When Brian Asher Alhadeff gives the downbeat as conductor at this weekend’s performances of California Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” it will mark a new collaboration between the company and Opera San Luis Obispo.
Alhadeff hopes it can become a tradition. He has been getting to know California Opera’s artistic director, Edna Garabedian, whose annual summer festival concludes with two performances of a fully staged “Lucia” and the return of the popular benefit concert “Doctors at the MET,” a fundraiser for St. Agnes Hospital.
“Both Edna and I are very focused on uniting the classical music patrons of Fresno and the Central Coast,” Alhadeff says. “We are only separated by a short two-hour drive, and now is the time to marry our vibrant arts communities.”
We caught up with Alhadeff via email to talk about “Lucia,” his tenure in San Luis Obispo as artistic director and the challenges of attracting younger audiences to opera.
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Q: Tell us a little about bel canto, which is the style in which “Lucia di Lammermoor” is written.
A: Just as popular music these days falls into a variety of somewhat related to completely unrelated genres (rock, country, rap, hip-hop, new age, etc.), “Lucia di Lammermoor” is a genre of opera called bel canto. Bel canto literally translates to “beautiful voice.” While composition in this opera classification only lasted about 35 years (1805-1840), we do have several other titles that are quite famous: “The Elixir of Love (L’eliser d’amore),” “Cinderella (La Cenerentola),” “Norma,” and of course one of the most famous titles of all time: “The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia).” Bel canto opera is all about drawing 100 percent focus on the “beauty” of the human voice. That is achieved through an economy of everything else surrounding it in the opera: less focus on story and setting, smaller orchestra, an economy of staging, plots that could be easily grasped (no fairy tale, mythical, supernatural or exotic themes). Essentially it’s using the voice to convey the drama and emotion of the story as best as possible.
Q: Opera storylines can be complicated, which is part of the fun. Give us a bare-bones description of what “Lucia” is about.
A: “Lucia” is based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel “The Bride of Lammermoor.” It’s sort of a “Romeo and Juliet” variation: Lucy and Edgar fall in love during the 18th century, a time when marriages were arranged for political and social gain. Lucy’s family is in bitter conflict with Edgar’s family, and Lucy’s brother Henry has taken the liberty to arrange her marriage to a younger man whom she has never met before. We’ll leave the rest for you to experience in the performance.
Q: This will be the first time you’ve conducted “Lucia.” The music is relatively easy, but this is also an opera score that requires some “institutional knowledge.” Tell us about that.
A: Performing bel canto opera requires a lot of research. There are many, many unwritten performance traditions that have to be taken into consideration: music slowing down, speeding up, adding a high note here and there, coaching singers in special cadenzas and the proper way to execute period specific ornamentation. One amazing feature of “Lucia” that is totally unheard of for an opera from 1835 is the relationship between the flute and the leading character Lucia: On several occasions in the opera I am required to stop conducting in order to let Lucia and the flute engage in freestyle solo passages. This is the kind of performance style we musicians have all gone to school for. In the end, the result is a gorgeous Italian-style traditional operatic experience that will happily turn your blood into spaghetti sauce by the end of the evening!
Q: How big is the orchestra?
A: Our orchestra comprises 17 outstanding local musicians: four violins, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, piano and two percussionists.
Q: You’ve been at Opera San Luis Obispo since 2011. Where were you before that?
A: For several years I conducted an opera festival in the Czech Republic that partnered the Eastern Bohemian Philharmonic with the Prague National Opera Chorus and Ballet. I also did a lot of guest conducting in Europe and the United States. I was principal conductor for Ballet Tucson, associate conductor of the Beverly Hills Symphony, and I developed the orchestra programs for two universities: La Sierra University in Riverside and Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Q: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment at Opera San Luis Obispo?
A: Creating the Countywide Arts Collaboration formula for grand opera production has completely revived Opera San Luis Obispo while also initiating a renaissance for opera in California’s Central Coast. Over the last five years we have increased audience attendance 40 percent.
Q: It’s exciting to learn about this new collaboration between California Opera and your company, and Golden Gate Opera is in the mix, too. How did this come about?
A: In 2010 California Opera built an amazing set for Golden Gate Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly.” OperaSLO has purchased those sets and skeletal components of that will be used in OperaSLO’s brand new production of “La Bohème” this October, and then we will produce “Madama Butterfly” in October of 2017. OperaSLO is currently loaning props to this COA production of “Lucia,” and COA will be loaning set pieces and props to OperaSLO’s October production of “La Bohème” in addition to building the overall sets for the production. In 2017 Edna Garabedian will direct OperaSLO’s production of “Madama Butterfly.” The real magic happens behind the scenes in marketing and development. OperaSLO is actively marketing COA’s production of “Lucia” while COA will actively market OperaSLO’s production of “La Boheme.”
Q: You’ve worked in the past with Gabriel Manro, who has a leading role in “Lucia.” What special qualities do you think he brings to the stage?
A: Gabriel is a fantastic collaborating artist. He has a rich, deep, dark vocal quality that is the characteristic “baritone” sound. Gabriel is also an outstanding actor, which together with his tremendous vocal talent make for a strong, well-rounded performer.
Q: As an arts leader, what do you think is the best way to make opera relevant to younger people today who are presented with a wealth of artistic and entertainment possibilities?
A: Unfortunately opera is the “five-letter word” in entertainment today. The last 40 years have erected a terrible stereotype around opera that make it very difficult to break the ice with newcomers as well as folks that have lost interest. I can only speak to my own success in this industry: I am finding that if we can just get folks to take a chance and buy a ticket to the right kind of opera – and this is absolutely key, the right kind of opera – then folks of all ages fall in love with it. This is a real fact. Arts leaders today who want to be successful must embrace that they are starting at ground zero with most patrons. We have to once again rebuild the greatness of this amazing art form.
I like to compare opera to ice cream. The basic flavors are vanilla, cherry, chocolate, coffee and strawberry. If I can just get someone who’s never had ice cream to taste it, then they’ll fall in love with it. And through their initial love of vanilla, cherry, chocolate, coffee and strawberry, they will naturally hunger to experience pralines and cream, Oreo cookie dough, chocolate malted crunch, peanut butter, etc. ... Similarly we have to build an audience of opera lovers who come through the doors of “Carmen,” “Barber of Seville,” “La Bohème,” “Madama Butterfly,” “Magic Flute,” etc., in order to attract their taste to a Wagnerian Ring Cycle, Richard Strauss opera, or even something as far-fetched as “Dead Man Walking.” Math cannot lie. Just take a look at ticket buyer statistics for the titles above and see what’s doing well. The answers you find need to be programing highlights for the next 20 years in order to build trust back with patrons and develop a body of young opera lovers again. There is no quick fix – that’s for sure.
California Opera festival
- “Lucia di Lammermoor”: 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7; Mercedes Edwards Theatre, 902 Fifth St., Clovis. Free.
- “Doctors at the MET”: 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6, Mercedes Edwards Theatre, 902 Fifth St., Clovis. Dr. Harvey Edmonds, Dr. Marshall Flam, and Dr. Don Gaede perform supported by festival artists in an inspirational musical extravaganza to benefit St. Agnes Hospital. Free.
- Details: www.californiaopera.org, 559-225-6737.