Opera Is Blooming in Portland

Spring is the season of renewal, and this one has brought a fresh wave of youthful artistic energy to Portland stages in what's paradoxically one of the most old fashioned artistic forms—opera. ---

The first blossoms appeared at the Newmark Theater, where Portland Opera's annual Studio Artists show represents the culmination of a nine-month training program for 20-something singers from some of the country's major vocal conservatories. Last month, the young cast (which also included former studio artists and others) performed splendidly in Maurice Ravel's two one-act operas. In the satirical 1909 sex farce The Spanish Hour, Darryl Freedman had a grand time vamping up the saucy role of Concepcion, and tenor Steven Brennfleck hilariously portrayed an idealistic young artiste more interested in poetry, music and painting than satisfying her carnal appetites. In The Child and the Magic Spells, the young cast's expressive physicality made the fairy tale characters come alive. Beautifully staged and brilliantly directed by Portland Opera's Christopher Mattaliano, the sparkling Studio Artists show, as usual, upstaged the season's main stage performances of warhorses at Keller Auditorium. 


Next came Portland State University's production of Kurt Weill's 1949 Street Scene at the campus' Lincoln Hall. Once again, veteran leadership by Prof. Christine Meadows, stage director Bill Fabris and conductor Ken Selden effectively deployed the abundant energy of the forty-plus young performers crowding the stage each night. Especially in the vibrant dance numbers, the stage crackled with youthful vigor in an ambitious show that would challenge even a professional cast. PSU's opera program is one of the school's gems, regularly proving that, with smart guidance, young performers can frequently surmount even the highest bar. The singing, acting and playing couldn't match seasoned professionals' quality (although a few of the student performers approached it), but with such obvious passion and so many smart touches, the evening offered at least as much thoughtful entertainment as many of the city's professional productions. And as with Ravel's magical sounds, Weill's compelling music kept the audience enthralled. In both cases, the fact that these great works are seldom staged compared to the endlessly recycled grand opera perennials added extra freshness.

The surprise highlight of this fertile spring season, though, came in an unlikely venue with only a few dozen viewers. The University of Oregon's opera program made its Portland debut at the school's Portland outpost in theWhite Stag building with a pair of rarely performed madrigal comedies. Both shows in "Senile Madness" used archetypal commedia del'arte characters—the decadent old Pantalone, buffoonish know-it-all Dottore,  lovesick young sweethearts et al.—who inform comedy characters from Figaro to Chico Marx to Butthead. UO music professor and director Nicholas Isherwood  (a superb bass singer who's worked with some of the century's greatest composers, early music ensembles, and conductors in a still thriving career in Europe) learned the tradition from the source in Italy, connecting us with a four century unbroken line of theatrical inheritance.

The masks, ribald dialogue (especially double entendres) and physical action gave the young performers license to unleash youthful energy. Yet their vivacity in no way impeded the performers' ability to handle the intricate, interwoven, polylingual sung-spoken dialogue (all performed without instrumental accompaniment) of the great 20th century experimental composer Luciano Berio's fragmentary 1974 A-Ronne , whose text is a gleeful pastiche of literary sources. The score requires belching, sighing, whistling, utterly precise timing (vocal and physical) while still demanding stylized, sometimes acrobatic movement (choreographed by the UO's Shannon Mockli) and expressive comedy. The students pulled off the complex piece like pros. Berio created it in the spirit of 16th century madrigal comedy, and  Isherwood ingeniously decided to make the link explicit by casting the actor/singers as the ancient stock servant characters of the commedia.

That provided a perfect link to the program's other work, Adriano Banchieri's 1598 La Pazzia Senile, a typical commedia story depicting old people's greed and lust interfering with young lovers' true feelings, with everyone happily pairing off in the end. Isherwood cackled and moaned hilariously through the challenging lead role and wrote new song texts, while the ensemble cast had a blast tormenting him and the stuffy Doctor Graziano , played with compelling stage and vocal presence by Marco Valerio. The other student performers (Barbie Wu and Andew Poletto as the besotted lovers, servants Scott Carroll, Jason Williams, Victoria Helppie and Alicia Erb, Jordan Brown as the object of Pantalone's lust, Lauretta, and Desiree Townley, who also contributed costumes, wigs and makeup, as narrator Zagne) also communicated their delight effectively. The cheery music was winningly performed by a trio of student madrigal singers and a lutes and harpsichord trio.

The quality and verve Isherwood elicited from student performers was astonishing, particularly considering the inadequacy of the venue, not much more than a conference room without a stage. The real creative vitality in opera these days occurs, on one hand, in new productions of Baroque and earlier works that have sometimes lain unperformed for centuries, and on the other end in operas by contemporary composers, which are enjoying a surge in popularity. This single production of operas created four centuries apart gave the UO students rare and valuable experience at both ends of the spectrum.  After the show, several told me that working on this production had inspired them to stage achievements they couldn't have previously imagined; Isherwood has arranged stage performances for several of them in Europe. The program offered Mozart's Magic Flute last year and next year will tackle a Romantic era opera, affording the students a broad range of exposure to opera history.

Beyond cultivating the next generation of opera performers, these three spring productions demonstrate that appropriately guided student and apprentice opera performances are a valuable part of the city's music scene. The UO's move into Portland brings its students big-city performing opportunities, and gives Portlanders the high-quality fruits of one of the West's finest music schools. The Oregon Bach Festival is staging five concerts here this summer, UO faculty musicians are already appearing in various performances, and Isherwood told me that the university will be sponsoring a concert series next year. Both the school and the city, which famously celebrates the energy infused by young creatives, will be the beneficiaries.

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