To anyone who has ever sat in the audience at a traditional opera performance and wondered, “What if this were ‘choose your own adventure’?” or even just, “What if I could get up and walk around?,” there’s good news — your wishes have been granted. On Saturday, June 30, at 2 p.m., and again on Monday, July 2, at 7 p.m., the Music Academy of the West will present an innovative program of scenes and short operas, half of which will take place outdoors in various locations on the Miraflores campus. As devised by director James Darrah, the first portion of the program, titled “Opera Takeover,” will consist of six extraordinary selections, all from 20th- and 21st-century works and only one of which, composer Jonathan Dove’s L’altra Euridice, will take place indoors. After these six separate scenes reach completion, the audience will enter Hahn Hall for part two, Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti directed by Peabody Southwell and conducted by Edwin Outwater.
The decision to take over the campus and dispense with the more familiar recital-style presentation of opera scenes reflects strong confidence in Darrah, who will also direct the academy’s production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Granada on Friday, August 3, and Sunday, August 5. The young director arrives at the crest of a remarkable ascent as a specialist in crafting successful productions of new work. In 2016, Darrah directed Breaking the Waves, composer Missy Mazzoli’s adaptation of the Lars von Trier film, which won the Music Critics Association of North America’s Best New Opera award for that year. Since then, he has directed a second production of Mazzoli’s work, Proving Up, a portion of which will be included in this MAW program.
What Darrah intends at the Music Academy goes further than programming new music or performing site-specific scenes out-of-doors. As a faculty member teaching voice fellows in a seven-week performance studio this season, Darrah plays an integral role in the academy’s bold reimagining of the entire vocal program. “We are rethinking the way we train singers in the 21st century,” said Darrah last week. Often, with opera singers acting is an afterthought, something helpful but secondary. According to Darrah, however, for singers the actor’s studio “should be more of a home base.” All performers need to know themselves as bodies in space, not just voices, and be able to tell a clear story with their expressions and movement.
One of the most intriguing “Takeover” pieces is L’altra Euridice, which will be presented in its entirety. Based on a short fiction by Italo Calvino, the work portrays Pluto, god of the underworld, as a lovelorn and rancorous baritone. Braiding two myths into a single story, the 30-minute opera imagines that Proserpina, the lover of Pluto and queen of the underworld, is “the other Euridice,” as in the lover of Orpheus, whose music famously allowed him to lead souls back to life. In this ingenious adaptation, Pluto sits alone in the dark, complaining of the infidelity of his lover and the treachery of the outside world in baroque cantata form, accompanied by strings and theorbo, while offstage a saxophone wails in an evocation of Orpheus and Euridice living it up topside. It’s a clever reference to Monteverdi’s Baroque opera L’Orfeo, and pits the baroque underworld against an unseen, but very 20th century, sax.
All of this leads to everyone taking a deep breath, and then entering Hahn Hall for Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s exhilarating dissection of suburban ennui. The Los Angeles Opera’s music director, James Conlon, will conduct Figaro, with Darrah directing, in August. Start listening now to these talented young singers, and you will perhaps enjoy what promises to be a revelatory production of the Mozart classic even more.
OperaFest takes place at the Music Academy of the West (1070 Fairway Rd.) Saturday, June 30, 2 p.m., and Monday, July 2, 7 p.m. The Marriage of Figaro will be at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) Friday, August 3, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, August 5, 2:30 p.m. For tickets and information about either of these events, call 969-8787 or see musicacademy.org.