DIRTY BEGGARS: Michael Herrman (left) and Stephen Marc Beaudoin. IMAGE: Christine Taylor
During the darkest days of the Bush administration, Opera Theater Oregon founder Katie Taylor sought a production that would speak to the corruption, cynicism and unbridled greed that fueled the regime. The perfect candidate: John Gay's tuneful, satirical 1728 The Beggar's Opera, one of the most popular shows in the history of Western music. "The whole message of the opera is that big crooks get away with it and little crooks get the punishment," Taylor says. "Things haven't changed."
While waiting on a grant, OTO, a company dedicated to putting opera back into popular culture, staged several delightful productions with barebones resources in relaxed venues like the Someday Lounge, full of multimedia touches, contemporary cultural allusions and liberal doses of high-spirited humor.
Taylor, who wrote and directed all those shows while working a day job, wanted the growing company to include collaborations with other local artists. She turned to local writer and performer (and former WW classical critic) Stephen Marc Beaudoin. He, too, was considering staging Gay's wry masterpiece.
They weren't the first. Over the years, artists from Benjamin Britten to Václav Havel have adapted The Beggar's Opera, most notably Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's classic The Threepenny Opera, which spawned "Mack the Knife," "Pirate Jenny" and other unforgettable songs, as well as characters.
But Beaudoin wanted a show that retained the spirit of Gay's original while spotlighting Portland here and now. "We want to celebrate what a wonderful, sick city this is—really this is a fucked-up place," he explains. "We're a creative capital, we're the most talked-about city in America now because of our food and our art and the rest—but we also have...major problems with homelessness and joblessness, and issues that people talk about and never really address, while we live these magical, liberal-Portland lives. There might be some things under the rug that are pretty ugly, and that need to be out in the open."
To adapt Gay's songs and write original tunes and interludes for his book and lyrics, Beaudoin brought in Portland singer-songwriter Michael Herrman, who has experience in musical theater. His chamber rock band, Buoy LaRue, which adroitly combines "classical" instruments such as violin and viola with rock instrumentation, will be the house band for the show. The project presented Herrman with new challenges—collaborating with another lyricist; adapting ancient tunes in modern guise; writing original songs from unfamiliar characters' points of view. "I've never composed an opera before, so that was daunting," he says, "[but] I truly believe in Stephen and Katie's vision of the show."
For all its Portland references, the creators say, this new Beggar's Opera will transcend our time and place just as it did John Gay's. "It's timely for any city, any age because greed, political corruption, rampant promiscuity and addiction will always be with us," Beaudoin says.
The orchestra continues to prove "crossover" doesn't have to mean crass or compromised. Its Sept. 26 show brings in four of the world's finest musicians—banjo master Béla Fleck, boss bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolin magician and former Nickel Creek frontman Chris Thile, and tabla wallah Zakir Hussain—who'll perform Fleck-Meyer-Hussain's
and Thile's new
with the orchestra.
While so many arts groups are hunkering down and going conservative, desperately clinging to dwindling old audiences by serving the same old, same old, Portland Opera is boldly balancing its
with three adventurous productions, the first being the West Coast premiere of Philip Glass'
based on Jean Cocteau's magical movie.
Bringing the Tanzanian after-harvest festival, Ngoma, to Sauvie Island, this benefit for Africa Bridge (an organization "dedicated to empowering East African communities through integrated, sustainable development programs helping to improve the lives of children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS") features Portland world-beat legend Obo Addy and the West African dance and drum group Sebe Kan.
Third Angle regularly produces some of the most fascinating and forward-looking music in Portland, and the chamber ensemble's fall concert, in conjunction with the Portland Art Museum's upcoming China exhibit, features new music by contemporary Chinese composers—who number some of the world's finest—curated by professor Xiaogang Ye, chairman of the composition faculty at the Beijing Conservatory and composer of music for the Beijing Olympics.