Opera companies tend to be conservative, regularly rotating the same-old same-old, big moneymakers (your Carmens, your Bohèmes, your Traviatas). Portland Opera's Studio Artists series is anything but. Now in its fifth year, the program gives rising young singers a chance to strut their stuff onstage in edgier, more intimate and more interesting productions of rarer fare. This year's studio showcase, which opens Friday, boasts two short works from the genre's early-17th-century dawn and a satirical stab at 1950s American suburbia.
The disparate-sounding triple bill, yoked together by director Nicholas Muni, does have a coherent theme. In the first story, Monteverdi's The Dance of the Ungrateful Women, the titular ingrates "are condemned to hell because they're unwilling to accept love," says music director Robert Ainsley. After this cautionary tale, Ainsley says Muni "takes the next two operas as examples of what they lost—if you fail to accept love, here's what it can do to you." In the second Monteverdi mini-opera, The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda, two lovers who take opposite sides during the Crusades meet in a deadly encounter.
The third installment, Leonard Bernstein's funny and sad Trouble in Tahiti, chronicles the disintegration of a couple's marriage, dissolved in the sterility of mid-century American suburbia—a malaise Bernstein, a consummate city guy, recognized early on. While Tancredi and Clorinda battle over how to get to heaven, Bernstein's pair bickers over burned toast and who'll attend Junior's recital. He cleverly sets some of the songs (i.e., the show-stoppingly hilarious "Island Magic") to '50s-style TV tunes. This production follows that concept with projections of period imagery and correspondent costumes. The Monteverdi operas, which share the set, augment the look with robes and masks.
The production's lower stakes—it's in the much smaller, cheaper Newmark Theatre, rather than the opera's usual Keller Auditorium venue, and uses student singers and minimal sets—permit greater risk taking, and the go-for-broke energy of the young performers, who appreciate how rare it is to get major roles at their age, make Opera Studio productions feel much more in-your-face than the company's standard rep. "These are young artists prepared to give every last ounce to make it, and this is their big opportunity," Ainsley says. "You can't help but sense the vibrancy and energy of youth."
7:30 pm Friday, March 26; Thursday, April 1; and Saturday, April 3; 2 pm Sunday, March 28. Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 241-1802, portlandopera.org. $50-$70.