Coming Events: Orchestras Raise Curtain On Opera Sans Its Trappings

The Oregon Symphony ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ on Dale Chihuly sets. The 2016-17 symphony season is rich in opera.

DATE BOOK — American symphony orchestras are on the hunt for ways to diversify their offerings and attract new audiences without sacrificing artistic integrity in the process. Full-length concert performances of opera check all those boxes, so it’s not surprising they have proliferated rapidly in the last decade or two.

Large and mid-size orchestras across the country have operas in concert on their 2016-17 schedules, with the degree of staging varying considerably along with range of repertoire. (You’ll find a detailed list below.) Several seek out modern and contemporary works. Béla Bartók’s only work in the form, Bluebeard’s Castle, a 1911 Symbolist treatment of the well-known Bluebeard legend, is popular this season. The Portland-based Oregon Symphony presented it in September on sets by famed glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, with internationally respected Hungarian singers Viktoria Vizin and Gábor Bretz, in a production originally commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. It was the first time the orchestra had offered a semi-staged opera, president Scott Showalter said.

Viktoria Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in ‘Bluebeard’s Castle.’ (Jacob Wade)

Bluebeard’s Castle was the first offering in Portland’s new SoundSights series, which brings a visual dimension to three of the orchestra’s programs this season, including Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphony and Stravinsky’s Persephone, featuring artists  from the Northwest. “We want to stretch the orchestra, we want to stretch our institution and we want to stretch our audience,” Showalter said. He characterized Bluebeard’s Castle as ideal because it took up only one-half of a concert and did not conflict with anything the Portland Opera was doing. “It requires an expansive orchestra and has just two singers onstage,” Showalter said. “Really, the main character of the opera is the orchestra itself.”

Other orchestras presenting concert performances of Bluebeard’s Castle include the Boston Symphony on Oct. 27-29, the Philadelphia Orchestra in March, and the Baltimore Symphony in June.

Operas and opera/oratorios by John Adams will open everywhere.
John Adams: Stagings in L.A., St. Louis, San Francisco and NYC.

The operas and opera/oratarios of American composer John Adams, who will turn 70 in February 2017, are getting considerable special attention. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Adams has served since 2009-10 as creative chair, celebrates his birthday with the presentation of two of his music-theater works as part of a series titled “Adams @ 70.”

His 1985-87 opera Nixon in China, scheduled for March, to be conducted by the composer and directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, will include costumes, video projections, and lighting. “It’s still semi-staged in the sense that we have an orchestra on the mainstage with the singers and performers,” said artistic administrator Meghan Martineau. “And that means there is a lot less space to work with. So, there has to be creative problem-solving by the director to make something that is visually appealing and makes sense but also celebrates the orchestra.” In December, the LA Phil will showcase Adams’ opera-oratorio El Niño, his turn-of-the-century retelling of the Christmas nativity, with multilingual texts drawn from scripture, medieval tracts, and contemporary poetry, three countertenors as narrators, and two steel-string guitars in the orchestral mix.

The LA Phil does an average of two semi-staged opera productions a year, offerings that sometimes fulfill a specific artistic mission, such as this year’s celebration of Adams, one of the most important operatic composers of the past 30 years. Other times, the operas serve as a means of orchestral development: in recent seasons, the ensemble presented all three of the Mozart operas with librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte because music director Gustavo Dudamel felt such performances would improve the orchestra’s playing of Mozart in general. Martineau explained: “I have to say that after those three years, if you were to have listened to our symphony play a Mozart symphony before those three years and after, you’d completely notice a difference.”

Kelley O'Connor will sing the 'other' Mary in San Francisco. (Dario Acosta)
Kelley O’Connor, the ‘other’ Mary in San Francisco. (Dario Acosta)

Adams’ 70th is also being celebrated at the San Francisco and St. Louis symphonies, which present his opera-oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012) in February and March, respectively. In San Francisco, the young Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, who led the world stage premiere of the work for English National Opera, conducts a cast that includes mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor as Magdalene, tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Lazarus, and countertenor narrators Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley. The same cast travels to St. Louis, where music director David Robertson conducts, before taking the entire production to Carnegie Hall. “Above all,” New Yorker critic Alex Ross has written, “it is a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown.”

Elsewhere, ensembles are sticking to more familiar repertoire. Conductor Andrew Litton, artistic adviser and principal guest conductor of the Colorado Symphony, whose previous presentations of Hansel and Gretel and Tosca drew full houses, is offering the complete La Bohème Oct. 21-23. The orchestra’s semi-staged productions of varying elaborateness were originally created by director Robert Neu as finales for Sommerfest, the Minnesota Orchestra’s summer music festival. “No matter what you do,” said Litton, who also serves as the Minnesota festival’s artistic director, “if it’s sung compellingly and played beautifully, it’s very powerful, because the pieces are great to start with.” Opera Colorado presents only two mainstage productions a season, Litton added, so there is plenty of room for additional performances of opera classics.

The Pacific Symphony presented 'Turandot' in 2016. Next up - 'Aida.'
The Pacific Symphony presented ‘Turandot’ in 2016. Next up – ‘Aida.’

Pacific Symphony music director Carl St. Clair, whose previous posts included general music director of Berlin’s Komische Oper in 2008-10, began adding semi-staged performances of opera to the Pacific Symphony’s offerings in 2011 after the demise of Opera Pacific in 2008. “I just couldn’t imagine our vibrant musical and artistic scene in Orange County without opera,” he explained via e-mail. “Opera had been an offering for so many years and then, poof, it was gone. I felt it was my responsibility, having led, as music director, two opera houses in Germany, to re-plant this wonderful art form into our lives.”

Like the Colorado Symphony, St. Clair has hewed to presentations of well-known operas such as Carmen and Turandot as a way to instill the form into what he called “the basic DNA” of the orchestra and its audience. This season’s installment, in February 2017, is Verdi’s Aida. The turn-out for last season’s Turandot  was the largest in the symphony’s 38-year history. “It was a major endorsement from our Pacific Symphony family,” St. Clair said, “compelling evidence that opera has found its place in our musical lives for years to come.”

Here’s a quick look ahead at some operas and opera/oratorios in concert in 2016-17:

'Bluebeard's Castle' onstage at the Oregon Symphony. (Brud Giles)
‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ is the first of the Oregon Symphony’s three SoundSights offerings. (Brud Giles)