From the General Director

John Copley and Colin Graham

The two biggest influences on my craft—both closely associated with Benjamin Britten

John Copley
John Copley

In 1992, after two years of Merola Opera and Western Opera Theater tours, I graduated to the main stage of San Francisco Opera. I was 25, and suddenly surrounded by opera legends, including Marilyn Horne, Frederica Von Stade, Tatiana Troyanos, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Håkan Hagegård. To me, none seemed as colorful or fascinating as the director John Copley. A masterful director, he was also funny and outlandish. The stories he told about Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Montserrat Caballé made me laugh until I cried. At the same time, watching him work with singers was the best education I ever received.

I was an assistant stage manager on Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which John directed. As soon as I heard the music, I was hooked. Reading the liner notes of the original recording I had purchased for reference, I noticed the listing: John Copley, stage director. I suddenly realized that John had been there, had worked with the composer on the original production. For someone still new to all of this, the revelation blew my mind. I went on to assist John on his productions of La Traviata, and, most importantly, Handel's Ariodante in Dallas and at New York City Opera. I learned the craft of Baroque opera from 'Uncle John' (as his opera kids all call him), and I learned how to teach movement in period costume from him as well. But my love of Britten started with his work on "Midsummer," listening to his stories about "Ben." John worked with Britten and Peter Pears in the early years. He told me that he had directed every one of Britten's major operas except for Billy Budd.

Colin Graham
Colin Graham

In the summer of 1999, I worked for the first time with the late Colin Graham, and heard a whole new set of Britten stories. Colin was Britten's main stage director for his later works. I didn't have the chance to work with Colin on any Britten, but I did work on Otello, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and finally Anna Karenina, for which I took over for him as director when he was too sick to complete it. I was also called to take his place in Detroit, staging his production of The Marriage of Figaro. From Colin, I learned structure and spectacle, and received lots of advice about mounting new operas, for which he was famous.

Time spent with Colin was precious to me. He proudly showed me his Order of the British Empire. After he died, I was presented with one of my own proudest possessions: a small brass director's chair with "Colin" engraved on it that was always on his desk. Now it sits on mine.

As I begin to stage my first Britten production, I can't help thinking of these two men from the Britten circle, both of whom were so important to my education as an opera stage director. Recently, I was asked if we should be working in strict British accents in The Turn of the Screw. My reply was that, since we would require proper Italian accents when working in original language Italian opera, we should do the same with original language British opera, knowing that John and Colin would hear of nothing else.

Bonjour M. Gauguin

Mark Streshinsky
Mark Streshinsky   (photo: Matt Mayfield)

To find a modern piece for this season presented challenges. I wanted a recent piece that deserved a second viewing and at the same time was within West Edge's scope. One evening during a particularly productive YouTube surfing session, I came upon an opera called Bonjour M. Gauguin. It linked to a short documentary about the 2005 premiere in Venice. I was taken with the subject and the music of the piece and asked Jonathan to listen, and he too was impressed. It reminded both of us of Debussy, but with a much more modern feel. After downloading the full (self-published) libretto and listening to the recording, we became even more excited by the fresh sound—unlike any we had heard from other contemporary composers. We had to do some vigorous sleuthing to contact the Italian composer, Fabrizio Carlone, who we finally found out, lives in Japan. Carlone was willing to agree to the editing of the piece we wanted to do and was also in agreement that, while the sung language should remain French, for the American premiere, the spoken word of the piece should be translated to English.

Once we determined that West Edge could do the piece, I started to study it intensively. The text is extremely dense, using Gauguin's own words as well as contemporary writing about the artist. The structure of the piece is not particularly narrative, though there is clearly an arc that takes us from the beginning of Gauguin's artistic life through his death. The piece is more a series of scenes that examine what drives Gauguin's artistic processes. The libretto and music seem to complement the creative process of Gauguin's art in its post-impressionist style. The more I thought about the staging, the more it seemed that to tell the story, there should be a performance art/dance element. The success of our recent Mahagonny Songspiel cemented that idea. The two pieces have something in common.

The first person I thought of to help with this style of staging was Yannis Adoniou, whom I remembered from the SF Opera ballet corps. Yannis has been choreographing for opera recently. Our long time lighting designer, Lucas Krech had just worked with him and was enthusiastic. After a few meetings, it was agreed that Yannis and his company Kunst-Stoff Arts would collaborate on the piece. Initially, we planned for Yannis to choreograph certain sections, but it began to seem more interesting for him to take the lead on the artistic aspect of the piece as director/choreographer, while I would assume the role of associate director/dramaturg. In this way, the opera could take on his singular style while staying close and connected to the text, music and scenic ideas. My role was to distill specific ideas in the score and help Yannis to analyze and be inspired by the structure of the work, as well as help create scenic ideas and make them happen within our budget. This process has been an absolute joy and I think our collaboration as well as the expert work of the amazing music director/conductor Mary Chun has made this piece one of our most interesting and avant-garde productions yet.

West Edge Opera’s 2013 Season

The other day a colleague remarked to me on what (I'm told) has become the West Edge brand. "Brand?" I said, not wanting to be the Kelloggs or Apple of the opera world, (though come to think of it, that wouldn't be so bad!) It seems our reputation as a company that takes risks that pay off has evolved into a brand. In this case, to me "brand" means that when a patron walks through the doors of our theater they are expecting something specific. The piece might be new, or very old. It might be familiar or esoteric but it has one thing you can be sure of: It will not be what you are expecting. When dealing with a brand, the most important thing is to continue what the brand is perceived to be and I believe next season does that perfectly. As we begin our fourth season in the new theater and our second season as "West Edge Opera" I'm happy to report that the three operas Jonathan and I have chosen all act as a palette for the unexpected.

Poppea - 1642
Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) is perhaps the earliest work in opera history that is frequently done. Like the majority of pieces from that early period, dramaturgy is completely different from modern works. Working with Gilbert Martinez (who is the artistic director of MusicSources and was a big part of our Xerxes production), gives us a great resource as we re-craft the opera to make it relevant. Characters that are not important to the plot have been removed. In some cases, music has been re-assigned to different characters.

Over the past 60 years, music directors have taken Monteverdi's intended small instrumental ensemble and expanded it into grand opera. All recordings of the work reflect this trend. As an expert in historically informed performance, Gilbert is paring Poppea back to its original elegant form. Our ensemble consists of two harpsichords, plucked instruments, a few wind instruments and a small string group. This means the action, which is largely tuneful recitative, feels exposed, alive and dramatic.

To accomplish this, we have a talented cast of early music experts. Christine Brandes as Nero is a coup for us. Well known internationally as an early music champion, Chris and I last worked together on Handel's Guilio Cesare at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Emma McNairy, who will be Poppea, was a hit with our audiences when she thrilled as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (sometimes singing high coloratura passages while upside down in an arm chair). Countertenor Ryan Belongie is also well known as a former Adler fellow and our Arsamene in Xerxes. Ryan portrays Poppea's former lover and would-be murderer, Ottone. Rounding out our superb cast are singers steeped in the rich Bay Area early music scene, Erin Neff, Brian Thorsett, Tonia D'Amelio and Paul Thompson.

Gauguin - 2006
The idea to do Bonjour M. Gauguin by Fabrizio Carlone came by way of YouTube. My son Evan and I were surfing for crazy videos that people have made (you can, by the way, find clips of most of our recent productions on YouTube). I was suddenly inspired to look there for opera ideas and came across one about the painter Paul Gauguin that was new to me. I love Gauguin's paintings, so I clicked on it and out came the beautiful mellifluous music of Fabrizio Carlone's Bonjour M. Gauguin. I texted Jonathan who was immediately interested. We started searching and soon found a downloadable recording and the entire libretto with translation posted on the web. The more we heard and learned, the more we liked the piece. The text is actually the words of Gauguin and his contemporaries.

Finding the composer turned out to be much more difficult. Normally we would simply approach the publisher. Signore Carlone has elected to follow a trend to self publish, made possible by (once again) the internet and music publishing programs like Sibelius. This means we have to contact him directly. Figuring that six degrees of separation is actually only two or three in the opera world, we took heart. A few clicks on Facebook and we found someone who knows the mezzo from the original production in Venice. She had Carlone's current email. We surprised him one morning with a message saying we wanted to present the American premiere of his opera. That was when we discovered he lives in Japan.

I imagine Bonjour M. Gauguin as a tour through both a gallery and the artist's life. Three "docents" narrate the work using projected paintings to dramatize episodes of Gauguin's life. Gauguin and the people around him are brought to life onstage within those projected paintings. I thought the piece would be served well with a dance element, so I approached choreographer Yannis Adoniou of Kunst-Stoff Arts. Yannis has worked frequently in opera and understands the eccentricities of the art form. At the same time, his brilliant work focuses on truth and he makes art that feels immediate. It didn't take much convincing. We decided to do the production as a collaboration with Kunst-Stoff, making use of the company of six dancers. Especially exciting is the prospect of creating Gauguin's sensual exotic mood of Tahiti and the South Seas with movement.

Bonjour M. Gauguin has scenes that are sung, others that are spoken text with underscore, and other scenes that are purely spoken. Jonathan and I decided that it is important for the spoken sections to connect with the audience in a personal way. While the sung sections are performed in French, we have decided that the spoken sections should be in English. We have enlisted Renée Morel to translate Gauguin's words in a poetic style. Returning to our company are singers Anders Froehlich, Shawnette Sulker, and Keith Perry, and we will be announcing the two other singers in the cast very soon. We are thrilled that new music expert Mary Chun has signed on to conduct.

The Turn of the Screw - 1954
Next summer we will present Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. The 100th anniversary of the composer's birth seemed the perfect time to present our first Britten. The Turn of the Screw is frequently performed world wide, but has rarely been seen in the Bay Area. Its central theme is the destruction of innocence—two adolescent children are involved in unspoken events that are clearly inappropriate and likely immoral. A new governess arrives and is thrown into a psycho-sexual turmoil dealing with the children and ghosts of the offending adults. For this production we are taking our video projection technology to a new—magnificently ghostly—level. Jonathan will conduct the work while Laura Bohn takes on the role of the repressed Governess. Laura was last seen in our production of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel—she played the lusty tart with the big tush! In our world premiere opera Caliban Dreams Laura was the scene-stealing Ariel. The role of "the Governess" will send Laura, known for her clowning, in a dramatic direction we haven't seen from her before. It promises to be a performance not to be missed.

I know you will enjoy the 2013 West Edge season. Purchasing a subscription is a great way to support our company and get a bargain too. For the first time ever, season tickets are available through our website. Come see what the West Edge brand has in store to amaze and delight, and always to deliver some of the finest operatic music in the West . . . and beyond.

Mark Streshinsky
General Director

Video – Mark Streshinsky presents our 2013 season

(running time 4:13):

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