In an era of toppling paradigms and upended business models in the performing arts, opera has become the ultimate paradox. Despite its black-tie galas and astronomical production costs, opera appears to be among the more staid and traditional forms, catering to an educated audience with conservative tastes by presenting familiar works from the 19th century.
While in many instances this remains the case, much opera today is more dynamic and innovative than it has been since its glory years at the beginning of the 20th century. All over the world, new operas are being commissioned and performed on a wider variety of subjects and in a broader range of styles than ever before. In the fall of 2009, Santa Barbara witnessed this phenomenon when Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) produced Séance on a Wet Afternoon, a new opera by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of the breakout international musical hit Wicked.
Commissioned by Montecito patrons of the arts Richard and Luci Janssen, Séance more than fulfilled expectations by not only impressing audiences at the Granada but also being chosen by the prestigious New York City Opera for its spring 2011 season. OSB general director Steven Sharpe characterized the experience as one of great excitement, saying that although “Séance went severely over budget, we are thrilled with the result, especially the acceptance of this new work by the international opera community. And, thanks to the hard work and careful planning of our board, we will, nevertheless, end this season in the black.”
As a result of this winning gamble, OSB’s spring offering, Verdi’s Macbeth, has been scaled back from two performances of a full production to a single concert performance this Saturday, May 8, at the Granada. With the dynamic star baritone Mark Rucker in the title role, and an outstanding cast that includes soprano Rosa D’Imperio as Lady Macbeth, bass Terry Cook as Banquo, and tenor Jeffrey Springer as Macduff, the Verdi version of Shakespeare’s tragedy promises to be a thoroughly satisfying experience, despite the straitened circumstances of its realization in this venue. Supertitles will be projected just as in a dramatic production, and UCSB’s Simon Williams will provide narration to support the singing. Although this is not exactly the Macbeth that OSB originally planned for this spring, the principal elements of the production, which has already been performed at the Fresno Grand Opera on April 30, remain intact.
Man with a Plan
Perhaps the most consequential news from Opera Santa Barbara, though, concerns the arrival of a new artistic director, José Maria Condemi. Condemi has one of the most dynamic records of any contemporary opera director, having been responsible for more than a dozen major productions in the past 10 years, including this season’s new Ernani at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with mega-star Salvator Licitra in the leading role. Born and trained in Argentina, Condemi received his Master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati before serving for several years as a director in the training program at San Francisco Opera. A veteran of theater and opera, with an interest in both traditional material (he’s directing Così fan tutte and Carmen this year) and the contemporary (he did Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw at Cincinnati Opera last year), Condemi will oversee all aspects of Opera Santa Barbara’s programming and direct both of next year’s productions while maintaining his busy international schedule of engagements.
I spoke with Condemi at the opera’s offices last week about what Santa Barbara can expect for the coming years. He said that his interest in this position came partly from his experience training younger singers at the San Francisco Opera. “I ran into such talent, both in San Francisco and elsewhere” he said, “that it made me think how extraordinary it would be to have a base such as this from which to offer them opportunities. I was working with people, and two years later they were turning up onstage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and I just thought if I had a chance, I could build these early relationships into something more lasting, and this is what I plan to do in Santa Barbara.”
When I asked about Condemi’s opinion of the Granada, I learned that Opera Santa Barbara plans to return for the first half of their next season to the Lobero. Condemi offered this rationale for the decision: “The Granada is a beautiful theater and excellent, acoustically, but I like the Lobero very much, too—for certain kinds of operas. For instance, Turandot at the Lobero would be constrained, but at the Granada, it would be magnificent. Likewise, Così fan tutte. One might miss the intimacy at the Granada, but at the Lobero, it would be ideal. So I am hoping that we can produce something smaller at the Lobero in November 2010, and then a more elaborate opera at the Granada in March or April of 2011.”
Condemi went on to say that he looks forward to expanding the horizons of Opera Santa Barbara beyond even these two important venues, adding that he is “also interested in looking at spaces that haven’t been used for the opera before. It would be great to work with younger artists in a black-box theater, or even to do something outdoors if the right opportunity presents itself. Lotusland, for instance, is amazing. Those cacti outside of the main office building are almost like characters in an opera all by themselves—so eerie and dramatic.”
Overall, 2009-2010 has been a year of great achievement and significant change for Opera Santa Barbara. As President Duncan Mellichamp put it, the organization is “emerging from its own time of the ‘100-year storm.’ Since last April, we moved into the Granada, produced a world premiere of Stephen Schwartz’s first opera to critical acclaim, finished up a two-year strategic planning exercise seeking to extend opera to new audiences, hired brilliant new artistic director José Maria Condemi, and fought the worst economy in two generations. I just want to forget all the business issues we spent so many hours on and thank our hardworking board, staff, and faithful donors for getting us through it.”
Opera Santa Barbara presents Macbeth on Saturday, May 8, at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org for tickets and info.