Friday, August 12, 2016

Klingons Just Want To Have Fun

In 1966, when Gene Roddenberry's television series, Star Trek, was first aired on television, audiences heard William Shatner intone these famous words:
"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."
Where no man has gone before? Possibly. But not where no man has ever imagined going. Roddenberry's sci-fi adventures were inspired by Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel, Gulliver's Travels. Nearly 150 years later, Jules Verne started publishing surreal works of fiction which would later earn him the title of "The Father of Science Fiction."
Paul Philippoteaux's cover art for Jules Verne's 1877 novel,
Off On A Comet (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The early days of silent film saw outer space as a perfect environment for exploration. Consider the ground-breaking 1902 short entitled "A Trip to the Moon" and 1904's "The Impossible Voyage" by Georges Méliès. In 1909, Segundo de Chomón y Ruiz followed up with "A Trip to Jupiter."

Since then, film, television, and narrative fiction have produced lots of stories set in outer space or on alien planets. From the seriousness of Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 1968 masterpiece entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey to the spectacle of the Star Wars films and the sheer inanity of Mel Brooks's 1987 farce, Spaceballs, audiences have boldly gone where no man [or woman] has gone before. With NASA's Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter (and Elon Musk and Richard Branson hoping to make commercial space travel possible within their lifetimes), most people understand that the part of Earth's atmosphere that we call the sky is no longer the limit.

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America’s opera companies have been struggling for decades to attract new audiences. From educational outreach programs into schools to pre-performance lectures, from LGBT nights at the opera to same-day rush ticket sales, companies have been looking for new ways to put warm bodies in the seats of their performing venues.

The days when Danny Newman’s book (Subscribe Now!: Building Arts Audiences Through Dynamic Subscription Promotion) ruled box office revenue have long since passed. With on-line ticketing now available on the Internet (as well as mobile apps like StubHub), single ticket sales have become more critical than ever.

During the 1980s, Michigan Opera Theatre attempted to make inroads among Detroit's ethnic groups by staging a series of minority-oriented operas -- Armen Tigranian's 1912 opera, Anoush, Stanislaw Moniuszko's 1865 opera, Straszny Dwor (The Haunted Manor); and Scott Joplin's second opera, Treemonisha (which was composed in 1910 but did not receive its official premiere in 1972) -- with help from the local Armenian, Polish, and African American communities.

Many companies now experiment with performing chamber operas and contemporary works in more intimate venues than the opera house and arranging group sales for the Metropolitan Opera's Live In HD screenings in movie theatres. However, few impresarios are willing to treat their long-time subscribers as the dying members of a fading civilization. As they search for clever ways to attract new audiences, they often overlook the psychology that drives younger, more enthusiastic consumers to expensive events like San Diego Comic-Con International and BroadwayCon.

Brian Cheney (Captain T. Belmonte) battles a Gorn in
Abduction From The Seraglio (Photo: Pacific Opera Project)

Several years ago, when Josh Shaw, the co-founder and Artistic Director of Pacific Opera Project (POP), was looking for a way to update or reimagine Abduction from the Seraglio, the word “abduction” instantly sparked a word association with the term “alien abduction.” After much research, the happy result was a Star Trek-themed approach to Mozart’s 1782 opus that would be fun for traditional opera audiences while attracting newcomers who might otherwise show absolutely no interest in attending an opera.

Following the production’s 2014 debut at the Southern Illinois Music Festival in Carbondale, Shaw’s staging delighted audiences at his home base in Los Angeles, Scenic City Opera in Chattanooga, Alamo City Opera in San Antonio, and will be staged by the Salt Marsh Opera in Stonington, Connecticut in October. As Shaw notes:
“What I think is so great about Star Trek is that it’s 50 years old this year. That means everyone (from the oldest person you can find to the youngest person you can find) knows this show. If nothing else, they know that the guy with the pointy ears is Spock. I can’t think of another series that so may people could relate to. That’s been the golden ticket with this. People are coming to the opera who would never consider coming to the opera.”
Brian Cheney (center) and Robert Norman (right) fight the Klingons
in Abduction from the Seraglio (Photo: Pacific Opera Project)

Shaw’s staging of Abduction from the Seraglio was recently beamed down to the stage of the 390-seat Regents’ Theatre in the Valley Center for the Performing Arts at Holy Names University in Oakland. The timing could not have been better. This year Festival Opera is celebrating its 25th anniversary while the Star Trek franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary. By producing the event in collaboration with the Oakland Symphony (whose music director, Michael Morgan, is also artistic director of Festival Opera), the production turned out to be a win-win-win event. As the company’s General Director, Sara Nealy, explains:
"Much of the misperception surrounding opera is based on the idea that it is grandiose and elitist. This Star Trek parody, so brilliantly-conceived and created by the talented and imaginative Josh Shaw, is just the kind of tongue-in-cheek satire that Mozart himself would undoubtedly have approved of... and just the remedy to counter pomposity. Festival Opera is at a point where we want to explore, to find new pathways, and to have some fun. We are able to preserve the music, storyline themes, and even most of the lyrics, yet tell a story that a wider swath of contemporary audiences might relate to. All of this is part of our hope that Festival Opera (and indeed the operatic art form) will 'live long and prosper!'"
Shawnette Sulker as Lt. Constanza & Brian Cheney as Capt. James T.
Belmonte in Abduction from the Seraglio (Photo by: Mike Kirwan)

With costumes by Maggie Green and wig and makeup design by Lisa Cross, the production was nicely framed by the unit set and imaginative projections designed by Frédéric O. Boulay. Tribbles crossed the stage under their own power and a Gorn (Kate Sterns) appeared in Act II to do battle with Captain James T. Belmonte (Brian Cheney).

Lieutenant Constanza (Shawnette Sulkier) bore a striking resemblance to Nichelle Nichols’s Lieutenant Uhura. With his pointed ears and Vulcan salutes, Mister Pedrillo (Robert Norman) offered a droll tribute to Leonard Nimoy’s beloved Mr. Spock. Mozart’s Pasha Selim was transformed into an odd-looking Chancellor Selim (Michael Crozier).

Kevin Thompson as Osmin and Sara Duchovnay as Blondie
in Abduction from the Seraglio (Photo by: Mike Kirwan)

While there were plenty of in-jokes for the diehard Trekkies in the audience, the greatest fun came from some of Shaw's characterizations. As Belmonte, tenor Brian Cheney spent much of his time onstage ridiculously mocking William Shatner's needy narcissism and over-the-top acting style. Dressed as a green-skinned Orion slave girlSara Duchovnay's Blondie made one wonder if Miss Adelaide had teleported in to Oakland from a stellar production of Guys and Dolls elsewhere in the universe. Robert Norman's easily perplexed Pedrillo made it clear that his character was having just as much trouble deciding whether he was Vulcan or human as he was figuring out if he was sexually attracted to a human.

While Brian Cheney and Shawnette Sulkier did admirable work as the two romantic leads (and Duchovnay shone as Blondie), the big surprise of the evening was Kevin Thompson's booming portrayal of Osmin. For those not used to hearing an operatic bass in full voice dominating a room, the sheer resonance of Thompson's sound was thrilling (few Klingons have such an impressive lower register).

Captain James T. Belmonte (Brian Cheney) is attacked by
a Gorn in a scene from Abduction from the Seraglio
(Photo: Pacific Opera Project)

Back in the 1960s, Henry S. Levy and Sons (a Brooklyn bakery known for its rye bread) gained fame with an advertising campaign whose slogan was “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish to Love Levy’s.” Just as you don’t have to be Asian to perform in The Mikado, you don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy Shaw’s hilarious new English-language libretto for Abduction from the Seraglio.

The following 30-minute video clip, which features highlights of the Pacific Opera Project's staging of Abduction from the Seraglio, offers a chance to witness Brian Cheney's devastating and hilarious imitation of William Shatner.

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Over the years, I've seen traditional productions of Mozart's opera staged in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, and St. Louis. However, my all-time favorite production was staged only once, for a short run during the Fall 1987 festivities when the Houston Grand Opera moved into its new home in the Wortham Theater Center. Although the attention of the musical press was intensely focused on the world premiere of Nixon in China in the 2,405-seat Brown Theatre, the company also presented a brilliant production of The Abduction from the Seraglio in the more intimate 1,100-seat Cullen Theatre. Conceived by the remarkable Peter Mark Schifter (who died of AIDS in September 1993 at the age of 44), the performance I attended was definitely a night to remember.

Because Schifter had also worked in television, he was able to smoothly incorporate filmed sequences (shot with HGO's cast) into his stage production. In a move which no doubt offended Mozart purists, he transformed Abduction into a wild and woolly romp through the insanity of a 1930s Hollywood sound stage where a Turkish spectacle was being shot. Making superb use of some of Hollywood’s hoariest romantic cliches, he restructured the opera so that the singers portraying Constanze and Belmonte were also seen as offstage lovers (with the man playing Pasha Selim doubling as the film director who was hot for Constanze’s body).

Evelyn de la Rosa as Constanze in Houston Grand Opera's 1987 
production of Abduction from the Seraglio (Photo by: Jim Caldwell)

Once the audience recovered from the initial shock of seeing a show curtain that resembled a lurid pulp fiction poster (which boldly proclaimed that ”She was a slave of pagan lust until she was Yanked From The Harem: An HGO Production”), it was amazing to discover that this overly busy operatic production rested on a solid theatrical concept which had been meticulously thought out from start to finish. Not only did Schifter fill the action with studio execs playing cards, belly dancers idling around the set, and Blonde performing a devastating impersonation of Jean Harlow, at some performances, audiences were startled to see Placido Domingo stroll across the stage in his Radamès costume (Verdi’s Aida was being performed simultaneously next door in the Brown Theatre).

Soprano Evelyn de la Rosa (who tackled the challenging role of Constanze with exceptional musicianship) accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of making “Martern aller arten” look and sound too easy. Tenor Mark Thomsen’s heroic Belmonte and Rod Loomis’s stern Pasha Selim offered the kind of rock-solid masculinity one rarely finds in this opera. I particularly enjoyed Bonaventura Bottone’s campy Hollywood-cockney version of Pedrillo and Jeanine Thames’s wildly funny “dumb blonde” characterization of Blonde. My attention, however, was easily distracted by a handsome bodybuilder in harem pantaloons whose many charms (including deliciously sculpted pecs, temptingly erect nipples, an invitingly mellow moustache, and baseball biceps) could have held me in willing captivity for 1001 Arabian nights.

Evelyn de la Rosa as Constanze in Houston Grand Opera's 1987
production of Abduction from the Seraglio (Photo by: Jim Caldwell)

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