The world of opera can seem remote and populated by characters with little connection to reality. Sure, the starving artists of La bohème may have some partial analogues in the cities of today, but for every wannabe Mimi in Portland, there are dozens of familiar operatic figures — Siegfrieds, Figaros, and Toscas — who will never find their real-world counterparts. And that’s why this weekend’s Opera Santa Barbara production of Aida is so important, because through the visionary imagination of acclaimed opera director Francesca Zambello, this Aida will bring one of opera’s most enduring achievements firmly into the 21st century. Building on what is already a remarkably relevant plot structure — in which a young woman is forced to choose between loyalty to her family and her chance at romantic love, and in which an Egyptian military commander sacrifices everything for the sake of love — this production will show that feelings for a person of another race or clan can turn even the most hardened of hearts around.
Zambello, who has been artistic director at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, for two years now, has definitely earned her reputation as among the fiercest and most innovative of contemporary opera directors. She is in constant demand worldwide by both opera companies and the producers of musical theater. In this collaboration with Opera Santa Barbara, the main components of her intimate contemporary version of Aida, which was done for Glimmerglass over the summer, are coming together again. Michelle Johnson, who will sing the title role, received particularly splendid notices in New York, and we are fortunate to have a singer of her stature anchoring what promises to be Opera Santa Barbara’s most exciting production yet.
In addition to updating the plot to the 21st century, Zambello has chosen to render the violence of the original in explicitly contemporary terms. The timing for this type of production could not be better for Opera Santa Barbara, as it comes at a moment when audiences may be swayed by the increasing availability of the Metropolitan Opera’s productions into thinking that truly live opera can’t compete with HD. For those who have become used to the admittedly fascinating and soothing consistency of the Met broadcasts, a modernized Aida ought to deliver just the right jolt of adrenaline and enthusiasm for our own company. I spoke with Francesca Zambello last week as she waited for a connecting flight to another one of her far-flung assignments.
What were your intentions when you chose to present Aida in this new way?
I’m committed to doing a lot of these big repertoire pieces, but I want to make them more intimate. In the case of Aida, that’s really necessary because the tradition of these big productions is not even what the story is about. It’s about race and slavery, and it is set against a wartime background. For years it seems that the blood-soaked core of this opera has been covered over by elephant dung.
How close to what you put on at Glimmerglass will this version be?
Michelle Johnson is not the only singer from our cast to be reprising a role in Santa Barbara, so you will hear something very much like what we did at Glimmerglass. They are all great, and they are young, so it is very exciting to see how much they learn and develop within our rehearsal and development process. That’s one of the reasons that we are so pleased that the production will be performed again.
Have you had this date in mind all along?
Yes, it is a genuine collaboration, and I really hope it will be successful, because I would like to do more. It is so important that people see these great classic operas live at some point. Pardon me for saying so, but the whole “Live in HD” label is a misnomer. Those operas from the Met are, for the most part, not being broadcast live, and what’s more, HD is not reality. Reality is the real high definition. There is a visceral feeling to having that sound wash over you in a theater, especially with a composer like Verdi.
What has the response been like so far?
We had a large number of teens in the audience this summer at Glimmerglass, and Aida was a hit with them. “If this is opera, this is cool,” I heard one young person say. The sensibility of the story and the production really got through to them. They have the same doubts about their leaders that Verdi does.
Will you continue to do this kind of work at Glimmerglass? I will be taking on The Flying Dutchman this summer in much the same spirit. I want people to experience grand opera not as some kind of distant spectacle but rather as grand on the emotional level.
Opera Santa Barbara presents Aida on Friday, March 1, and Sunday, March 3, at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). For tickets and information, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadsb.org.