All is Excitement (and “Calm”) at the San Diego Operaby Pat Launer November 27, 2018
Ever since David Bennett arrived four years ago to assume the role of general director, the San Diego Opera has taken some mighty interesting detours.
According to the dictionary, Bennett says, ‘detour’ means a path that’s other than the ordinary. “I knew when I accepted the job, that’s what I had to do.”
So, the d’tour series he initiated (as unique as its written form) is “opera, but on a different path.”
A lot has changed since he arrived. Back in 2014, the opera made international news by surviving a near shutdown, thanks to the enthusiastic support of the community. The reorganization that ensued focused on re-imagining the company for the 21st century.
The opera board re-worked the organization’s mission/value/vision statement, says Bennett.
“There’s now a lot of language about community, alternate venues and a nimble adaptation to the marketplace. I had to figure out how to put meat on those bones, with alternative productions and spaces, new and established work and engaging the community in a different way.”
The reconfiguration has worked out exactly as planned. The Opera has stabilized, and finished its 2017-2018 season in the black.
“There will always be an appetite for traditional grand opera,” says Bennett, “but there are other things that showcase the sub-communities of San Diego – with their own experiences and issues. We’re putting people onstage that look like the audience, so they can see themselves up there onstage. The only way for an opera company to survive is to reflect the community.
“I’m thinking a lot about ‘Who is San Diego?’” says Bennett. “A young community, somewhat transient, multi-racial/multi-cultural. I think about where we are in the country, what NAFTA means to us as a community. It’s a pretty porous border with a lot of cultural exchange. How can we be a funnel between the U.S. and Central and South America?”
The innovative, non-traditional d’tour Series was Bennett’s highly successful endeavor in that direction. Last year, two provocative chamber operas were featured: the sexy, Spanish-language “Maria de Buenos Aires,” and the two-person transgender drama, “As One.” Both were extremely well received by opera regulars, and welcomed a new, younger audience to opera.
The latest d’tour production (December 7-9) is an exciting collaboration with two exceptional local companies: the magnificent choral art group Sacra/Profana, and Bodhi Tree Concerts, a non-profit that performs “random acts of kindness” by presenting music events and donating all profits to charitable causes.
For the past three holiday seasons, Bodhi Tree, in association with Sacra/Profana, and with support from the Opera, has been presenting “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” a choral/spoken word piece that commemorates an actual event when, during World War I, in the midst of battle, some 100,000 soldiers all along the Western Front laid down their arms, crossed the narrow No Man’s Land that separated them and spent Christmas Eve together – mingling, singing, drinking, exchanging gifts, playing soccer – and burying their dead.
The unprecedented event has been memorialized in song (from “Snoopy’s Christmas” to Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace”); film (1969’s “Oh! What a Lovely War” and the 2005 “Joyeux Noël” in French, “Merry Christmas” in English); and a 2011 opera, “Silent Night,” adapted from the French film.
In 2008, “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” a musical drama first heard a year earlier on Minnesota Public Radio, debuted onstage in Minneapolis. Created by Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theater Latté Da, with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, the piece offers firsthand accounts of the event, using soldiers’ letters, autobiographies, poetry and graveyard inscriptions, complemented by patriotic tunes, trench songs and Christmas carols from England, Wales, France, Belgium and Germany.
The heart-rending, family-friendly a capella creation highlights the stark beauty of the human voice, the ability to turn even the most horrible situation into something extraordinary and the universal desire for peace, unity and camaraderie.
“I saw Bodhi Tree’s production,” says Bennett, “and loved the piece. It’s amazing, beautiful, profound and effective. For one night, these men took ownership over their history. Sadly, at the end, they had to go back to the cacophony of war.
“It really is a choral opera,” Bennett continues. “It’s about the sound of the voice, choral and spoken. The expressive potency of the voice is the centerpiece of everything we do at the opera. Though this piece has been seen in theaters around the country, and in a recent Off Broadway run, we’re the first opera company to present it.
“‘All is Calm’ is a great way to showcase some wonderful local singers and expand what opera can be. There’s a good deal of overlap between the opera chorus and Sacra/Profana, which is an incredible chorus. I sang a lot of choral music myself, and I’m very impressed with their level of music making. It’s very refined.”
There’s a fourth collaborative element of this production. The director, Alan Hicks, recently assumed a shared position as assistant director for the San Diego Opera and Director of the Opera program at San Diego State University.
Back to the Mainstage
Of course, SDO continues to present grand opera in grand style. Under Bennett’s aegis, there are now three annual mainstage operas at the Civic Theatre. The d’tour productions are at smaller, alternative venues.
The 2018-19 season kicked off with a stunning production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
“It was a beautiful new production, beautifully designed and directed,” says Bennett. “A tangible representation of what we’re trying to achieve. The singing was excellent and traditional. But the set and lighting had a modern, contemporary sensibility.”
Next up is Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” (Feb. 2-10). This heartbreaking story centers on the licentious Duke of Mantua, his hunch-backed court jester Rigoletto, and Rigoletto’s beautiful daughter, Gilda. A curse has been placed on both the Duke and Rigoletto by a courtier whose daughter the Duke has seduced with Rigoletto’s encouragement. The curse comes to fruition when Gilda falls in love with the Duke and tragedy ensues.
“This is a new production for local audiences, purchased from Seattle Opera,” says Bennett. “It’s a co-production with Opera Montreal, which owns the costumes. Very traditional, very beautiful. There’s a lot of grandeur, but some scenes happen in transitions, in front of the scrim. It ends with something of a surprise. I think people will love it.”
The director is Michael Cavanagh, a young Canadian making his company debut. Rigoletto is sung by Stephen Powell, making his tenth appearance at SDO since 1997.
In the spring (March 30-April 7), they will present another marvelous audience favorite, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.”
“It’s a fabulous production,” says Bennett, “new to our audiences, rented from Lyric Opera Kansas City. It stars Ginger Costa-Jackson, the most important American Carmen right now. She’s very seductive and has a big plummy, distinctive voice. Expect lots of castanets and mantillas – and a very, very good all-American cast. All have sung their roles before.
“The director is Kyle Lang, who directed ‘As One’ last year, and did a fabulous job. His skill – he started out as a professional dancer – lends itself to ‘Carmen,’ with its large stage pictures and seductive dance.”
The opera, set in southern Spain, recounts the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier seduced by the wiles of the fiery gypsy, Carmen. Completing the ill-fated love triangle is the glamorous matador, Escamillo.
Taking Another d’tour
In March (8-10), SDO presents another d’tour production, “Three Decembers,” by Jake Heggie, whose “Moby-Dick” and “Great Scott” were previously seen at San Diego Opera.
“Our audiences know his musical vocabulary,” says Bennett. “The tunes are easy to follow, and they’re very moving. People find immediacy to his music, and this is an American story.”
The plot concerns a celebrated New York actress/singer who, upon receiving a prestigious award, traces back three decades of her life and her fraught relationship with her resentful, estranged offspring.
“This chamber opera, with three characters and 15 musicians,” Bennett explains, “is about accepting the family you have. There are lots of current, relatable themes: an alcoholic daughter, a gay son whose partner has HIV. It’s family dysfunction and reconciliation.”
And it stars Heggie’s muse, the beloved mezzo-soprano, Fredericka von Stade, who helped launch his career years ago at San Francisco Opera. He wrote this role for her (she also appeared in “Great Scott”). Although she announced her retirement in 2010, she continues to perform, and has sung this role in various cities.
“Though this features the same cast as in the Bay area and Hawaii, this is a new production, with some new elements.
Also coming up next year is “One Amazing Night 2019,” a double-barreled concert by powerhouses Stephen Costello (tenor) and Stephen Powell (baritone), accompanied by the San Diego Symphony.
In its effort to engage the community, the opera is starting a wine club, “a way for us to gather people together to get to know each other in a small setting,” says Bennett, “to drink, talk about and purchase curated wines, and learn about opera.”
The first gathering was a trip to the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, sponsored by the Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce. Watch for a San Diego Opera wine label, coming soon.
There’s also Taste of Opera, community conversations that pair food and drink with the current production. Another planned educational opportunity is Baritones and Beer, which will encourage folks to compare the language used to talk about beer – and opera.
On the Thursday of each mainstage production, there’s a free lunchtime concert, Opera on the Concourse (BYO bag lunch) in front of the Civic Theatre.
As he begins his fourth year here, Bennett says, “I feel like there’s updraft. Momentum and loft is the feeling I’m getting from the community. It’s all an experiment, trying to find the best way to produce works that include experiences and issues for audiences to see themselves and feel a vital connection to opera.”
And this month, looking at the big picture, Bennett says, “‘All is Calm’ reminds us that we all have the capacity to create peace.”
The collaborative production of “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” will be held at the Balboa Theatre downtown, Dec. 7-9.
It will be broadcast live on KPBS 2 (15.2, Cox 811, Spectrum 1277) on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. After the live broadcast, viewers will be able to watch “All is Calm” online at kpbs.org.
For Opera tickets and further information: 619-533-7000; sdopera.org.