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SJOG Travelers

Small scale opera is with us in full force and it is carving
out a permanent niche
By Mort Levine

Perhaps nothing can quite match grand opera for its magnificence of voices, rich
orchestration, dazzling sets and costumes. But today’s trend toward smaller scale, almost chamber opera, is definite evidence that you can have great opera, if not grand opera.

We need look no further than the winning Opera San Jose production of Streetcar Named Desire by composer Andre Previn, which just closed out their season. It was a dramatic contrast to the conventional San Francisco premiere in 1998. The Mercury News critic couldn’t fathom the minimalist staging and the curtain-less performance. To this viewer, it actually provided an intimacy with the audience rarely experienced at the California Theatre. Credit director Brad Dalton with a creative vision which reshaped this widely known Tennessee Williams’ tale of love, lust, rape and madness across class lines into compelling naturalistic music drama.

The trend toward smaller scale opera is popping up in lots of places.

New Yorker critic Alex Ross recently took note of the plethora of shoestring opera companies surfacing in a range of venues all over New York. Names like Loft Opera (in a bus repair garage), Heartbeat Opera in a church)along with On-Site Opera, Apotheosis Opera, Floating Opera (perhaps on a river boat?) Opera Noire, Utopia Opera and several others.

They provide cheap seats for the curious, opportunities for young performers, and a theatrical intimacy with the audience which simply cannot be duplicated in the big traditional mainstream opera houses.

Every established opera company is now looking at ways to capture some of that youthful exuberance and zest for the new. San Francisco Opera just opened a small venue, the Taube Atrium located in the Veterans Memorial across the plaza and the home of the new $21 million Wilsey Opera Center, with rehearsal halls, set and costume shops, and administrative offices. The 65-foot by 65-foot Taube recently staged Svadba-Wedding, a chamber opera by Ana Sokolovic. It was an example of an operatic form, SFO’s David Gockley explained, that has hit like a wave coming out of nowhere but is going to attract new audiences.

Los Angeles Opera is now doing smaller productions away from the cavernous Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Covent Garden’s Royal Opera in London is remodeling its 400-seat Linbury Studio Theatre to do similar small works. La Scala has had a Piccolo Scala since 1955. Even the Met is looking at equipping a truck to take smaller productions out to the NYC hinterlands.

This welcome breath of fresh air may be just what opera needs as more and more of the traditional season ticket holders begin to age and exit the scene.

(SJOG Newsletter May 2016)

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