Austin Opera stages three masterworks


It’s been a glorious if bumpy ride.

Austin Opera was founded in 1986. No need at this point to detail its stratospheric highs or, especially, its geologic lows, especially as a promising new season begins. Suffice it to say, we are lucky that the plucky company has survived its history, which, pardon the expression, has been “operatic.”

With Annie Burridge, general director and CEO, and Richard Buckley, artistic director, now firmly in control of a financially stable and even growing group, it can conquer fresh artistic territory, including new productions, new performance spaces and new ways of connecting with its highly varied audiences.

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What’s so new about this season?

Its first selection, “Carmen,” which plays Nov. 11-19, and the third show of the season, “La Traviata,” which returns to the stage on April 28-May 6, are among the most frequently performed operas in the world, revived in Austin every few years. Yet both arrive in new physical incarnations, garnished with youthful talent.

The second show in the lineup, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” which plays Jan. 27-Feb. 4, on the other hand, has never to my knowledge been produced in Austin. Its music by Richard Strauss can be breathtakingly beautiful, but structurally, it stretches the imagination of even the most the most sophisticated audience member.

“Carmen”

Few operatic characters are as memorable as sultry Carmen, the powerful femme fatale who seduces a soldier, Don José, who in turn leaves his longtime girlfriend, Micaëla, and abandons his military duties, only to lose Carmen’s love to a flashy matador, Escamillo. As often happens in opera, it does not end well.

Georges Bizet composed the instantly recognizable music that includes the “Habanera” and “Toreodor Song.” Scandalous when it premiered in 1875 in Paris, it nevertheless became a global hit within a decade. Based on Prosper Mérimée’s play, it is sung in French, which can be somewhat disconcerting, given the Spanish settings and themes.

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It was my first opera and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t the first one for a great number of other confirmed opera fans. Austin Opera’s 2017 physical production is based on a 2015 Minnesota Opera version that moves the action to the 1970s.

The two leads, Sandra Piques Eddy and Chad Shelton, have shared the stage multiple times since 2014. Even their children are good friends. This is their third time as Carmen and Don José together.

Remarkably, Norman Garrett and Heather Phillips, who play Escamillo and Micaëla respectively, have also been friends for years. Well, perhaps not so remarkable when one considers the relatively small universe of top-notch operatic singers.

As usual, Texas connections pop up. Eddy last sang with Austin Opera as Isabella in a delightful production of “L’Italiana in Algeri” in 2010. Shelton happens to be a native of Orange and his last appearance with Austin Opera was as Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor” in 2012.

Garrett, making his Austin Opera debut, was born in Lubbock and has made Escamillo his signature role. For her part, Phillips comes with no obvious Texas connections, but she’s won a bundle of vocal competitions and will be a welcome addition to Austin Opera’s deepening talent pool.

“Ariadne auf Naxos”

My first “Ariadne” was part of a wild story. We had heard Corpus Christi-born, Dallas-reared soprano Laura Claycomb sing Gilda in “Rigoletto” in Houston and, like the rest of the audience, we were enchanted. So we developed something of an obsession and flew out to San Francisco to catch her as the comic Zerbinetta in the Strauss opera, which we had not previously seen.

It was quite a trip that included a long, breezy interview with Claycomb in the snack shop of San Francisco City Hall. As for the show, it took a long time to absorb. A commedia-style burlesque is combined simultaneously with a serious opera because a celebratory dinner goes over time and two quarreling theatrical troupes must blend their efforts.

To confuse things even more, the original 1912 version of the serious opera part was preformed as a divertissement after a Moliere play, making for theatrical evening of more than six hours.

Fear not, the Austin Opera version will run less than three hours.

This is the 2014 version first presented at the Glimmerglass Festival. And how’s this for a local connection: This high-culture/low-culture love story is set in a barn in present-day Texas.

This concept was put together by transformative director Francesca Zambello, whose work is not unfamiliar to Austin opera fans who head down to Houston often. (Side note: Houston Grand Opera has been performing in that city’s convention center, since its home at Wortham Theater Center was heavily damaged by Hurricane Harvey flooding.)

In this updating, a garish rock band and classical musicians clash as they try to find a common language. Eric Sean Fogel’s boy band-inspired choreography brings an extra element to the Austin Opera staging.

Austin Opera has previously produced only two works by Strauss, whose music bridges the late Romantic and early modern styles, “Elektra” and “Salome.”

Soprano Alexandra LoBianco will perform the part of Ariadne — who was abandoned by her former, Theseus, on the desert island of Naxos — for the first time. Jonathan Burton is Bacchus; Jeni Houser is Zerbinetta; and Aleksandra Romano will play the Composer. It’s an Austin Opera debut for all four leads.

“La Traviata”

Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” is part of a very long literary and dramatic lineage that started with a powerful novel about a doomed courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, based on a real women, Marie Duplessis, then a 1852 play also by Alexandre Dumas, fils (French for Jr.)

Verdi set the story to music — the character’s name is changed to Violetta — in 1853. It has been resurrected countless times, including as a 1933 movie, “Camille,” starring Greta Garbo and, among my favorites, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s 1970s off-off-Broadway romp with the brilliant Charles Ludlam as the title character.

We hope to tell you more about the Austin Opera version in the spring, but details were not available at press time. We do know that Marina Costa-Jackson will assay Violetta and that Scott Quinn will make his Austin Opera debut as Alfredo. Plum casting: Elizabeth Cass, Austin resident and founding executive producer of Local Opera Local Artists, performs the role of Flora.



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