Thursday, March 24, 2016

Crazy In Love: LUCIA/DIDO at Heartbeat Opera

In Tiny Thoughts, we respond to a performance based on how a friend would recount their outing to the theatre.

What's the deal with this show?
A young company in town, Heartbeat Opera, presented an ambitious double-bill for their festival's opening night: a ninety-minute adaptation of Lucia di Lammermoor with the complete Dido & Aeneas, both with small orchestral ensemble.

Carla Jablonski and the Dido ensemble, photo by Russ Rowland

How was the piece?
Of course Lucia and Dido are both celebrated classics of the repertoire - however, their stunning music and timeless themes are countered by imperfect plot progression that hamstrings the drama, and it all just goes on for too damn long. The directors here managed some brave adaptations: Lucia was cut in half, and Dido had many of the interludes cut or rearranged and roles merged.

How was it executed? 
Lucia's centerpiece was the title character's own mental and physical isolation - the production was bookended with the stark image of a single patient strapped to a metal hospital bed.

Photo by Russ Rowland featuring Jamilyn Manning-White

For someone who has seen Lucia before but doesn't know it intimately, the story unfolded swiftly with a focus fixed on how powerless Lucia is to determine her own fate. There were costume choices that hinted at an Italian mafioso or urban gang context, which framed Lucia as even more of a sacrificial lamb, a woman whose worth lies only in whom she marries.

Dido was presented as a five-singer ensemble, with ladies in waiting also serving as witches, and often the entire ensemble singing the many choral interjections. Similar to Lucia, this ensemble energy helped focus the action on manipulating the title character into her own demise. It's hard work, bringing down the kingdom of Carthage - you need some bad-ass characters to do it, and this production delivered. It was also the funniest and sexiest Dido I've seen. (Note: Dido is usually neither funny, nor sexy.)

The Dido ensemble, photo by Russ Rowland

But what made this evening remarkable wasn't just the smart adaptations, it was how both productions used a collaborative instrumental ensemble and a facile use of space and texture to create a sparkling, unexpected theatrical experience.

I could list so many moments in both Lucia and Dido that made you go "whaaaa?": characters digging into a stage which is also earth - a percussionist following the soprano's every cadenza - an ace bandage that becomes a love bond and also a wedding corset - an old bathtub that becomes a witch's brew and a poisonous pond - instrumentalists who suddenly stand, enter or exit and become part of the set, part of the action - an electric guitar, a toy piano or a dissonant chaos adding unexpected sound and texture - indeed, there were surprises.

Photos by Russ Rowland


Theatre nerds call these surprises "revelations," as in revelation of space, of thing, of character. It's when something becomes something the audience didn't think possible. A tiny "wow." This is something opera often lacks. How cool to see an opera company also make great theatre.

Who were the stars?
Props go to Jamilyn Manning-White, who carried the title role of Lucia with her firecracker energy, palpable fragility, and focused soprano.

Photo by Russ Rowland featuring Jamilyn Manning-White

John Taylor Ward stood out for his slimy and sinuous portrayal of the chaplain Raimondo in Lucia. He then turned around and played a quite convincing Aeneas (a difficult antagonist role that gets few scenes but makes everything happen) with his white silk shirt and arrogant air. He then also managed to support the witch scenes as a hooded, quadrupedal figure.

I don't know many baritones who will successfully sing a role like Aeneas, nail a comprimario role like Raimondo, and then get down on their knees and play an unnamed witch-dog. Cheers to to the "Heartbeats" for finding one.

Photo by Russ Rowland featuring John Taylor Ward

Cheers are also due to Christopher Preston Thompson, who played the Sorceress with an edgy trans punch - stepping into a bathtub in platform heels and fishnet tights, fearlessly playing his tenor and countertenor instruments, radiating the vocal and emotional counterpoint to Carla Joblonski's imperial Dido. (Full-disclosure: Christopher is a good friend of ours, and was excited to make his fishnet-tight debut.)

Christopher Preston Thompson, flanked by witches John Taylor Ward, Anna Slate, and Marie Marquis, photo by Russ Rowland

And enough cannot be said about the fantastic arrangements of both ensembles, led by Daniel Schlosberg and Jacob Ashworth; the way solo singers became connected to the instruments, instrumentalists seemed affected by the music and story - it felt like a competitive sporting event that had never happened before. This is a quite a feat with music that is hundreds of years old.

Photo by Jill Steinberg, with Bill Solomon, Jamilyn Manning-White and Daniel Schlosberg

What was the venue experience like?
I thought I'd been to every church-come-theatre on West 46th Street, but I was wrong. This one was Theatre St. Clement's, and their space is a cavernous black box that feels almost grand. The red velvet stairs through the building add some charm, and the lower floor had a reception room that served as a space for the gala reception.



Hearing Co-Artistic directors Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard speak at the reception was really illuminating. They have a giddy excitement and genuine friendliness around their art and their company that is wonderfully refreshing, especially in an industry that still depends too much on elitism, intellectual garbage and exclusivity.

A name like Heartbeat Opera might seem a bit corny until these artists convince you they are, in fact, bringing it to you from the heart.

The artistic directors as their silly sweet selves.

All in all, was the outing worth paying a babysitter?
If you're an opera fan, I think I chose the best night to experience it for several hours. It was genius that the gala happened between the two shows rather than after, so at least we could drink in between and then skedaddle afterwards. All in all it was a compelling night for opera in our new century, and we're looking forward to Heartbeat's next main event. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tiny Thoughts: Dog Days

In Tiny Thoughts, we respond to a performance based on how a friend would recount their outing to the theatre.

What's the deal with this show?

The New York premiere of an opera composed by David T. Little with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, about a family trying to survive in their suburban house after an apocalyptic war has left them isolated and hungry.

Presented by the PROTOTYPE Festival at NYU's Skirball Center.

How was the piece?

The piece is pretty fantastic. It's riveting vocal writing that has all the jagged edges of modernity while still landing in a rich, belly-warming way. Mr. Little weaves electronic "found sounds" into a relatively traditional nine-piece ensemble. It's important to note that unlike many new operas where the instrumentalists have had little time with the score, in this case the ensemble, called Newspeak, was one Mr. Little created himself and has performed with for years.

Lauren Worsham with James Bobick standing over John Kelly, with Newspeak in the background
Rather than a typical narrative cycle, this piece grows in tension until the very horrifying, inevitable end. It may take thirty minutes too long to get there, but the end result is so harrowing and thrilling, we forgave the extra half hour. And Vavrek deserves credit for extrapolating a great deal from the short story by Judy Budnitz.

How was it executed? 

With a minimal unit set and projections, the production by Robert Woodruff showcased the performances, which were overall extraordinary. The projections provided aerial shots of the family scampering for ration drops, rendering them animals hunted, or perhaps missile targets. However, despite both the instrumentalists and singers being amplified and well-balanced, my friends and I had a hard time understanding a lot of the words, and wondered why there weren't supertitles on the giant projection screen.

One reason for the difficulty in comprehension was that some cast members sang in a vernacular diction, whereas some used the more traditional Mid-Atlantic pronunciation and as a result were not understood consistently. I often wonder when the opera world will fully make this switch into modern American singing.

In the short story, the "dog" of the title is literally a man in a Halloween dog suit, while the dog of the opera was more disturbing. Played by artist and choreographer John Kelly, the dog resembled a sinewy, homeless hippie, covered in patches of fur and dirt and duct tape, panting and pawing through an unfeeling wasteland.

Who were the stars?

With any new work, the stars are the creators, Mr. Little and Mr. Vavrek. Beyond that, the piece seemed to be a vehicle driven and dominated by soprano Lauren Worsham as the preteen Lisa. It came as no surprise to learn that the original story was told from her character's perspective.

Ms. Worsham's aria to the mirror, in which the projection screen becomes a giant fluorescent reflection of her desperate face, is worth the time of the entire evening. Lisa fights through the searing pain of her isolation by searching for lost friends in the reflection, and adoring her own, skinny, hallowed image, telling herself how beautiful she is, how she finally looks like a model. Heartbreaking to say the least.

It was one of those moments where you forget you're watching an opera, the lines just seem to pour from a human's soul. In the final scene, she copes with a sudden loss with such determination despite her frailty - Ms. Worsham held us silently in the palm of her starving hands.

In an understated performance as Lisa's mother, silken soprano Marnie Breckenridge heroically portrayed the spiritual heart of this dying world.

What was the venue experience like?

I was surprised to find online that the Skirball Center seats nearly 900 - we were in parterre seats off the orchestra and it seemed much cozier. At the Saturday night performance of this much-buzzed about production, it was a celebrity parade of opera people.

So which would be better - having no intermissions so we can focus on the art and not who we feel compelled to say hello to - or having a bigger bar to allow for the networking and socializing sessions before and after the show? As it was, the management started flickering lights at us to get us out of the lobby afterwards. Felt a little sad after such a thrilling theatre event.

All in all, was the outing worth paying a babysitter?

I think seeing Lauren Worsham do anything is worth paying a babysitter, but this piece is particularly significant for its deft use of a minimal, visible chamber ensemble, use of amplification and video art, a fiercely timely subject matter, tour-de-force performances, and an evocative, satisfying soundscape - all elements new opera needs today.

Tiny Thoughts: Verdi by LOFTOPERA

Again we have some Tiny Thoughts on a show we saw last fall, touching upon the basic points of what I would tell a friend if they asked, "How was the show?"

So what's the deal with this show?

It was a staged concert of Verdi duets, performed at The Muse, a giant warehouse-turned-aerial-studio in south Bushwick, Brooklyn. 

How was the piece? Or the stuff they chose?

The founders promised to showcase big dramatic Verdi singing, and that they did. There were scenes from Luisa Miller, Traviata, Aida, and Trovatore.

The cast with musical director and pianist Sean Kelly

How was it executed? 

There was a clever symmetry to the presentation, with four singers on four square platforms in a square formation with the grand piano in the middle of it all. Each singer seemed to be enthroned on an island that only the music could penetrate. Lighting was stark floodlights, scorching performers and audience alike; at one moment I felt it was a boxing match I was watching, fighters trying to sing each other out of their various rings, sweat and saliva flying. Exciting!

The polished wardrobe of the singers failed to reflect the visceral surroundings, but it was a nice juxtaposition to see well-heeled opera divas drinking my local Brooklyn beer.

It was also the perfect length - under ninety minutes with no intermission, and started at 9pm so I had time to get dinner after work. Bonus!

Who were the stars?

The director John de los Santos gets props for staging a concert in a way that felt like something visceral, and spatially epic. The four singers were well matched -- baritone Joshua Jeremiah was a fun watch from the first row -- he made you believe Germont had fallen in love with Violetta at first meeting, but was still driven to hurt her. The bright, blazen color of his baritone could start a fire. The mezzo Karolina Pilou had a fascinating color as well, like dark granite in the low range. The tenor Dominick Rodriguez was solidly heroic, just hit everything right. Soprano Suzanne Vinnick was lively and used formidable chest resonance and dynamics, though her performance was muddied by an unwavering outpouring of emotion.

What was the venue experience like?

We walked in and didn't know anyone -- what a great surprise to see fresh faces at an opera event! Especially when we had to walk down a few deserted, dark streets to get there. I finally bumped into one old-school opera colleague and he said,

"No, I've never been to this area of Brooklyn...it reminds me of Soho in the 80s, but without the buckets of cocaine."

Instead, there were Brooklyn brews a flowing, and there was a magically naughty moment when Jeremiah went to get another beer from the bar during the Brindisi finale. Yes, a bar should indeed be open during the show, AND be five feet from the stage.

I only wish there had been an aerial show as well.

Babysitter principle?

Absolutely, what a great date night. The Muse might be hard to get to, but the nearby Nowadays bar made the evening complete. Many audience members were also sporting their light blue wrist bands, showing we'd all been for a drink, or three, before the show.

Tiny Thoughts: Fleeting Animal

Last fall we began the season bustling our butts around seeing shows, and decided to try a new way of writing about them, especially those that do not get much press.

Then a sudden personal tragedy befell our team the last week of September and we have been derailed for a few months. But now we're back, and thought, what the hell, let's post some notes from the fall, albeit belated.


We're calling this new series of micro-reviews Tiny Thoughts. The purpose of Tiny Thoughts is not so much to judge a performance as it is to humbly give credit to outstanding performers and creatives, and ask some more pointed questions than just value judgements:

What is exciting about THIS SHOW, RIGHT NOW? Why is is worth PAYING A BABYSITTER to hoof it to the venue and sit through it?

We hope to present an encapsulation of what a thoughtful, clever friend would tell you about the show after seeing it - she might not mention everyone who contributed, but she's not going to talk dirty about anyone, either.

So we begin with a very unusual piece performed in six different Vermont towns in September 2015. The opera was based on a beloved book by David Budbill about rural Vermont life called Judevine, which has since become a the kind of local classic that Vermont high schoolers all have as required reading. So here we go:

What is the deal with this show?

It's a revival of an opera from 2000 by Eric Nielsen about poor rural Vermonters, and essentially a love story between a single mom living in a trailer and a Vietnam vet who struggles between rebuilding his life and managing deafening depression.

What's the piece like?

There are moments of absolutely bittersweet wonder in the score, which is sampled here. It blends modern harmonies with moments of blues and swing. The tough part is the sparkle moments are weighed down by cringe-worthy, stereotypical local color, which ultimately is much less interesting than the central love story. There is also an unfortunate subplot about provincial racism that really derails the central conflict of the story. What could have been a heart-rending ending was also derailed by predictable, trivial details about one of the main characters.

Tenor Adam Hall and soprano Mary Bonhag

How was the piece produced?

The show was designed to tour, so the set and lighting was minimal. The more complex challenge was for the vocal ensemble, who had very difficult roles and music to sing. There was also so many different theatrical styles used in the staging by Margo Whitcomb - albeit fitting for a cross-genre score - that the audience had to constantly adjust. There was a musical theatre softball scene, moments of abstract movement involving fabric and stones, and other more naturalistic styles. Perhaps most uncomfortable was the subplot about racism, and yet somehow the ensemble lacked enough singers of color to confidently pull off a fun scene of blues riffing. And I must mention that there were not only simulated gunshots, but the prop guns were pointed directly at the audience, which flies against any theatrical code of conduct I know. However, the music was indeed impressively executed by conductor Anne Decker and her seven-piece ensemble TURNmusic

Who were the standout artists?

Cheers go to Maestra Decker and her ensemble. The soprano Mary Bonhag gave a committed performance with a silvery soprano. The women in the ensemble -- Jessica Allen, Stefanie Weigand, Rebecca Bailey, and Lisa Raatikainen -- were also remarkable in their presence. Baritone Thomas Beard lent a surprisingly powerful, colorful voice to the production as the Vietnam vet William. 

What was the venue experience like?

We saw the production at Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vermont, which is a gorgeously renovated, historic hall. There was also a companion gallery exhibit, a really beautiful touch.


Babysitter principle? 

I would have been upset to pay the babysitter an extra hour for all the irrelevant scenes in the show, but the rarity of opera in Vermont means it was certainly worth the outing. 





Friday, January 1, 2016

Lessons From the North Pole

A member of our team had an exciting holiday season working for Santa Claus and performing over 50 shows of original music on the North Pole Express. 
Beyond the typical family fun, she writes below about how watching thousands of children of all ages play together was a truly fascinating experience. Here is her summary of takeaways:

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Lessons From the North Pole:
(Or, Riding a Magical Musical Steam Train to the North Pole for Six Weeks with Hundreds of Families and Dozens of Elves and Santa Claus:)















10. No matter what your color or creed, family is family is family.

9. If you've got a bell, jingle it. Then give it to mommy.


8. Having a safe place to play is a true blessing and privilege.


7. Contracting every cold known to man will only make you stronger.


6. The most tremendous gift to give a child is your attention and affection.


5. You all know more words to those carols than you thought you did.


4. Our imaginations are limitless and fearless and can take us great places. They can also create invisible snowball fights between passing trains.


3. The Mikado is the emperor of Japan, a charming operetta, and the type of my locomotive engine.


2. Everyone has more fun while wearing color-coordinated pajamas.


1. Believing something magical will happen is magic in itself.



Merry Christmas from Katerina Kozy!






Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Fearless Flute: Madeline Sayet on Mozart's Die Zauberflöte

This summer Glimmerglass Festival will open their season with a new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, in an exciting debut by director Madeline Sayet and conductor Carolyn Kuan.



Ms. Sayet comes to Glimmerglass with a fascinating background, including a masters degree from NYU in Arts Politics and Post-Colonial Theory, training in improv theatre with Upright Citizens Brigade, and vast experience on stage herself portraying such Shakespearean heroines as Juliet, Viola and Katherina.

Of the top ten opera favorites, The Magic Flute has perhaps the most troubled libretto - at turns a fantasy, a kidnapping/murder caper, and a romance. Add to that lots of scene shifts, a large ensemble, and less than politically correct depictions of women and minorities, and you have a challenging piece in many ways. 
It's a good thing that Ms. Sayet has a record of fearlessness, as you can see from recent conversations with her at Howlround.com and TCGCircle.org. Opera Think Tank recently had the opportunity to pick her brain as well, as you can see from the following Q&A with her as she prepares what will surely be a remarkable production.

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OTT: Director Barbara Gaines once said something to the effect of: Once you’ve identified a problem in a play, unlocking that problem is often the key to the entire production. What is the most challenging thing about the text of The Magic Flute for you? Is there something you would like to crack open, a problem to solve?

MS: As a society we no longer align ourselves with the original moral compass of The Magic Flute. We have evolved. Simply being a Prince does not automatically win Tamino an audience’s favor anymore. 

So how do we construct new entry points into this story to help us navigate the space between the ages?

The decision to have Tamino begin in the city was the single biggest turning point. I already knew the main landscape for the production would be the northeastern woodlands. By staging Tamino leaving a contemporary city and traveling to the woods at the top of the opera, our audiences begin their journey between worlds with him. Suddenly, we understand his reactions as if they were our own. 

A contemporary setting also offers us new opportunities to solve some of the other problems in the libretto. For starters, that the story preaches women are evil and you should stay away from them. 

But, in interpreting the female characters in Flute there is actually quite a lot of room for exploration. How strong is Pamina as the child of two great forces? What does it mean for Papagena to be a match for Papageno? And in what ways does the Queen of the Night’s power equal Sarastro’s, without manifesting as evil?  

These questions led us on a path to create more complex images for the women in Magic Flute. By grounding the journey in the push and pull between tradition and innovation we have found a holistic approach to creating a Magic Flute that’s logic is pulled from the now.  

You’ve written fearlessly about directors finding a more constructive way to lead than echoing the colonial paradigm of    "a white man barking orders" and automatically being “the smartest person in the room.” However, as the leader of the rehearsal process, what strategies do you use to diffuse the inevitable tension of conflict that comes from the creative process? How would you handle opposition from a singer, technician, or conductor?

The biggest problem with the continuation of the model of the colonial paradigm is that it is a fear-based strategy. Fear is the very breeder of conflict. Communication, on the other hand, dissipates it. 

What source is there for conflict when everyone is being heard and considered? When no one is voiceless? Aren’t we all working together to find the best solution - to make the best production possible that resonates with all of us?

Of course - the greatest challenge to this philosophy is time. Since we are ever running out of it in this industry. I have never - as of yet - dealt with direct head-on opposition to any directing choices I have made. Perhaps because I do not see the world as linearly as that. But, if it were to happen - in that head-on way - I can only imagine that would be because I had stopped listening or the other person had, and that the best way to find the path again would be to see what we had missed and check in, before moving forward. 

You’ve called the Magic Flute an Enlightenment Story, in terms of spiritual enlightenment. How do you make sense of the many symbols and rituals in the piece - revered objects like the flute, Isis and Osiris prayers, Freemasonry imagery, and mythic tests of walking through fire and ice? Is there a through line of imagery or ritual in which Tamino and Pamina will find value?

Do you have a daily ritual? What is ceremony for you today?

One of my favorite discoveries for our Magic Flute has been reframing enlightenment in a modern context. We are living in a time when many people no longer strongly identify with religion, but still surround themselves with ritual to get away from all the noise and search for inner peace. 

My mother is the Medicine Woman of the Mohegan Tribe, so those are the traditions I am grounded in. The push and pull between worlds is something I am familiar with as a Mohegan living in New York City. So much of The Magic Flute - Isis and Osiris, the flute itself, the trials - is about balance. For me, the trials of Fire and Water, are not about survival by enduring, but rather realizing you must develop a relationship with your environment.

Early in the design process we realized that there are many masonic symbols that look almost identical to Mohegan symbols. The symbols in Flute are echoed throughout a vast array of cultures and many of them permeate our current landscape more than we realize. I’m excited to see what these revelations and connections inspire in our audiences. 

Early in your career you took inspiration from Shakespeare’s Caliban, an indigenous islander in The Tempest, who was treated as a monster. Isn’t The Magic Flute’s Monastatos a monstrous, racist stereotype, and how do you hope to overcome this, or any other stereotypes you find in the piece?

There is a lot of darkness and rage in old racist stage depictions. There is no way around it. It is an ugly part of performance history that we haven’t transcended yet.

Caliban was a character in whom I found light and heroism, so I wanted to free him from the box he had been trapped in. But, recently revisiting a Caliban/Prospero scene with the Native Shakespeare Ensemble at Amerinda- a hush fell over the room. It was as if uttering those words in that environment hurt every one of us. Damaging reflections of the past still permeate the classical stage. 

Monastatos doesn’t even have as much flexibility in the story as Caliban in Tempest. He is human in his messiness, but the character is not designed to be lovable, despite love being his only real desire. 

He is designed to be an outsider. So what do you do? You cannot tackle or soften the hurt that the continuance of these characters perpetuates. 

While, I believe deeply that Monastatos deserves an adaptation in which the historical complications of that character are the focus of the production, it is not this one. In honesty, choosing not to focus on Monastatos in this production was very difficult for me. But, our production is grounded in the woodlands, a world with its own belief systems. That is a world that had no word for slavery. 

Our Mohegan word for freedom is Nayawiyuwok. In Tempest, I had the luxury of being able to reframe things in order to understand and complicate Caliban’s very human perspective using that word. However, Monastatos is not the centerpiece of this production and is being portrayed by a white performer [Nicholas Nestorak] in a more contemporary relationship, so we have decontextualized the character from the traditional politics of his race. 

This is in no way an attempt to sanitize the ugly history of the character, but he simply is not the focus of this production, where you will find a more utopian depiction of racial relations, and the conflicts lie in other cultural divides. 

There are spheres constructed within all of these stories, and ultimately, when building a world for them, I have to think about whether I want to reconstruct an ugly past, or envision a better future. 


Our Magic Flute is a Flute for the future. The web of conflict in it stems from real divides that exist around us in the world today. I have broken down as many of the disgusting stereotypes as I could by reframing characters to give them their full complexity. When young people see this production, I want them to see a future for themselves in this world. 

Pamina will not be a damsel in distress. And there are new elements, such as our dancers who represent woodland spirits that take on a life of their own in this production, truly bringing breath to the woods. How can each character be reframed for relevance today rather than sit in a static past?

This is an opera, and we are limited by the story of the music. But I can't help but think that the music - while written in different times - still wants an honest reflection in the world today. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Fresh Delivery for Catán's Il Postino

For a springtime breath of fresh air, we have a new take on
Il Postino, Daniel Catan's romantic soundscape based on the hit film of the same name.




Director Heidi Lauren Duke collaborated with designers Ada Smith and Yulia Dvorah Shtern to develop a fresh take on the piece.

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Il Postino is a fantastic fable in which a simple man goes on a quest to discover his greatness, and a great man discovers his own simple soul. Daniel Catan's score is as luscious as it is fierce and fragile, and functions as a vessel for poetry, but also as a ballet of life, an underscoring to time spent on a secluded island.

We've sought to create a tactile, sensual environment for the dreams, fantasies, and heartbreak of this beloved story, where the famous poet Pablo Neruda and the fisherman's son Mario Ruoppolo develop an unusual friendship. Eschewing any sleek tools of projections, video, or pret-a-porter, we devised scenic and costume art comprised principally of earth, paper, and lace.

If poetry uses words as small, irregular building blocks, strung together to create lines, lines that then undulate and layer and move, then we have designed an opera production that is poetry itself: a multitude of layers of various building blocks and lines found in the natural world. We built this environment of rocks forming a mountain, paper-thin cloud wisps creating a multi-dimensional sky, layers of paint chipping off old tin furniture, and Chilean embroidery overlapping the crude swarm of fishermens' nets.

We blend all these textures of sky, sea, land, paper, and fabric together in this place of stark loneliness but also powerful romantic possibility.

Our set is simple – a lonely rock amidst a great sky and sea. The Island is a long rake on one side, a rocky coast going into the sea, which becomes Neruda's back yard and solitary place of repose. The back of the island reflects the kind of stone wall of stairs common in coastal towns. 



Above this, the sky is an ever changing collage of paper clouds – again, horizontal lines of interlocking visual poetry – which fly in and often have the poets' words stenciled into them, allowing light to shine through and create a magical, textured effect. 



While the opera is paced similar to the film – short scenes in many settings – we were able to whittle those locales down to very few. The first and last, primary image we see is Neruda alone on the Island. To create the smaller locales, we add smaller elements, roofs, lighting fixtures, shutters, minimal furniture. All of these man-made elements use the harsh texture of metal – the opposite of our soft world of earth / water / paper. 

Storyboard sketch to flow through locations
Initial rendering of a rotating island and paper clouds, by Ada Smith
For the design of the costumes we are drawn to some beautiful Chilean weaving designs and horsehair textures, and were intrigued with the spectre of Mario's “sad fishermen nets.” We play with these textures to allow Beatrice and Mario to transcend their humble setting as they explore a poetic world. Hence the poet Neruda wears the colorful mark on his jacket of traditional Chilean embroidery. 

While Mario begins in a simple ragged shirt and pants, he later earns a fantastical colored coat, with appliqué “embroidery” made from his interlocking nets, over an open-collared, flowing poet's shirt. Beatrice is allowed to lose her sturdy house dress for a sheer butterfly gown, the wings of the skirt playfully surrounding her. Hence Mario and Beatrice see each other in their most spectacular forms.


Beyond the primary four characters of Neruda, Mario, Beatrice and Matilde, the rest of the ensemble creates the extremes of realistic versus fantastical life. The awakening of the ensemble comes with Mario's awareness and imagination, beginning with the fishermen's chorus in Act I Scene 8, which we imagine happening through Mario's eyes – suddenly these poor, exhausted fishermen shed their dirty, frayed jackets and open their worn jumpsuits, revealing clean, white, flowing poet's sleeves and their movement and gestures follow suit as they serenade their women. 



While the chorus is set for men's voices only, we would also have a small group of female dancers who act in both literal and figurative roles in the island community. When Mario and Giorgio take to recording the sounds of the island, Mario's imagination and artistry is at its highest, and through his eyes we see the fishermen poets of Act 1 appear with their ladies, together creating the movement of the sea, sky and stars in a choreographed dream ballet, influenced by the gestures of traditional cuerca dance.



While the ensemble has tremendous power to create an intoxicatingly sensual world, they also create Neruda's most frightening fear: throngs of the dead, still as boxes. During Neruda's aria in response to devastating news from the mainland, we see these ensemble figures lingering upstage of the Island, a wave ready to roll in. This wave of figures returns at the end of the opera, out of which Mario emerges, singing his last letter to Neruda.



By the end of the opera, Catán's score of soaring melodies, gritty percussion, and flowing brass and strings have taken us around and through this enchanted isla. But the rocks, lace, and paper combine to make a fragile world, and one that is only enlivened by music and metaphor. Here we learn what it takes to bring the poet out of anyone, and how even the most insignificant death can break the heart of a hero. 

Was Mario ever truly a great poet? Did Neruda ever come to love him as a true friend? Will Beatrice retreat back to Donna Rosa's pessimism after her love is taken? Will the island people ever win over the politicians' dismissals and corruption? This piece shall raise more questions than it answers, in the way that the best poetry makes you stop and ponder its meaning, which often seems just beyond your reach.