After 14 summers of covering Edna Garabedian’s annual California Opera Arts and Education Festival, sometimes I feel as if I’ve used up all my words to describe the intensity and enthusiasm she brings to the subject of opera.
But let me dig down for a moment — I can always come up with a few more.
If you haven’t experienced Garabedian’s passion for the art form firsthand, let me assure you it can be a cross between a headlock and the gentlest of hugs. (And she knows exactly what ratio of the two will be most effective.) She can be quite the persuasive ambassador.
Put the indefatigable diva into a room with, say, 10 people whose exposure to opera is limited to the singing wardrobe in “Beauty and the Beast,” and I swear that after an hour, Garabedian could turn eight of them into eager first-time opera-goers — and one into a check-writing California Opera donor. (As for the 10th, there’s going to be a holdout in any crowd.)
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This marks the first time in the festival’s history that a fully staged production will run two performances instead of one.
For this summer’s installment of her festival, she’s been singing the praises of Léo Delibes’ “Lakmé,” which will be fully staged at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre in Clovis. Performances are Friday, Aug. 14, and Sunday, Aug. 16. This marks the first time in the festival’s history that a fully staged production will run two performances instead of one.
“Lakmé,” which premiered in Paris in 1883, is an example of French grand opera with a juicy love story, large chorus and ballet. It’s set in the British India of the mid-19th Century. When a Hindu priestess falls into a forbidden love with a dashing British army officer, intercultural complications are bound to arise.
Think “Madama Butterfly” with brightly colored saris instead of kimonos.
The opera is best known for the “Flower Duet” between Lakmé and her slave, Mallika, and for the beautiful “Bell Song” aria (“L’Air des clochettes”) sung by Lakme in the second act.
Still, despite the graceful music, “Lakmé” isn’t often performed, at least in this country. Opera is subject to the same popularity contest that bedevils virtually any human activity — some titles are more fashionable than others, and it isn’t always for logical reasons. That’s one reason getting the chance to hear a “new” old opera can be such a delight. You get an inaugural experience of a work that sounds like it should be a classic.
The fickleness of tastes beside, Garabedian says there is a good reason “Lakmé” is mostly unfamiliar to this country’s opera-goers: because it’s such a tough title to stage both technically and in terms of resources.
“It’s a mammoth production,” she says.
A NOTED TENOR
Benjamin Brecher is one of the important components of that production. As one of the festival’s guest artists, he plays Gérald, the British army officer who falls for the title character, and he brings a long list of professional and academic experience to the role.
The tenor is spending three weeks in Fresno preparing for the role, over from the coast, where he teaches voice and runs the opera program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He sits in a (thankfully air-conditioned) rehearsal space in a north Fresno office park.
“It’s hot here,” he says with a smile.
He’s one of a cast of 50, which includes 14 dancers from California Arts Academy performing Hindustan-style-influenced ballet. (Carla Stallings-Lippert and Margaret Hord are the choreographers.) Richard Adamson, a veteran with California Opera who in a long career assistant directed at the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden Opera, is the “Lakmé” stage director.
George Skipworth, with an international opera resume, will conduct.
As artistic director, Garabedian’s model for the festival is simple: She combines in her mainstage productions professionals such as Brecher, Gabriel Manro (who plays Gerald’s sidekick, Frederic) and Cal Opera veteran staffer Jamie Bonetto (Lakmé) with mid-career and less experienced students playing smaller roles.
As much as she can, she likes to draw on local talent. Her Cal Arts dancers in “Lakmé,” with their colorful costumes and rigorous choreography, are this year’s example of homegrown artistry.
During the month-long festival, students have had opportunities to perform in a number of themed weekend concerts. (The last, titled “Operalia,” featuring selections from American and Italian opera, including “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” and “La Traviata,” is 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9, at the Fresno Art Museum.)
Brecher, who sang 13 roles with the New York City Opera and recently performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has dozens of roles under his belt — he’s done his signature role, Count Almaviva in “The Barber of Seville,” in 150 performances — but was unfamiliar with “Lakmé.”
Lakmé is a fantastic piece. When I listened to it, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.
He might not have been as receptive to an invitation to Fresno to perform, say, Count Almaviva one more time, but to debut a new role? That was an enticement.
“It’s a fantastic piece,” he says. “When I listened to it, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.”
And it’s a perfect fit for his high lyric tenor voice.
Summer opera institutes are a key learning tool for younger opera singers, and he encourages his students to seek out such opportunities.
“You never stop learning,” Garabedian says.
In a smaller office just down the hall, Garabedian is putting Alix Jerinic, who will play the prominent role of Lakmé’s slave, Mallika, in “Lakmé,” through the paces in a vocal lesson.
Jerinic is singing an aria from the American opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” which she will perform at the “Operalia” concert. Her character, Augusta Tabor, is an anguished wife:
“Tabor, my husband, Tabor, my dear one, why did you ever leave me?” she sings, her full-throttled mezzo-soprano voice swelling to fill the small room.
It’s taking her awhile to sing the phrase, however, because Garabedian keeps stopping her.
“Tabor, my husband …”
“Commas,” Garabedian interrupts, making the word sound operatic all its own. “All those beautiful commas are put in the score for drama, for inflection, for emotional constitution. Commas are very special, So, observe them.”
Garabedian’s critiques are a mix of the technical — at one point she discusses the way Jerinic should manipulate her glottis, or the space between the vocal folds, using a method called coup de glotte — and the emotional tug of Jerinic’s character. (“She’s really crazed with pain here,” she says. Later: “Here’s where you can just sway your soul to pieces.”)
Over the years I’ve enjoyed listening to the range of experience that California Opera brings to the stage, from promising youngsters to seasoned veterans.
When she gets to the subject of exclamation points, that’s when she really gets excited.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed listening to the range of experience that California Opera brings to the stage, from promising youngsters to seasoned veterans. I’ve seen some wonderful productions and listened to some glorious talent.
Frankly, what I admire most about Garabedian is her ambition. She’s sung in the great opera houses of Europe. She likes to think big.
Even over the years in Fresno when she hasn’t always been able to come through with every ounce of heft she wants to deliver, she puts her auteur fingerprints all over every event she’s involved with. By sheer force of personality, she can make you believe that her hometown of Fresno isn’t just an opera town — it could be an opera center.
I ask what her latest grand plan is — because I know she always has one. She smiles. What if, she asks, she could take her California Opera productions on the road to communities throughout the state?
“You always have to be thinking ahead,” she says.
I want to sign up for the first road trip to Chico. Or, better yet, Santa Barbara.
- 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14, 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16
- Mercedes Edwards Theatre, 902 5th St., Clovis
- www.californiaopera.org, (559) 225-6737
- Free, with donations accepted