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AS TWILIGHT NEARS, AN OPERA LOVER IS BORN

Questions I wouldn't have seen coming 10 years ago.

It was early evening as my wife and I walked into the Osceola Tavern in Dade City.

The sun was setting. There were about a dozen motorcycles and the same number of pickup trucks interspersed among the cars outside and a hundred or so people were memorializing the late Roland Holman, a man with a lot of friends who had died a few weeks earlier in a freak traffic accident.

We wove our way through the smoky indoor portion of the tavern to the outdoor venue where a heavily made-up and costumed '80s tribute band was getting ready to play.

"Hi," said our friend, Heather. "How was the opera?"

Yeah. Me. Opera.

Nobody has been more surprised than I that I have suddenly developed a strong interest in an art form that, even a couple of years ago, I would have considered the epitome of boredom. In fact, I remember telling friends once that if they ever saw me at the opera, they should call a cop because somebody was obviously holding me at gunpoint.

Until last October I had seen (not counting Jesus Christ Superstar) exactly 20 minutes of one act of La Boheme before the friend I was with became ill and we had to leave. I guess that wasn't enough to hook me.

I had always seen opera as overdressed fat people singing in a foreign language about a story line I couldn't figure out. Add to that the belief that you had to get dressed up to go to opera and the thought of wearing formal wear does not sit well with a guy who thinks wearing a shirt with buttons qualifies as business casual. (Actually, I have learned, people in most cases dress fairly casually for most operas.)

A lot changed for me when I discovered The Met: Live in HD as presented at the CineBistro at the Cobb Grove 16 theaters in Wesley Chapel. The performances are live, big-screen with digital picture and sound.

My wife and I opted to go to an October presentation of Boris Godunov, mostly out of boredom and partly because we like the food and comfort of going to movies there. I decided I could eat, watch a little of the show and, if necessary, take a nap in the comfortable seat.

For some reason, I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen. I was rapt.

The big-screen presentation is crystal clear and as close as you could get to actually watching a live performance ... except that it has close-ups and subtitles and interesting interviews during intermissions with actors talking about their parts and about the plot.

My wife enjoyed it almost as much as I, except that it was a work night and the nearly four-hour show was a little long for her.

Have no fear. On April 30, we went to a Saturday matinee performance of Il Trovatore. I figured it would be, for me, a test to see if my interest in the first opera was a fluke. It wasn't. Even though the plot was a little twisted in some spots, the subtitles made it easier to understand and I almost whooped with excitement when the gypsy Azucena ended the opera with the line, "You are avenged, oh mother!"

Most opera stories, it seems, are based on pretty melodramatic plots that seem overly familiar because they have been borrowed, a lot, by other entertainment media. But something about the music took hold while I wasn't really paying attention, and brought me emotionally to the place the composer wanted me to be.

We already have tickets for the May 14 performance of Die Walkure and I can't wait. I need to test myself to see if I can hear Ride of the Valkyries without thinking of helicopters and Apocalypse Now. And, if I can, I will look for a chance to see if I can hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.

And you don't have to sit and eat in the upstairs CineBistro auditorium. More modestly priced seats and food are also available.

A final point: It seems so far that in most operas the people in power are venal, cruel, corrupt and self-obsessed.

That means that, no matter where I am in the world, if I am homesick and can find an opera house, I will be able to enjoy a little piece of my home state for a couple of hours.

See you (another phrase I thought I would never hear or utter) at the Opera.

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