Reviews for “Nagano” in the Czech press have been surprisingly positive, even if the hockey players themselves feel more than a little stung. I think they were probably counting on just another dose of hero worship, or opera as reduced to the level of the locker room interview. Luckily for us, “Nagano” is a lot more than that.