The pandemic’s devastating effect on live, real-time culture has taken a particular toll on opera, that grand, four-century-old tradition reliant on closely intertwined and interactive parts, close quarters, and the multifaceted art of “being there” — for audiences and artists alike. Even so, opera may be down, but it is hardly out. In December, Opera Santa Barbara went to the drive-in model, with Carmen, A Live Drive-in Opera, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
On Friday, February 26, local opera strikes again, when UCSB’s Opera Theatre presents an ambitious virtual production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The production, which will be permanently available on the program’s YouTube channel following its online premiere, is directed by renowned soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, and features a cast of music students recorded remotely from various locations.
“In an ideal world,” Bayrakdarian commented, “we would’ve come together, rehearsed in person with an accompanist, and then staged it for a live performance with an orchestra. However, as Carl Sagan says, ‘We live in an extraordinary age.’
“No one could’ve ever imagined this worldwide scenario where established opera companies have been closed for more than a year, professional opera singers are without jobs or singing opportunities, with no end in sight,” she continued. “I wanted to give our UCSB voice students a glimmer of hope as well as an enviable opportunity to prepare a role vocally and dramatically, collaborate with other musicians — even if it’s remotely — and continue to hone their vocal technique, and of course have the chance to perform it for a wide audience, via a YouTube broadcast.”
She added that “Mozart is always an excellent choice for young singers as it promotes healthy singing and beautiful expression. But you can’t program Don Giovanni if you don’t have a great singer who can make this larger-than-life character come to life, vocally and dramatically.” Enter Valdis Jansons, a second-year Doctor in Musical Arts voice student, who has frequently sung the role in various European opera houses. She also double-cast Jansons as Leporello, Don Givoanni’s servant, “to allude to the notion that the servant and his master are alter-egos, opposite sides of the same person. Of course, this kind of casting wouldn’t have been possible if it were a live performance, but then again, we aren’t living in ordinary times.”
Bayrakdarian’s rich résumé includes having sung in Mozart’s classic at the Metropolitan Opera and the Salzburg Festival. A Music Academy of the West (MAW) alumnus in the late ’90s, Bayrakdarian has also graced local stages, starring in Opera Santa Barbara’s production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in 2017, recitals at MAW’s Hahn Hall, and appearing with the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Lobero Theatre in 2018. (Like the St. Lawrence, she has Toronto roots, as a Lebanese-born Canadian singer of Armenian lineage).
Armenian heritage blends with her operatic life in the impressive 2020 album project The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia (Delos Records), which began as a UCSB research project exploring baroque operas about the Armenian King Tigranes II (140-55 BCE). Bayrakdarian sees the album as “a unique chance to bridge my Armenian identity with my operatic identity. I’ve always been attracted to projects that move my spirit — which probably explains my eclectic discography. Our spirits are timeless, with many stories to tell. The more you let the spirit express itself, the more you realize what your mission is in this life.”
More generally, Bayrakdarian asserts “I’m an optimist. Always have been. I believe in the power of hope and faith. I actively look for the silver lining in everything to lift me up and to bring light into my life. Even though most of my 2020 and 2021 live performances and planned tours have been canceled, many other opportunities have had a chance to bloom, and these have enriched my life in different and unexpected ways.” —Josef Woodard