Opera in The Cloud

The Cloud by OperaWorksWhen we were planning the shows for my wife’s birthday weekend, one of the shows on Goldstar had a description that said: “Each year at OperaWorks, the company creates a new opera out of a mash-up of famous arias and scenes from the opera canon. Taking the pieces that mean something to each performer, adding improvised dialogue and working them together into an original story allows both performers and audience to connect to these classical works from a contemporary viewpoint, and of course, it is never boring! If you are an old hand at opera then you will appreciate the way old favorites are transformed by a new context. If you are new to the scene, this is a great introduction to a genre that’s often hard to understand for the uninitiated.”

An opera mash-up. This sounded neat and different and fun and something completely out of our normal sphere of traditional plays, musical theatre, dance, or concerts. So last night saw us at CSUN for “The Cloud“, the final production of the 26th edition of OperaWorks.

OperaWorks (as the programs director noted at the start of the performance) is a program that brings together a group of aspiring opera performers (usually college age), and teaches them the business. That is, it doesn’t teach them how to sing, but rather how to perform: how to act on stage, how to move in a non-operative fashion, how to interact with other characters on stage, and how to do the things that moves the student from being a “singer” to being a “performer”. The production we saw was the culmination of this year’s advanced artist program. The students in the program each selected an aria from whatever opera they wanted. They then combined them, created characters, created a storyline, and performed it. The result was fascinating–something that I (as a more traditional theatre audience) hadn’t seen before. I couldn’t understand the arias (other than what was in the program), but I could feel the emotion. The only indication the songs were out of context was the shifting language of the words. It was just wonderful.

The program was constructed as three acts. Just before each act, the audience was given a sheet listing the arias and the characters in that act. I’ll try to summarize these and comment on what I saw.

Act I took place in a New York Subway. There were a few basic storylines that interacted, ending up (as most operas do) with death. As the act opens, we see the characters on the subway. The first interaction is between Lindsay (Lindsay ReigelFB), a janitor, and Jenna (Jenna SiladieFB). They had been in rehab together; Lindsay made it out, but Jenna didn’t. Lindsay tries to convince Jenna to try again, but Jenna resists, singing “Voyons, Manon” (Manon, Jules Massenet). Jenna then interacts with Anna (Anna WardFB), who is obsessed with her cell phone. She sings “O luce de quest anima” (Linda de Chamounix, Donizetti) [O light of my life, I will only live for you] about her love of her cell phone. Jenna convinces her to try drugs instead. Other characters we meet over the course of the act include Alexis (Alexis Alfaro), who is looking to meet his love from the Internet, Alina (Alina Roitstein/FB). Alina, however, has a secret that only Madame Lavonna (Amanda McGarryFB), the owner of a high-end escort service, knows. Madame Lavonna, always on the lookout for talent, attempts to recruit Kimberly (Kimberly Waite/FB), a runaway needing money. Lavonna also has to deal with the departure of one of her top escorts, Lisa (Lisa Stidham). Lisa is leaving to be with Brendan (Brendan Stone), a former CEO of a large hedge fund company, fired for unethical business practices after his now ex-wife, Cass (Cass PanuskaFB) turned him in.  Cass is also in the subway, wandering and pregnant, living as a pickpocket. Anyway, Lavonna doesn’t want Lisa to leave, so she dispatches Alyssa (Alyssa Narum/FB) to kill her. Alyssa is a paid assassin working for Madame Lavonna; she is also Kimberly’s estranged sister and doesn’t want her to go work for the Madame. Lastly, playing piano was Kelly Trackarumblin (Kelly HorstedFB), the last of a long line of toll both operators.

This is much more complicated than one sees in the simplified world of music theatre. I’m sure most of this is due to the nature of the mashup, but I also understand convoluted stories and characters are traditional in the opera world. Arias in the act, other than ones I mentioned above, were “Dies Bildnis is bezaubernd schön” (Die Zauberflöte, Mozart); “In uomini, in soldati” (Così fan tutte, Mozart); “Ma quando tornerai” (Alcina, Händel), “Warm as the Autumn Light” (The Ballad of Baby Doe, Moore); “Notre amour” (Fauré), “Que fais-tu, blance tourerelle” (Roméo et Juliette, Gounod), “Hence, hence, Iris hence away!” (Semele, Händel), “Je veux vivre dans la reve” (Roméo et Juliette, Gounod), and “Dove sono i bei momenti” (Le nozze di Figaro, Mozart). Of course, the artists did a wonderful job with the music. Watching them sing you could see that they love this music; you could also see how an opera singer sings differently than a musical theatre performer. Where I saw this most was when Cass Panuska was singing her Mozart aria. She appears to be pregnant in real life, and it was fascinating to watch the muscles in her diaphragm move her baby as she sang. What a wonderful way to be rocked to sleep! You don’t see that power and concentration in a typical musical theatre performer. What was more interesting in this act was watching the artists deal with being actors: creating characters, even if they were in the background. I noticed this particularly in the movements of Jenna in the background, who stayed in character as the drug addict, or Alyssa slinking around as the assassin (as well as the movements of Cass, who was sneaking around stealing things). About the only negative here (which was truly minor) was Amanda’s Madame Lavonna. Her singing voice was wonderful, but a couple of times her speaking voice had more of the operatic timber to it than did any other character.  But that’s truly minor; the performances here were wonderful.

Act II was completely different. Act II took place in a wax museum (they said it was abandoned, but an abandoned museum wouldn’t be putting up new displays or have a guard). As in “Night at the Museum”, the waxworks come alive in the evening and interact with each other. The quest for love was a big theme here: both between the characters, and between the guard and one of the mannequins who is currently characterless. This act opened with the guard, Josef (Josef Curtis/FB) bringing in Dasha (Dasha JensenFB), a confused mannequin stripped of her identity, longing to be touched. Watching this is Annalise (Annalise BelnapFB), a teenager lost in drug addition. Other characters in the wax museum were  Dorothy Louise Taliaferro “Del” Martin (Maria BellancaFB), the first lesbian to be married in California; “Del” was in love with Melissa Scott (Alyssa Callaghan/FB), a pastor in denial about her porn star past. Scott is loved by Dr. Homer Adkins (Anthony Whitson-MartiniFB), a chemist who has trouble accepting the relationship. Also at the museum is Lolita Lebrón (Zohaniris Torres/FB), a Puerto Rico nationalist, Louise Ranier (Meera CrowFB), the first woman to win two consecutive Oscars; Charlotte Brontë (Isabella IvyFB), the author of Jayne Eyre; Selena Quintanilla (Andrea FloresFB), the Queen of Tejano Music, and Walter Hagan (Daniel Hunter-Holly), a professional golfer. No real relationships here, other than the fact that Hagan is a womanizer and attempts to hit on anything (which naturally evokes reactions in the other characters–particularly Lolita Lebrón. Liberace (Eric SedgwickFB) was at the piano.

Arias in Act II were “Lonely House (Street Scene, Weill); “Je suis encor tout étourdie” (Manon, Massenet); “When the air sings of summer” (The Old Maid and the Thief, Menotti), “Meine Lippen, sie Küßen so heiß” (Giuditta, Lehár); “Canto Negro” (Cinco Canciones Negras, Montsalvatge), “Regnava nel silenzio” (Lucia de Lammermoor, Donizetti), “Vedrai, carino” (Don Giovanni, Mozart), “Nobles seigneurs, salut!” (Les Huguenots, Meyerbeer), “La maja y el ruiseñor” (Goyescas, Granados), “Vedró mentr’io sospiro (Le nozze di Figaro, Mozart), “Chévere” (Cinco Canciones Negras, Montsalvatge), and “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” (La Rondine, Puccini). As in Act I, the singing her was top-notch; I was particuarly taken by the performances by Zohaniris Torres, Maria Bellance, Isabella Ivy, and in particular, Dasha Jensen. Jensen was remarkable especially because her costume permitted one to watch her incredible muscle control. Again, it was also fun to watch the artists learn to play characters, in particular Ivy’s Brontë, Bellanca’s Martin, the anger and interactions between Hunter-Holly’s Hagan and Whitson-Martini’s Adkins, and the fire and anger of Torres’ Lebrón.

Act III was the inspiration for the title of the piece, as it takes place in the Internet cloud. Yes, yes, I know — but we’re dealing with opera folks, not engineers like me… so suspend your disbelief (just like you did when you watched Tron). We’re introduced to the cloud through Erin (Erin AndersonFB), an “oracle” who can connect you with any information in exchange for “likes”. As the act begins, we meet Simon (Simon BarradFB), a porn start who has become addicted to his own sexually-deviant website. Simon has created a virus, Sarah (Sarah YoungFB) and unleashed it to destroy the Internet in order to reconnect with Tiffany (Tiffany MortensenFB), his former love. Opposing Simon are Karen (Karen Hogle Brown), an online website hosts who controls Simon through sexual addition, and Alex (Alexandra HillFB), a CIA spy on a mission to prevent the attack. Erin, the Oracle, directs Alex to talk to Greg (Gregory VoinierFB), Simon’s business parter, who is now focused on Jessica (Jessica VadneyFB), an online reality-sex star. Greg is estranged from his daughter, Laurel (Laurel Semerdjian/FB), who is looking for love online to deal with her desk job at the CIA. Lastly, Tiffany is supported by Theresa (Theresa PilzFB), the avatar of her deceased mother. Overseeing this all is HRH Kevin (Kevin BylsmaFB), the all knowing all seeing pianist CEO of the Universe.

Arias in Act III were “Come now a roundel” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Britten); “Come scoglio” (Così fan tutte, Mozart), “No word from Tom” (The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky), “Smanie implacabili” (Così fan tutte, Mozart), “Vision fugitive” (Hérodiade, Massenet), “Be kind and courteous” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Britten), “Laurie’s Song” (The Tender Land, Copland), “Der Hölle Rache” (Die Zauberflöte, Mozart), “Flowers bring to every year” (The Rape of Lucretia, Britten),  “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” (Die Tote Stadt, Korngold), and the finale, “Des cendres de ton coeur, réchauffe ton génie” (Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Offenbach). Again, the singing was at the top of the game; in particular, the finale when all of the artists came together to blow the roof off the recital hall. But, of course, the focus wasn’t the singing, it was the acting. A particular standout here was Erin Anderson, who was in character throughout the intermission (handing out “likes” for the OperaWorks Facebook page); her behavior reminded me of the marionette’s from Wisdom 2116. It was also fun to watch her interaction with Jessica Vadney. Jessica was very, umm, well endowed, which worked well with her character as an online sex star. In a battle to get more “likes” with Erin, the interchange over chests (as Erin was much less endowed) was quite well played. Of course, as operas will do, there was lots of death in this one, including the death of the Internet (which troubled me — I was wondering if it was a reflection of the artists on the problems created by technology).

So, over these three acts, was there a theme? I think so, and it was essentially the same theme that we saw Friday night in Fluffy Bunnies: the search for a love and meaningful relationships.

[ETA: Here are some pictures of the production.]

This production also got me thinking about the differences between traditional “Musicals” and “Opera”. After all, there are some sung-through musicals — look at Evita, Sweeney Todd, Rent, and even productions such as The Pirates of Penzance. What makes these musicals as opposed to opera. Is it the style of the music? The style of the performance? Particular conventions of the story? This production got me curious about that, and the only way to find out is to attend more opera to see the difference.

Turning to the technical. The stage (as well as the entire recital hall) was adorned with pillars that were covered with pictures that either (a) reflected characters in the wax museum, (b) reflected characters in “the cloud”, or (c) reflected the individuals in the program. It was fascinating to wander around and look at these; they actually also provided props for use in Act III.  Lighting was a mixture of normal leikos and overhead lights that could be individually controlled. For the most part, this worked well, although there were times the stage was not lit as it should have been, or the focus was off slightly. This was probably an artifact of the recital hall; the normal stages were probably unavailable due to TADW productions. There was no program credit for lighting design. This production didn’t need any sound design, given the voices. From what I could determine, costumes were provided by the artists themselves; there was no program credit for costumes. Zeffin Quinn Hollis (FB) was the stage director.

OperaWorks is an annual program whose summer program is held at CSUN. There is one more performance of “The Cloud” at 2:00 pm today. Tickets are available at the door or online.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: Next weekend sees us at a more traditional musical, specifically “Meet Me In St. Louis” at Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks. August has a bit less, as we’re going to have some vacation days and will be taking Erin to start UC Berkeley. We’ve only got two shows scheduled: “Memphis” at the Pantages at the beginning of the month, and Play Dates” at REP East at the end of the month. As an aside: we will be vacationing in Palm Springs, so if anyone knows of live theatre going on there in August, let me know. In September theatre activity resumes, beginning with “Blame It On Beckett” at the Colony Theatre on September 1 and “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” at REP East on September 29. I”m also looking into “Silence: The Musical” at the Hayworth Theatre, which starts September 8 and runs through December, and Xanadu” at DOMA, which starts September 7 and runs for about 3 weeks. October brings some traveling for family: the Cal Parents Weekend at UCB (looking less likely now), and the bat-mitzvah of a cousin in Fresno. It will also bring “American Fiesta” at the Colony Theatre, “The Book of Mormon” at Broadway LA/The Pantages, and 1776” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. Continuing the look ahead: November will bring “Moonlight and Magnolias” at REP East, which is booked for the end of the month. It may also bring Seminar” at The Ahmanson Theatre (still undecided on ticketing) and a concert performance of Raul Esparza at VPAC, especially if Erin flies in for it (he’s singing on her birthday). Non-theatrically, it will also bring “Day Out with Thomas” at OERM (certainly on some or all of Veterans Day weekend – November 10-11-12). Lastly, to close out the year, December has nothing formally scheduled (other than ACSAC), but will likely bring Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson, and may bring “Judy Collins” at VPAC. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).


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