Grover’s Corners doesn’t have a lot in common with the corner Alison Moritz is standing at late Monday afternoon. A few minutes past 5 p.m., rush hour traffic is clogged at Shaw and Maple avenues, one of the entrances to Fresno State, and the whoosh and hum is a predictably raucous medley of cars, bicycles and pedestrians rushing to the next destinations in busy lives.
That’s a kind of jangled music you won’t find in the operatic adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” that classic work of small-town Americana.
Yet there’s something fitting about watching Moritz, an acclaimed young opera director who has staged productions in such cities as Seattle, Austin and Atlanta, waiting to cross Shaw to grab a cup of coffee at 7-Eleven – and conduct an interview at the same time – before her first rehearsal of Fresno Grand Opera’s new “Our Town” production.
Fresno used to be more like a small town than a big city. Back in 1938 when Wilder wrote his seminal play, this intersection probably felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. Over the decades, as the city grew, Fresno lost much of its resemblance to Grover’s Corners, the fictional town that Wilder depicts in the play between 1901 and 1913. But that doesn’t mean this vaunted work of literature can’t connect with us today. In fact, the work’s message – appreciate life as you live it, before it’s too late – can resonate even better in a fast-paced world.
“Wilder clearly understood that the universal is in the specific,” Moritz says. “By paying homage to the specificities of our daily lives, many of those actually transcend time.”
The play might be old, but transforming “Our Town” into an opera is a relatively new endeavor. Wilder’s estate has zealously protected the title over the years, including from well-meaning wannabe collaborators who wanted to turn it into an opera or musical.
Just like the play, the libretto introduces the audience to the people of Grover’s Corners in three acts: first a slice of daily life, then a wedding three years later, and, finally, an extended rumination on death and dying set nine years after that. The opera uses the same meta-theatrical approach of the play, which includes actors speaking (or in this case singing) directly to the audience. It calls for a bare minimum in terms of production design: no sets, a bare stage, minimal props.
The music, meanwhile, captures the sensibility of the original play, says Matthew Buckman, Fresno Grand Opera’s general director. It is far from the atonal, difficult-to-appreciate scores often associated with contemporary operas.
“He is a composer who railed against the avant garde his entire life. He hated it,” Buckman says of Rorem. “At heart, he was a songwriter who got his training in Europe. He very much connected with an Old World sensibility that your listener needs to have a pleasant experience.”
Since its 2006 debut, the opera has been staged by universities and in smaller regional productions.
The production includes a stellar cast of professional principals, including Sarah Shafer as Emily, the young woman we follow through the storyline; Jonas Hacker as George, her sweetheart; and Alex Mansoori as the Stage Manager, who serves as narrator. As in Fresno Grand Opera’s other productions in recent years, the production is co-produced by Modesto’s Townsend Opera, and already played there last weekend.
Now Mortiz, who won the 2015 OPERA America Director-Designer Showcase, will get a chance to stage the production again with the same cast of principals but with a new opera chorus made up of Fresno singers.
“If I were playing the ‘Our Town’ video game, it’s like I get a bonus life,” she says.
There’s a different venue involved, too, one that hasn’t been used for opera in Fresno for many years. Instead of giving one performance at the cavernous Saroyan Theatre, the company is staging “Our Town” at the smaller Fresno Memorial Auditorium for two performances.
“It’s a very intimate piece,” Buckman says. “It doesn’t really fit in a big opera house.”
In that regard, the title fits in nicely with the company’s new mission statement, announced earlier this month: “To contribute to and engage a better Fresno through community, connectivity and diverse performances of music and theater projects that are uniquely Fresno.”
The company has seen its share of turmoil in recent years, which culminated with the board of directors last year self-reporting the organization to the state attorney general’s office for a long list of financial and ethical allegations against former management.
Don’t expect future concert performances by major pop culture artists, a hallmark of Fresno Grand Opera in the past. The company will focus on celebrating the origins of the grand opera tradition and put an emphasis on “traditional operas by prominent American composers that touch on themes of significance to the people of our community and our region,” Buckman says.
“Our Town” fits into that rubric quite nicely.
Moritz – who by now has her coffee and has walked back to University High School’s music building, where the first Fresno rehearsal takes place – says she loves the way “Our Town” can make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.
Take, for example, an everyday moment when Emily and her mother are shelling peas.
“When Thornton Wilder set it initially, they didn’t have the peas,” she says. “They were pantomiming. It’s not about the peas. It’s about a mother and daughter and opportunities for conversation: talking about the really big things in life.”