As I began thinking about the 2023 Festival Season, I started as I always do with a look back at a long career of doing opera all over this country. What opera gems have I seen, worked on or directed elsewhere that the West Edge audience would be excited by? There is a very long list!
Then comes the boring part. Though we have been growing, we are still tied to doing operas that can be done on the small to medium scale. No one will be surprised that we will probably not be doing War and Peace anytime soon (though you never know!). Generally, chorus needs to be minimal because we just don’t have the resources. The largest expense is the orchestra and rightly so! We stick to operas that can be done with not more than about 25 orchestra members, and usually have one or two operas that are much smaller. With some exceptions, there should be not more than seven or eight principal characters…
OK, boring stuff over, onto the good stuff!
What three operas will go together in a festival to bring you diverse styles, stories and music?
For years we have tried to have something from Mozart’s time or before (my passion), something from the first half of the 20th century (Jonathan’s passion), and then something new or contemporary from the past 20 years. We are both extremely dedicated to doing new opera and we are very proud of our track record of doing second or third productions of new operas. We have also been working on commissioning new opera and our first, Bulrusher, seemed on track to go for this summer; more about why we are doing it next summer in a minute.
About 10 years ago I began hearing about a mariachi opera called Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To cross the Face of the Moon) that Houston Grand opera had commissioned from Leonard Foglia, the famous stage director and writer, and José “Pepe” Martinez, perhaps the best-known mariachi composer. Everyone I talked to had fallen in love with this piece. I finally had the opportunity to see it in Fort Worth in 2017 and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The piece is remarkable, and I immediately tried to bring it here. The problem was that there was a contractual issue with a company like ours doing it with local resources that made it cost- prohibitive. Last year that contract expired, and we wasted no time inquiring about the possibility of doing it. Meanwhile, I was aware that one of our core West Edge singers, Efraín Solís, had taken on the role of Mark in performances in New York and a revival in Houston, and he has since done it in Santa Barbara. Efraín mentioned to me that he would love to take on the central character of Laurentino, and so I decided to build the production around Efraín. Interestingly we have brought on a cast of singers many of whom, like Efraín, have done the opera before, but in different roles than what they will perform for you. We’ve begun talking concept with director Karina Gutierrez and Music Director Sixto Montesinos and I’m very excited by what I’m hearing.
So doing both Bulrusher (brand new) and Cruzar (10 years old) meant that we would have to do without either a Mark piece (early) or a Jonathan piece (20th century). I volunteered to be the martyr.
Thinking about what would appeal to Jonathan’s artistic sensibility, I remembered that I had directed the wonderful short Stravinsky Opera, The Nightingale at Yale in 2010. Its common opera name is oddly the French title, Le Rossignol. It’s not a French opera, but that’s what us opera folks call it! I have very fond memories of the piece and wanted to bring it to West Edge. But what to pair it with? Jonathan had been asking me for several years to do Schoenberg’s Erwartung, a piece that has been under his skin since he can remember. I’ve put him off on this project for so long because it is a monodrama, one woman, unraveling for 35 minutes. Its outrageously difficult for both the soprano and the orchestra. It also just didn’t seem to fit with our model. But with the need to pair something with the Stravinsky, it seemed perfect. Besides, the last time Jonathan asked to do a challenging piece that seemed crazy, we got Lulu!
Jonathan immediately became excited by the pairing since both composers were creating at the same time and there are many interesting comparisons to be made. We will be using a published orchestra reduction for Erwartung, Jonathan is creating his own reduction of The Nightingale to match that orchestration. We invited former Adler Fellow Mary Evelyn Hangley to be the central character and she and Jonathan have been working on her music for months! Since the Nightingale takes place in ancient China, we decided to have an all AAPI cast and reached out to director Gisele Ty, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent. Folks, this will be the weird one - the one that challenges the audience in the best way. Think Ariane last year. These pieces are often the ones that our audience connects with the most and I couldn’t be more excited!
So, we were set. No early piece, but a very interesting well rounded, exciting season. But soon after the orchestral preview of Bulrusher last year, Nathaniel Stookey came to us asking for a delay of a year. As we create these new operas, we are learning how to best support creative long-term work. We know that we want to give these works every opportunity to be excellent, and we know this one can’t be rushed, so we granted Nat’s request. But what to do instead?
Obviously, we needed to bring back an early piece and I decided that the time had come to start revisiting some of the great projects we did in the early days when I had just stepped in as leader of the organization. One of my favorites was The Coronation of Poppea, which is by Monteverdi who basically invented opera. I had made an edition of the opera with cuts I liked and NJ Agwuna, who was contracted to direct Bulrusher, was very happy to take on this piece. I love seeing what other directors create and I love encouraging directors to stretch their imaginations for our smart audience. The wonderful Shawnette Sulker will take on the title role and I convinced (it was easy) Adam Pearl, who conducted Eliogabalo, to return.
With the preview performance of Dolores, our second commission, we have a very strong season. We have three talented women directing our mainstage operas and I can’t wait to get started.