From the General Director
Bonjour M. Gauguin
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
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
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
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
Video – Mark Streshinsky presents our 2013 season
(running time 4:13):