Following the accepted wisdom that grand opera is a place for high drama, irrational twists, and dangerous liaisons, Opera Santa Barbara’s (OSB) past few years have been on, well, an operatic trajectory. Adapting resourcefully to the challenges of the COVID lockdown and the slowly healing yet continuing audience lull in high culture circles, OSB’s intrepid leader, Kostis Protopapas, downshifted into adaptation mode to survive.
Opera has remained on the public’s radar in Santa Barbara since the lockdown, but in the scaled-back and alternative form of drive-in operas and lean seasons stocked with intriguing, south-of-standard grand opera fare. Last season, for example, saw an abridged Wagner — Die Walküre in a half-portion — and the intriguing contemporary fare of An American Dream.
Nonetheless, Protopapas explains that “the 2022-23 season was one of our most successful yet.” Among other factors, he says, “offering one performance per opera produced exactly the result we expected: fuller theaters and more motivated ticket buyers.”
A scent of increasing normality is back with OSB’s new season, which kicks off with the trusty crowd-pleaser of George Bizet’s Carmen at the Granada, on September 29 and October 1 (in last season’s Friday-night and Sunday-afternoon mode again). This season also includes Verdi’s Il trovatore (April 9 and 11, 2024) and the company premiere of Héctor Armienta’s 2022 opera Zorro (April 19 and 21, 2024) as main attraction showcases. On the periphery, but demanding attention, are a Maria Callas tribute (at the Lobero on November 10, and in Thousand Oaks’ Kavli Theatre on November 12).
A special Christmas-timed family presentation of Xavier Montsalvatge’s charming chamber opera El Gato con Botas is at Center Stage Theatre December 1-3.
We connected with the energetic and articulate Protopapas, the company’s general director since 2017, for a field report and progress report on the company. Founded in 1994 by Marilyn Gilbert and Nathan Rundlett, OSB is poised on the brink of its 30th birthday, looking hale and healthy. Again.
Do you feel that this new season represents more of a cautiously back-to-normal type of opera season program? Or is there still the “new normal” question of the air?
Every season is different — just like every opera is different — and there is no such thing as “normal” in our world. Our seasons are typically a mix of warhorses, lesser-known classics, and contemporary works. The 2023-24 season has all three. We program each opera with specific target audiences in mind. The ultimate goal is to build a brand that people trust and support regardless of repertoire choices.
The fact that this season’s titles sound familiar belies a very important fact: The 2023-24 [season] is actually far more “adventurous” and “risky” than the 2022-23, because it’s a lot more expensive.
Every season is an experiment, and this season’s experiment is to find out how much “grand opera” Santa Barbara needs and is willing to support financially. We need to sell a lot more tickets and bring in a lot of new and increased donations to pay for this season than last. Whether we succeed or not will inform repertoire, venue choices, and number of performances in 2024-25 and beyond.
We will change as often as we need in order to meet the challenges and opportunities of the times. What will remain constant is high artistic values.
This season boasts a strong Spanish theme, with Carmen — albeit it’s Spanish via a French composer — the company premiere of Zorro, and also the Chrisman production of El Gato con Botas in December. Is the Spanish theme a culturally site-specific idea you’ve been nurturing for a while?
The Spanish theme emerged during the repertoire selection process. Carmen is a beloved work that we only do every once in a while because of how expensive it is.
In fact, because of its cost, it was the last of the three operas that we committed to, and we did so only after receiving a large sponsorship from The Granada Theatre.
Il trovatore — in addition to being a personal favorite of mine — was selected because many long-time patrons have been asking for more Verdi, whose works, unjustly in my opinion, are being eclipsed by the popularity of Puccini. Zorro was selected for our “contemporary slot” because I really loved the music and the story when I saw the world premiere in Albuquerque in 2022, and because of the obvious local connection.
Once we looked at the lineup, the Spanish connection was immediately obvious. Then we added El Gato con Botas, which is a delightful piece that I have wanted to produce since I saw it in New York in 2014.
What can you tell me about the upcoming production of Carmen, and where do you see its place in the general opera canon?
There is absolutely no doubt that Carmen is one of the greatest operas ever written. I believe that whatever direction the art form and the business take in the future, Carmen will always be there. I know of very few operas that are as tune-after-tune gorgeous as Carmen.
The responsibility of producing Carmen is huge, and we are putting a lot of effort and financial investment into it. We have an amazing cast headlined by Sarah Saturnino, a young artist who I believe will soon be an international star. [Her co-star] Nathan Granner is an artist in whom I have believed for a long time. He has given us some great performances in recent seasons and is going to be heartbreaking in his first Don José. Anya Matanovic is cast as Micaëla, and Colin Ramsey is going to bring the crowd to its feet as Escamillo, as evidenced by his performance at Fiesta Pequeña.
The Opera Santa Barbara Chorus will finally be front and center in this tour-de-force choral piece after limited involvement in the last couple of years. Last but not least, we are unveiling a brand-new production, which we are creating jointly with Opera Southwest, which will combine a traditional set with projections by Daniel Chapman, who created the projections for Madama Butterfly in 2019.
Two interesting tidbits: Carmen was the first opera I conducted at OSB, in 2016. Carmen is also the first opera that OSB is repeating in my eight-year tenure.
Do you find that, despite the ongoing strains and stresses for arts organizations, that there is an eager audience — as well as newcomers to the fold — keeping opera alive and moving forward?
There is no doubt in my mind that opera as an art form is alive and well, and more exciting than ever. The problem is with the “delivery mechanism.” Economic and cultural realities have changed over the last several decades, but the way arts organizations do business has remained more or less the same.
There are still a lot of patrons and donors who love and support opera, and every production brings in new and enthusiastic audiences. However, the costs are growing faster than the support. I think it’s important for opera companies to understand their communities and the role they can play.
Opera is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s fine. We can’t and we shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. We should be careful when seeking growth, not put out too much product, and consider all of our constituents when making decisions.
During your time at the helm of OSB, there have been a lot of positive developments and community interactions, but then, of course, you had to steer the ship through the pandemic storms, not an easy task. But how do you look back on your time so far with the company?
I am proud of what we have accomplished on the artistic front, and grateful for the support we have received from donors and patrons since the company was founded 30 years ago. Since 2016, we have done some truly memorable productions, including 14 company premieres and some very important contemporary works. The diversity of our repertoire rivals that of much bigger companies.
One of the accomplishments of which I’m proudest is bringing back free student matinee performances. We are also, to my knowledge, the first opera company in the U.S. to offer pay-what-you-want tickets. I believe that our company has enormous unrealized potential. At the same time, the fact remains that Santa Barbara is a very small city and there are by far more cultural events per capita here than anywhere else, competing for ticket sales and donations. My time here has taught me to be very cautious in my expectations of what’s sustainable.
Do you have any grand schemes, or little schemes, you would like to achieve with OSB?
This is a time to be smart rather than grand. Our company is already punching way above its weight. The challenge is how to keep it going sustainably for years to come. My ambition for OSB is simple: Produce great art, fill the seats with paying patrons, pay our bills, and be a great place to work. I don’t know if this qualifies as “grand,” but it sure keeps me excited to go to work every day.
For more information about Opera Santa Barbara, see operasb.org.