Bringing Opera to the Masses

By Eva Trieger

While I don’t like to think of myself as a philistine, during a phone interview with San Diego Opera’s General Director, David Bennett, I had to consider the facts. I’ve never attended an opera at the Civic Center, and I associated the art form with blue-haired ladies wearing too much perfume, while watching a large overdressed woman warble on stage in a foreign tongue. After a Bart Simpson-like query about the upcoming performance of “Turan-doh” I was gently and un-patronizingly told that I was not alone in my error and that Turandot is the current main stage production of this season.

Bennett further debunked my mistaken image of opera by filling me in on some exciting and very enticing new facets of the San Diego Opera’s commitment to community. To this end, SDO has adopted a mission and vision statement that brings opera to a much wider audience of varied ages, cultures, socio-economic groups and neighborhoods. There’s a good chance that if you can’t get to the San Diego’s Civic Center, there’s an outreach venue near you!

To complement the main stage productions, of which two remain, there is the new Detour Series. This collection offers a wider variety of works that fit under the umbrella of Opera. They provide a new definition to increase discovery, explore new arenas and introduce new singers. The programs selected for this series reflect San Diego’s communities including Latino, LGBTQ, African American and other groups that, to date, have not had much representation in opera. These populations are reached through chamber concerts, smaller operatic shows and performed at the Balboa Theater, San Diego Rep’s Lyceum, the Kroc Center and in other local auditoriums.

Furthering this sense of outreach, San Diego Opera is committed to education and has a new program, Words and Music, which brings resident teaching artists into the classroom, changing lives and providing profound experiences. Currently there are five participating schools, but the initiative plans to add a new school each year, as they receive government support and foundation grants. Students are encouraged to develop their own stories which are then performed before their peers and local communities. Some themes have included border crossing, urban living etc. This impactful education focus has made it possible for over 7,000 area students to attend a dress rehearsal at the Civic Center. The educational program is, in large part, funded by the annual gala, aka Opera Ball, which will be held at the US Grant hotel, and goes by code name “Pretty in Pink,” a nod to the honoree’s inspirational hair color. The US Grant Executive Chef Mark Kropczynski will cater a three -course dinner and entertainment will be furnished by Encore Event Entertainment.

Speaking of the Opera Ball, this year’s honoree is none other than Dame Zandra Rhodes, famed designer and outfitter to celebrities, royals, who most recently has turned her talent to designing costumes and sets for San Diego and Houston’s Opera companies. The sets for Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Verdi’s Aida have toured internationally and raised over $1 million dollars for San Diego Opera. This grand event will be held on April 7th, and will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a cocktail hour, continue with dinner, drinks and dancing “all inspired by Zandra’s kaleidoscopic imagination.” Tickets are available at sdopera.org/opera-ball.

Rhodes returns to the Fashion and Textile Museum in London monthly and is currently putting together a retrospective that will showcase her 50-year romance with textiles, design and fashion. The show will have a companion book that is currently in the works. This maverick has dressed such notables as Princess Diana, Jackie Onassis, Bianca Jagger and Helen Mirren. Avid philanthropists, Zandra and her partner, Salah Hassanein, have made monumental contributions to the arts, cardio-vascular hospitals and TERI Inc, an organization that assists special needs children and adults. “I have been very lucky to enjoy my work and continue my business. One must always give back as well,” shared Rhodes.

Lest you think opera has not grown with the times, San Diego Opera is accessible on every social media platform imaginable. There are podcasts that allow insights into the singers and productions. Videos are available on YouTube. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram enable a novice or an aficionado to learn more about what happens backstage or get up-to-date info on unique events and offers.

The financial puzzle has been carefully pieced together by Bennett; and collaborating with a team of clever advisors and generous donors, fundraising has been quite successful. I also learned that it is widespread practice for costumes and sets to be on loan or rented from other national companies. Turandot will feature sets from Lyric Opera of Chicago and costumes from Santa Fe Opera have contributed sets, costumes, and singers.

A three-act opera, Turandot is set in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. While our princess is a rare beauty, she has an ice-cold heart, and will only marry a prince who can answer her three riddles. Any man who attempts and fails will be put to death. While this seems a foolhardy venture to the princess’s serving girl, Liu, herself smitten by the would-be suitor, the man who has fallen for Princess Turandot, will not be dissuaded. Puccini died before the opera was completed, but his student, Franco Alfano, finished the tale, referencing Puccini’s notes. The opera contains several well-known arias “Nessun dorma!” which was sung by tenor Luciano Pavarotti at Torino’s 2006 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

San Diego Opera’s Turandot will feature Lise Lindstrom, who has sung the lead, Princess Turandot, on all the world’s leading opera stages. She debuted in San Diego in this very role in 2011. Lindstrom will be joined by Temecula native, soprano Angel Joy Blue as Liu, and American tenor Carl Tenner as Calaf, who are making their Company debuts, along with American bass Brian Kontes (Timur) and Italian baritone Marco Nistico (Ping), American tenor Joel Sorenson (Pong), American bass-baritone Scott Sikon (the Mandarin), and American tenor Chad Frisque (Emperor Altoum). Other notable artists include Italian conductor Valerio Galli and stage director Keturah Stickann. The production is sponsored by Darlene Marcos Shiley.

Now that I’ve had a proper indoctrination into the world of opera, I think I need to attend a performance of Turandot, touted as “one of the most popular operas ever composed.” In case you can’t make it, the opera featured a radio broadcast on Saturday, March 3, on KPBS radio, 89.5 FM which is available online at www.kpbs.org.

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