Intimate stories near and far
Combining provocative and intriguing tales with lush music and excellent performers, Arizona Opera’s 2019/2020 performances move from the dangerous tension of 1950s Washington, DC to Frank Lloyd Wright’s tumultuous early years in the snug surroundings of Taliesin. Visit the streets of 19th-century Paris beloved by artists, absorb the sun-drenched desert sky of the Southwest, and finish the season at a frothy, fantastic dinner party mash-up of mythology and farce.
The curtain rises on Shining Brow, part of the McDougall Arizona Opera RED Series (Sep. 27-29 at Phoenix’s Herberger Theater; Oct. 5-6 at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art). It’s focused on Frank Lloyd Wright’s life between 1903-1914, including pivotal points in his relationships with his wife and his mistress, culminating in the devastating multiple murder and fire which destroyed Taliesin and ended Wright’s Prairie School period.
Composer Daron Hagen, who studied with David Diamond, Lukas Foss and Ned Rorem, wrote Shining Brow in 1993 with poet Paul Muldoon, dedicating the opera to the memory of his teacher Leonard Bernstein. Hagen’s works include concertos, chamber music, a dozen operas and hundreds of art songs; The Phoenix Symphony premiered his fifth symphony in 2015.
“I always assume there are people in the audience who are smarter than me, people who get my jokes, and people who are simply there because their husbands made them come,” says Hagen. “All three of those types of people should be entertained.” His multi-layered creation includes nods to Bernstein, barbershop and Der Rosenkavalier.
Hagen created a unique 24-musician incarnation of Shining Brow for Arizona Opera (he calls it the “Taliesin West” version, although the production remains set in Illinois and Wisconsin), condensing the performance length and removing the female voices from the chorus “to heighten the male-dominated world of Frank Lloyd Wright,” explains director Chas Rader-Shieber, who created Arizona Opera’s memorably modern Semele. “There’s a different tone at work when there are only three women in the opera, and they struggle to find their way in this atmosphere of aggressive masculinity.” He continues, “In many ways, this opera is about how Wright the architect became Wright the icon.”
Next in the RED Series comes Fellow Travelers (Nov. 8-10 in Phoenix; Nov. 16-17 in Tucson), written by librettist Greg Pierce with music by Gregory Spears. “We were really excited about Thomas Mallon’s novel,” says Pierce. “It wanted to be a quick-moving opera, almost a play with arias in it.” Pierce adds, “I’d been writing chamber musicals with composer John Kander, but this is a very different style. It’s about economy of language...leaving enough space for Greg’s music to do its work emotionally.”
The opera tells the story of an ill-fated romance during the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who relentlessly purged the State Department of “subversive” elements including homosexuality and communism. Originally developed for Cincinnati Opera, Fellow Travelers stars baritone Joseph Lattanzi, who appeared in Arizona Opera’s Silent Night and The Copper Queen -- he’s also drawn notice on the Barihunks website. Comfortable in antihero roles like Don Giovanni, Lattanzi enjoyed premiering the character of Hawkins Fuller, described by Pierce as “not always a nice guy, but there’s something really compelling about him.”
“Everyone’s the hero of their own story in their mind, right?” says Lattanzi. “Hawk doesn’t mean to be evil and he’s not ill-intentioned. I add a lot of conflict and real human identifiable emotions to the role. This is a love story more than anything.”
According to Lattanzi, Spears’s music is unique -- “nothing that I’ve ever quite heard before,” he says. “It blends a lot of different styles that we are familiar with: minimalism; 14th-century troubadour influence; lyricism...this is a very tonal piece.” He continues, “It’s gripping from all angles -- the pacing of the music and the story and the dramatic climaxes. You get to the end and you feel like you’ve been taken on this emotional roller-coaster...it almost sweeps you away.”
Grand opera returns with the Arizona Opera Main Stage Series and Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème (Jan. 24-26 at Symphony Hall in Phoenix; Feb. 1-2 at Tucson Music Hall), beloved for its struggling artists and entirely hummable melodies. “First and foremost people should come and see it because it’s La Bohème,” laughs Christopher Cano, Arizona Opera’s Head of Music and director of the Marion Roose Pullin Opera Studio. “We’ve assembled a really fine production team and cast,” he says, including sopranos Ellie Dehn and Julie Adams -- who sang last year in Silent Night -- as the doomed heroine Mimì. La Bohème served as direct inspiration for the hit musical Rent, which features themes from Puccini’s opera.
On Jan. 31 (at Holsclaw Hall at the University of Arizona in Tucson) tenor Matthew Polenzani and pianist Cano appear in recital with songs by Hahn, Tosti, Verdi, Puccini, Bernstein, Weill, Lehar and more. Celebrated for his performances with The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago as well as throughout Europe, Polenzani sings as part of the Tucson Desert Song Festival.
Brace for the stampede when Riders of the Purple Sage returns (Feb. 28-Mar. 1 in Phoenix; Mar. 7-8 in Tucson), just three years after its triumphant Arizona Opera world premiere. Fenlon Lamb -- who directed Charlie Parker’s Yardbird in the meantime -- returns with the popular, gorgeous production. It’s highlighted by Ed Mell’s gloriously cloudy artwork, augmented with a state-of-the-art LED video wall and a ranch house based on still-standing Winsor Castle at Pipe Spring National Monument. “We want to feel the passing of time...the expansive nature of the sage, the open desert,” says Lamb. “It just happens to be in this different style that takes your breath away and lets you escape into that world.”
Although he’s written more than a dozen works for stage, Arizona composer Craig Bohmler was himself captivated by the production’s slow-changing projections and the premiere’s collaborative aspects. “I had no idea the orchestra would sound so rich,” he says. “I was able to make it sound big and still get out of the way of the singers.” He asked the Arizona Opera Orchestra musicians for feedback, inviting them to participate in the creative process. “You’ve got to have that big Western movie sound,” Bohmler adds with a grin. “The emotions are high and the landscape is massive.” Bohmler and librettist Steven Mark Kohn based Riders on Zane Grey’s novel and dedicated the opera to the composer’s teacher, Carlisle Floyd.
Lamb looks forward to the opportunity to revisit earlier artistic decisions. “There was a lot of joy and playfulness in this production,” she says. “We’re improving on something that was wonderful -- I was really pleased with what came to the stage.” Lamb continues, “Riders has a lot of overarching ideas of feminine power, of gun control, of religious freedom...of just being human, and understanding; tolerance; abuse of power -- all the things that great opera is.”
Marion Roose Pullin Opera Studio alumni figure prominently in every production, says Cano, and all of the Arizona Opera Studio’s current singers will perform in Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss (Apr. 3-5 in Phoenix; Apr. 11-12 in Tucson). It’s directed by Chuck Hudson, who led Arizona Opera’s entirely delightful black-and-white-silent-film-inflected production of Don Pasquale. “It’s such a quirky piece,” says Cano. “It’s a real opera-lover’s opera -- the last 20 minutes is some of the most sublime music ever penned.”
“Ariadne needs to have a lot of dramatic heft and power,” explains soprano Rebecca Nash, “but there also needs to be spun silvery beauty and a richness of tone and legato through the part...a quality that’s rich and maybe could be described as creamy.”
The work’s originality stems from its unlikely scenario of two different troupes -- one serious, and one comedic -- forced to perform together for a wealthy patron. “The farcical aspect of the piece is shot through what is essentially a dramatic opera,” Nash says. “Drama and comedy are forced together to see what comes out when they’re squashed together...what bubbles to the surface. Joined together it makes a really enjoyable, sexy, fun kind of opera.