Opera in an adventurous new key

Opera Vivente: a small company hoping to make a big impact with modest resources.

May 14, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Picture it. A contemporary high school.

The students are putting on a production of Henry Purcell's 1689 opera "Dido and Aeneas." Off-stage, the geeky girl who has the role of Dido is pining for the boy who's Aeneas. When it comes time for Dido's death, we are shocked to realize that the geeky girl has actually taken her own life.

Now, picture this.

Two men disguise themselves and attempt to seduce each other's fiancees. In the end, some deep lessons about life, love and trust are learned by each of the lovers, all to the exquisite music of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." But the characters aren't wearing 18th century dress, as you might expect. Instead, these are American tourists visiting Havana in the 1950s.

What's going on here? Just another adventure with Opera Vivente, one of Baltimore's youngest and most ambitious arts organizations.

The company's title is Italian for "living opera," and for general director John Bowen it's more than a catchy phrase. It's a mission. And a passion.

"I found that when I went to operas, I was almost always moved by the music, but not always by the visuals," says Bowen, 36, whose inventive take on "Dido" was presented last fall and whose spin on "Cosi fan tutte" opens on Thursday.

"There seemed to be such a calcification of imagery in productions. If you were doing 'Madame Butterfly,' you had to have this type of house. I always try to find some way to present an opera so that it's not business as usual, to strike a happy medium between an exciting, novel context and not completely bastardizing the work."

For Opera Vivente's first production last year, Benjamin Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia," Bowen tried something new with the work's Greek-drama-style chorus.

"Whenever I saw that opera, I wanted to go up onstage and punch them," Bowen says. "They're so self-righteous. So I cast them as a Roman Catholic priest and a nun. During the course of the opera as they witness the rape, they start to feel a physical attraction to each other.

"They go at it, but then pull back before going too far. To me, it's more meaningful if people who spout holier-than-thou stuff have sinned before they start talking about redemption."

No wonder Bowen is still getting reactions from that presentation.

"I've never really loved 'The Rape of Lucretia,' " says Alan Schrum, a member of the Baltimore Opera Company's board of trustees who is hhelping Opera Vivente raise money. "But when I saw John's production, I was really drawn into the music. He is able to present opera in a very different, very unique, exciting way. And I've never seen space used in such an effective way."

Small, effective space

That space, the Great Hall of Baltimore's Emmanuel Episcopal Church, offers a fraction of the staging area of a regular opera house and room for only about 160 seats. Opera Vivente could just as well be called Opera Intima.

"I like working in such an intimate space," Bowen says. "Everything you do counts. It allows you to do a much more detailed performance than can usually be done in a larger space. And everyone in the cast acts to their full potential. They know that every movement they make can be seen well by everyone in the audience."

The hall's dimensions limit orchestral forces. For "Cosi," there will be 14 musicians, about a third less than the usual number, playing a reduction of the score.

Keeping things on a small scale is fine with Bowen.

"Even if we suddenly received a huge influx of capital, we still won't do 'Aida.' There's no point of putting on the big, popular operas when you have a major opera company in town doing high-budget productions. Who's going to want to see our 'Carmen'?"

"Opera Vivente is not in competition with other opera in the area," Schrum says. "People who attend Baltimore Opera will enjoy experiencing what Opera Vivente has to offer."

"And vice versa," adds Bowen.

Also distinguishing Opera Vivente from other area companies is a policy of performing opera in English. The choice is partly because there isn't enough money for surtitles and partly because of a desire to make performances more accessible.

This wasn't an issue with the company's first two ventures, since both happened to be English operas. For "Cosi," Bowen has written his own translation of the Italian libretto, attempting to follow the original rhyme scheme of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and Mozart's manner of setting the text, including word repetitions.

"I also have tried to preserve some of the bawdier aspects of the original libretto," Bowen says.

So why didn't he also preserve the opera's original setting, instead of shifting it to pre-Castro Cuba?

"Actually, the idea of updating to the 1950s came before the setting," the director says. "I felt that the earthiness and funniness of the plot would be inhibited by being put in the 18th century. And I was looking for an era when the betting on a fiancee's virtue would not offend the women of Baltimore.

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