Stephanie Vlahos, Artistic Director of Opera Posse, talks about bringing back one of the highlights of last year’s holiday season to the Pasadena Playhouse.
Hi Stephanie. I’m so excited to know that Amahl And The Night Visitors is returning to the Pasadena Playhouse for five performances this December. What is “Opera Posse” and how did it come about?
Opera Posse is something I’ve been thinking about for years. It’s about looking at opera from the perspective of getting real and truly considering its future in these very precarious times.
Can you tell us something about your background in opera?
I’m a theater kid. I came from a theater family but I quickly came to appreciate the discreet and overwhelming presence of theater in opera.
Are you an opera performer yourself?
For many years, I sang in both opera and my own one-woman shows which I toured through Europe, significantly a show called Weill Thoughts. But I always came back to opera. I knew what grabbed me about it and I’ve always prioritized introducing others to the art, to the fantastic side of the art.
How would you define opera?
Opera is passion. I love the play Othello but Verdi bettered it with his opera. He nailed the seething machismo of Othello like no other.
I understand that Opera Posse has as one of its goals making opera affordable for people who wouldn’t be able to shell out big bucks for a production at the Music Center.
Yes, this is one of our goals along with presenting opera in unique spaces, new operas, as well as whimsical approaches to old operas through lively collaborations. Basically, I’m a populist who believes in an art form that was co-opted by elitists.
How do you mean?
You see, you don’t have to have money to understand passion, love, despair, anguish, conflict, turbulence, humor. This is the emotional palette of opera that we all share, and I would hate for us to lose this vital form when it has so much to say and is actually so relevant.
What do you say to people who would say that opera is “too intellectual” for the masses?
There’s nothing intellectual about opera. It comes from the heart. In an age where we have become inured to feeling anything, we have to work harder at supporting the arts that insist people feel and teach us all to have empathy.
Growing up in Santa Monica, no Christmas was complete for me without viewing the annual network TV broadcast of Amahl And The Night Visitors. How did you first become aware of (and I assume fall in love with) Menotti’s opera?
I, too, grew up with it. My father, who was a screenwriter for early television, was an avid devotee of the opera and its raw truths. He insisted the whole family watch and watch we did every Christmas Eve until they stopped broadcasting it and we were left with only listening to the recording over Christmas dinner. My father felt that, like Scrooge, he knew how to keep Christmas and indeed, he did. Insisting on a fixed feast of Amahl was one way.
When and how did the idea occur to you to bring back Amahl as a live stage production?
Amahl is often done but in smaller venues, churches, etc. It’s often a community show. And quite frankly, its beauty shines whether rendered large or small. The message of this story, one of hope and love, is succinctly expressed in forty-five minutes and is a testament to Menotti’s genius. This is magic.
Have there been any hurdles to bringing Amahl back to the big stage?
There have been significant hurdles. Most everyone has a near-allergy to going to anything that is touted as being good for the soul and comes in the package of opera. I don’t blame them. But, I just keep nurturing and coaxing a flame. Some projects you do because they’re worth doing. And, quite frankly, everyone participating in this show is donating their performance.
What was the audience reaction to last year’s production?
One theatergoer approached me and said that they were so grateful to finally attend a holiday performance that left them with the real feeling of the season.
What is it do you think that makes Amahl And The Night Visitors resonate so strongly with people of all ages?
Amahl is the story of hope. It’s the story of children and their shining hope, their beacon in a sometimes, dark future. We must remember to rely on their youth.
Can you talk a bit about the cast you’ve assembled for this year’s production? I see that the marvelous Suzanna Guzmán and the enchanting Caleb Glickman are returning as mother and child. Who else is in the production, and have are any of the roles double cast?
The roles are not double cast although there are a few people who cannot manage all of the performances and so we have a wonderful cover to step in. These are the Page and Amahl. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a wonderful young man at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts who is completely self-taught as a boy soprano but has a wonderful instrument. We’re also bringing in two more friends of mine, Leroy Villanueva and Hector Vasquez to sing the roles of Melchior and Balthazar, respectively. Both of these guys are wonderful singing actors and are regulars at the Met, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, and LA Opera. They’re not just wonderful singers but masterful actors. Also, the adorable and legendary Malcolm McDowell will join us again for a reading of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
You had an extraordinary design team last year, including scenic designer John Iacovelli, lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, and costume designer Kate Bergh, who I assume are returning this time around? What particularly design concepts did you have in mind once you’d got your team together?
I knew that I wanted the show to have the same whimsical sense of looking back at the birth of Christ through the period that exalted him, the Middle Ages and, even the Renaissance. Our set is based more on a Neapolitan crèche as per Menotti’s suggestion. Even the choruses in this piece, evoke Renaissance dances in their structure. It’s a trope on the romance of one historical time romantically looking at another historical time and that is its charm and its magic. Human beings are a nostalgic lot.
Does Opera Posse have plans for other productions in the coming months?
I’m currently developing a number of productions and certainly looking forward to our June OperaFusion Festival. This festival is for other performing artists, actors, singers, dancers, mimes, storytellers, filmmakers.
And what exactly does the festival entail?
It’s a festival about how opera inspires other artists, so you could be a hiphop singer inspired by Tosca or a filmmaker inspired by opera in the ‘50s, or a wonderful performance artist in drag performing a one-man show based on the life of Maria Callas—all are welcome to the festival. They just have to be good. At the nexus of this festival is our opera. It may be a completely new opera in a unique space…a street corner or a rooftop, or it may be a traditional opera in an unexpected space. I quite like the idea of Tristan Und Isolde in a small space but we shall see.
Anything else in the works?
I’m developing any number of new projects so our announcement will come in January regarding the June opera. Opera Posse is about whimsicality, affordability, theatricality, currency, and great singers. There’s no telling at present what its unique flight path will be as I’m intentionally looking to build something without a precedent but with passion.
Is there anything more you’d like our readers to know?
Please let people know about OperaFusion. It’s a very fresh way to look at the form and impact of opera through a different side of the prism. People can learn more if they visit http://www.operaposse.com/operafusion.html.
Will do. Thanks so much Stephanie, for bringing back Amahl And The Night Visitors again this year. I’ll be sure to come armed with Kleenex in hand.
Amahl And The Night Visitors will be performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena, on Friday December 9 at 8:00, Saturday December 10 at 2:00 and 8:00, and Sunday December 11 at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 626 428-5609