Monday, December 3, 2007

Classics Illustrated

Last year, while interviewing the General Director of a West Coast opera company, our conversation was interrupted when one of his most urgent phone calls was returned. The man on the other end of the line had recently made a fortune in the computer industry and been written up on the front page of the local newspaper. In describing the nuevo millionaire's personal interests, the reporter had casually mentioned that this self-made computer whiz was in the process of building himself a pipe organ.

Anyone with musical interests and money to burn becomes a potential donor to an opera company which is why, upon reading that morning's article, dollar signs immediately registered in the mind of the man I was interviewing. Now the computer millionaire was returning his call and, while chatting him up over the phone, the impresario invited the young man to be his guest at an upcoming performance of Verdi's Otello.

Following a pause in the conversation, I heard him say "Why, it's based on Shakespeare's Othello, of course." After another moment of silence he gasped, "You never heard of it? Well, it's about this guy, you see, who never really fit in with everyone else...."

Although the impresario did his best to score a hit with the young millionaire, his efforts were in vain. As he hung up the phone, he turned to me with a look of chagrin on his face and said "Can you believe that that man has never even heard of Otello?"

Of course, I could believe it. Not only did I remember my classmates joyously tossing their black and yellow Cliff Notes into the trash at the close of each semester, I tried to remind the man seated in front of me that he functions in a rather claustrophobic circle of people who share a keen sense of history, who often speak as many as five languages and who are extremely well-read. Unfortunately, very few of these people understand that their inbred crowd of intelligentsia is severely outnumbered. The impresario had trouble understanding my assertion that the folks he knows comprise a tiny minority.

Like it or not, the Yahoos are winning the battle and I suspect that most Americans, when given a choice between watching Dynasty or sitting through one of Shakespeare's tragedies, would quickly opt for an hour with Joan Collins as opposed to five hours with the Bard of Avon. Thankfully, two contemporary operas were able to accomplish the difficult task of making a classic accessible to modern audiences this spring. And, after watching the crowd's reaction at each performance, I'm convinced that the lives of those who attended these productions were vastly enriched by the experience.


At its world premiere in 1980 (when it was produced under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera as part of the American Opera Project) Kirke Mechem's Tartuffe played to its first audience with the comic grace of a Feydeau farce. When I attended the Eugene Opera's production this spring, the timely humiliation of yet another overly hypocritical televangelist-turned-porno-freak added a great deal to the audience's enjoyment and appreciation of this opera. Although the public now understands that more carnal motivations than mere prayer can force people like the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart to their knees, the false piety of such slimy preachers as Swaggart and Jim Bakker bears a startling resemblance to that of Moliere's lustful and greedy Tartuffe.

While Mechem's Tartuffe may never become a staple of the operatic repertoire, its score is filled with musical wit and charm. Most important, it provides the kind of operatic vehicle which is perfectly suited to the needs of a large university's music department or a small regional opera company which specializes in coaxing solid ensemble work from young singers.

As directed by Eugene Opera's General Director, James Toland, and conducted by Francis Graffeo, Tartuffe was almost as well-received as when Mechem's opera was given its world premiere in 1980. Production values were solid (particularly Ken Holamon's handsome unit set and Elizabeth Poindexter's lavish costumes) and the performance I attended fit snugly into intimate ambience of the Hult Center's 500-seat Soreng Theatre.

Although the entire cast worked well as an ensemble, I was particularly impressed by Marcia Cope's sexy, lyrical Mariane; baritone Richard Rebilas' butchly volcanic Damis (I've always found hot men in cavalier drag to be extremely appealing) and Jonathan Sills' delightfully slimy Tartuffe. Special credit goes to Karen Smith Emerson for her perky maid, Dorine, and to Margery Tede for her overblown characterization of Madame Pernelle. Eric Morris's Valere, Ronald Gerard's Orgon and Patricia Spence's Elmire all added to the fun.


During the previous weekend I was confronted with an odd challenge while attending the Los Angeles Music Center Opera's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although I've seen Shakespeare's classic performed on many stages, Mendelssohn's music for the ballet version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is so solidly embedded in my mind that it was hard for me to imagine another score supporting the dramatic action so well.

Presented as part of the UK/LA Festival, Gordon Davidson's excellent staging of this opera was every bit as fulfilling a theatrical experience as one could hope to find at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival. My musical fears were quickly erased by LAMCO's production which not only did a beautiful job of highlighting the gossamer strengths of Benjamin Britten's score, but also held true to the spirit of Shakespeare's play.

Using Douglas Schmidt's cleverly designed unit set (a movable platform which functioned with a turntable on its floor and Puck's flying apparatus above the proscenium) and Lewis Brown's elegant costumes, this production -- most effectively lit by Paulie Jenkins -- offered audiences a solid evening of opera/musical theatre. Indeed, throughout the evening, LAMCO's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream captured every bit of the theatrical magic that good opera can and should be but so rarely is.

As usual, the actor who made the greatest impression on the audience was the one portraying Shakespeare's Puck. Although he is by no means an operatic talent, John Allee walked off with the show by endearing himself to audiences as the operatic answer to Peter Pan. Michael Gallup's vainglorious Bottom, Heinz Blankenburg's Quince and Greg Fedderly's appealing Flute (not to mention an anonymous but absolutely adorable puppy dog) added to the evening's comic relief.

With the exception of countertenor Jeffrey Gall (who did a superb job singing the difficult role of Oberon) LAMCO's large cast of soloists was recruited from the hefty talent bank of artists who reside in Southern California. Although Alice Baker's Hermia, Angelique Burzynski's Helena and Jonathan Mack's Lysander were all outstanding, I was particularly taken by the vocal and visual strength of baritone Rodney Gilfry's Demetrius. Virginia Sublett's Tytania, Peter Van Derick's Theseus and Stephanie Vlahos' Hippolyta made substantial contributions to the evening.

Thanks to director Gordon Davidson, conductor Robert Duerr and the musicians in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, this production's unbelievably strong ensemble work provided a stunning example of what most opera fans dare to dream for but so rarely have the opportunity to enjoy. LAMCO's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream also offered visitors from the Bay area a stern reminder of the artistic quality which the management of the San Francisco Opera is quick to brag about but all too frequently fails to deliver.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 28, 1988.

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