What Is It With Opera Singers and Sex?

Operaworks 2013 - Exposureuserpic=dramamasksI’m not normally an opera person. Live theatre – bring it on. Musicals and light opera – I’m right there. But full on opera? I’ve actually never been to one, unless you count Porgy and Bess (Houston Grand Opera back in 1976). That said, last year we found a form of opera that I really like. It is the culmination of the advance session at a training program at CSUN called Operaworks. It is a special performance that is, essentially, an opera mashup. However, it’s not a mashup in the normal sense, nor is it a “stand up and perform” concert either. Let me explain.

Operaworks is a program for advanced performers. These artists already know how to sing — they have bachelors, masters, and even doctorates in music and many have performed professionally. But although they know how to sing, what they don’t know is 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”.  This is what they learn in the advanced program. For their culmination, each student in the program selects an aria from whatever opera they want. They then create characters to go with their arias, figure out how they will interact, construct a somewhat coherent storyline (but no real plot), do slight costuming, and perform it.

The resulting “show” is not a traditional show, nor a traditional opera. You have a summary of the characters and a list of the arias, but there is no real story nor point to make. This doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict — there’s lots of conflict and emotion, and you spend your time watching groups of characters interacting. However, it doesn’t have the traditional progression of a single protagonist to achieve a goal against obstacles. To those that know opera (which I don’t), you go to hear the arias and assess how well they are performed. You won’t find that from me. Rather, I listen to the beautiful music and voices and hear the emotion of the characters, and judge how well that fits with the performance from the characters. Every year is unique, and this is something you truly won’t see somewhere else. Operaworks for this year is done, but I strongly suggest you friend them on Facebook or otherwise get on their mailing list, and go to next year’s show.

Let me describe this year’s show and characters. This will be rough, as I’m doing it from memory and the information they provided in the program.  This year’s show was called “Exposure”, and the through-theme appeared to be characters exposing their emotions and inner wants. What did they want? This year, it appears to be love and sex. Hmmm, last year they wanted love and sex as well. I sense a theme for opera singers here. This year’s production also interspersed poetry from Ackerman, Akhmatova, Baudelaire, Cummings, Ded, Dickenson, Donne, Eliot, Erdrich, Gibran, Griswold, Hughes, Hugo, Millay, O’Hara, Oliver, O’Meally, Rilke, Ryan, Silverstein, Supertramp, and Updike.

The first act (“Asylum/Funeral”) was really two half acts that were not the really closely related. The first act took place in an asylum of some form, in which we meet a number of patients and their doctors. It’s hard to describe the story, so I’ll go through the characters and their arias in the order sung. We first see Kylena (Kylena Parks (FB)), who is being held in the asylum against her will. She’s in a wheelchair, being berated by Dr. Emmanuel (Emmanuel Cruz/FB), the head doctor.  She sings “Willow Song” (The Ballad of Baby Doe, Moore). In parallel to this, Erin A. (Erin Alcorn (FB)), a patient traumatized by an abusive doctor, is expressing sorrow at the plight of fellow patents through the song “Prendi, per me sei libero” (L’Elisir D’Amore, Donizetti). We next meet Roland (Roland Mills (FB)), a psychiatrist at the asylum dealing with sex addiction. He is interacting with Joannah (Joannah Ball (FB)), an exotic dancer trapped in the asylum. She sings “Saper vorrestte” (Un Ball in Maschere, Verdi), while at the same time Rebecca R (Rebecca Richardson (FB)), the head administrator of the asylum, sings “Vilja-Lied” (Die Lustige Witwe, Lehár). At this point, Dr. Emmanuel asserts himself, singing “O Colombina, il tenero fido Arlecchin” (I Pagliacci, Leoncavallo). We next meet Serena (Serena Eduljee (FB)), a former patient who has escaped and returned for revenge. She sings “S’altro che lagrime” (La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart). Lastly, we meet Carami (Carami Hilaire (FB)), who has been forced to seduce clients for money, but wants to meet someone she loves. She sings the last aria in the Asylum half, “Come in quest’ora bruna” (Simon Boccanegra, Verdi). This half ends with all the patients and other doctors killing Dr. Emmanuel.

Some observations on this half. First, as you can see, summarizing the story is difficult. My attention was more focused on just watching the interactions between characters, and the movements and interactions of characters in the background. A few things stand out in my mind. First, all of the performers were exceptional singers (to my untrained ear) and beautiful to watch — both in their facial expressions and their movements. This was true throughout the show. I was also impressed how they worked to stay in character, and appeared to be enjoying acting things out.

The second half of Act One (“Funeral”) took place at Dr. Emmanuel’s funeral, and dealt with all of the weird family interactions and relationship between the survivors (yup, this is opera). It started with his children, Alexandra and Madison, mourning his passing. Elizaveta (Elizaveta Agladze (FB)) enters. Elizveta has one of the better full character descriptions in the show: “Elizaventa is a lame prostitute working for Dr. Emmanuel, while secretly having a love affair with his daughter, Alexandra. Her leg was maimed in an encounter with an especially enthusiastic BDSM client.” [I’m sure this says something about the secret life of opera singers 🙂 ] She sings “O mio Fernando” (La Favorita, Donizetti), expressing her love for Alexandra. Alexandra (Alexandra Fees/FB) is at the funeral with her husband Philippe (Philippe Pierce (FB)), who is torn between staying with Alexandra and leaving her for her sister, Madison. She sings the aria “Comme autrefois dans la nuit” (Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Bizet) while Phillippe sings “O blonde Cèrés” (Les Troyens, Belioz).  Trying to prevent further problems, Sylvia (Sylvia Baba (FB)), Alexandra’s daughter, is attempting to prevent her aunt Madison from reconnecting with her father. She sings “Tu che di gel sei cinta” (Turandot, Puccini).  Adding to the mess at the funeral is Will (Will Vestal/FB), who has had difficulty with women. He is currently engaged to Madison, but still in love with Natalie (Natalie Dewey/FB) — a rich hieress who turned him down, but now regrets it and is still in love with him.  Will sings “Io già t’amai” (Rodelinda, Händel) to Natalie, and she sings “Mi chiamano Mimì” (La Bohème, Puccini). Aine (Aine Hakamatsuka/FB) uses this to prove to Madison at Will does not love her, singing “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” (Falstaff, Verdi). At the end, everything does unravel, as Philippe leaves Alexandra for Madison, and Madison (Madison Smith (FB)) sings “Martern aller Arten” (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart).

The latter half of Act One was much more understandable, given the crazy family dynamics. It was interesting to watch the character interactions, and as always, the voices and faces were just beautiful.

Act Two was titled “Speakeasy Brothel” and had no connection to Act One. I found this act much harder to follow, but much more interesting to watch (likely due to the nature of the characters and their costumes — did I mention that all of the performers were exceedingly beautiful/handsome?). This act basically dealt with brothel owners attempting to control their prostitutes, and dealing with family dynamics. The act started with Beth (Beth Hoselton (FB)), a swinger and performer at the Gatsby Brothel. She is married to Shane, but Shane is in love with Alyssa. Beth opens the act by singing “Chacun le sait” (Le Fille du Régiment, Donizetti). We next meet another performer at the brothel, Danielle (Danielle Lozano (FB)), the seductive bisexual. She sings “Silver Aria” (The Ballad of Baby Doe, Moore). Lastly, we’re introduced to Rainelle (Rainelle Krause (FB)), the “successful narcissistic dominatrix” (although I didn’t see much narcissistic in the performance, and the main dominatrix element was a very tight leather corset — it was amazing how she sang “Ah! non credea mirarti” (La Sonnambula, Bellini) with it on). Into this mix comes Kevin (Kevin Peters (FB)), a pimp without a stable of women. He’s looking for new girls at the Gatsby, but instead finds Erin O. (Erin O’Meally (FB)), a drag queen who only wants acceptance for who she is.  While Kevin sings “È un folle, é un ville affetto” (Alcina, Händel), Erin sings “De qué me sirve” (Los Diamantes de la Corona, Barbieri). Also working at the brothel is Alyssa (Alyssa Marshall (FB)), a bouncer and entertainer, who sings “Deh vieni, non tardar” (Le nozze di Figaro, Mozart), expressing a secret passion for Shane (the husband of Beth, who we met at the opening of the act). Shane (Nicholas “Shane” Tapley/FB) responds by singing “Una furtiva lagrima” (L’Elisir D’Amore, Donizetti). Trying to regain control of her brothel, the madam, Mariya (Mariya Kaganskaya (FB)) sings “Kuma’s Arioso” (The Enchantress, Tchaikovsky).  We then meet some more of the prostitutes at the brothel. First is Amanda (Amanda Workman (FB)), a troubled shy prostitute in love with her cousin’s fiancé, who sings “Einst träumte meiner sel’gen Base” (Der Freischütz, von Weber). There is also Lauren (Lauren Barchi (FB)), who is consumed by drink and abusive relationships. Lauren sings “Piangerò la sorte mia” (Giulio Cesare, Händel). Into this mix is added Barbee (Barbee Monk/FB), a rival brothel owner who wants to steal some prostitutes. She also wants forgiveness from Aaron (Erin Gonzalez), who has come to the brothel to see his sister for advice about a recent breakup. Barbee interacts with Andrea (Andrea Lyons/FB), a prostitute who wants help finding a new job and a new life. While Barbee sings “Quando m’en vo” (La Bohème, Puccini), Andrea sings “O mio babbino caro” (Gianni Schicchi, Puccini). Aaron (Erin G.) then responds to Barbee and his sister, singing “Che farò senza Euridice” (Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck). Responding to all of this is Rebecca C. (Rebecca Coberly (FB)), who will ruin anyone who will take what is hers. She sings “Donde lieta uscì” (La Bohème, Puccini). Also trying to take away prostitutes is the other bouncer, Philip (Philip Morgan/FB), who sings “Here I stand…” (The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky). Last in the mix is Laura (Laura Perkett (FB)), a socialite, who wants to apologize to her daughter, and have her come back home. She sings “I go, I go to him” (The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky).

This act was much more visually interesting, but I found it harder to follow what story there was. Still, the music was so pretty :-).

Turning briefly to the technical… music was provided by Daniel Gledhill and Kelly Horsted in Act One, and Douglas Sumi and Margaret Singer in Act Two. Jennifer Potell was the stage manager. Staging was very simple: a backdrop with a simple supertitle of the basic theme of each aria, and simple lighting. A few props.

OperaWorks is an annual program whose summer program is held at CSUN.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  August starts with Nine at DOMA Theatre Ensemble (FB). That will be followed by “The Apple Tree” at ELATE/Lincoln Stegman]. Otherwise, August is currently completely open due to vacation planning, although we may see a show at the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido at the end of the month (depending on price), or at another venue in San Diego. September may bring Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play at the Production Company/Secret Rose (FB) and “Blue Man Group” at the Hollywood Bowl. The middle of the month may bring “The Vagina Monologues” at REP East (FB), and the end definitely sees us back at REP East (FB) for “God of Carnage” (September 28). October 5th brings “Breath and Imagination” at the Colony Theatre (FB), as well as the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” at the end of the month (October 26). November will start (hopefully) with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB), as well as ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale). November will conclude with “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) at the end of the month (November 23), and “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB).  The fall should also bring a production of “Carrie – The Musical (FB) by Transfer Theatre, but the specific dates have not been announced. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013/2014 season announcements. 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).


2 Replies to “What Is It With Opera Singers and Sex?”

    1. Glad you liked it. Not being an expert in Opera, it was hard to tell things apart (you can tell I tried), but the music was just wonderful to listen to. One of these years, I’ll have to try a full-on opera to balance out my normal musicals 🙂

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