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Modern opera

Painted Sky Opera hopes to make opera more approachable with its latest performance.

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André Chiang and Megan Berti star in Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, presented by Painted Sky Opera Jan. 25-27 at CitySpace Theatre. - MUTZ PHOTOGRAPHY / PROVIDED
  • Mutz Photography / provided
  • André Chiang and Megan Berti star in Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, presented by Painted Sky Opera Jan. 25-27 at CitySpace Theatre.

Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen begins when an enraged dwarf steals magical gold from three water nymphs, setting the stage for a 15-hour epic drawing gods and monsters into a war for the fate of the world. In act one of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, which local company Painted Sky Opera produced in September to kick off its 2018-2019 season, a vengeful count curses a lustful duke and his paranoid court jester, foreshadowing heartbreak and betrayal. In scene one of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, presented by Painted Sky Jan. 25-27, Sam and Dinah argue at the breakfast table about whether Sam will go see their son’s school play or compete in a handball tournament at the gym.

“It changes the perception of what opera is,” said Painted Sky artistic director Rob Glaubitz. “We have this image of opera that’s like horned helmets and spears and people dying in the streets. … In Trouble in Tahiti, the first scene is in somebody’s kitchen, and it’s like something that any one of us could do. They’re just having an argument, two people, and it feels so real to anyone who’s been in a relationship before.”

The scale might be smaller than a classical epic opera, Glaubitz said, but to Sam and Dinah, domestic conflict and suburban ennui are as important as the fate of Valhalla might be to Norse gods.

“We can run the risk of saying, ‘The stakes are lower,’” he said, “but they’re not really for the characters. They’re just as high as a grand opera. One of the great things about this opera is that Leonard Bernstein treats it in a way that still makes it clear how high the stakes are for the actors. The music is as grand as a small opera can be. … It still has all the power of grand opera and the same level of stakes. It’s just kind of shrunk down, more like in your living room than on the screen.”

Bernstein’s one-act opera, composed in 1951, chronicles a day in the life of suburban characters Dinah (played in Painted Sky’s production by mezzo-soprano Megan Berti) and Sam (baritone André Chiang). Sam goes to work; Dinah goes to therapy; they both go to the movies to see a film called Trouble in Tahiti. The lyrics they sing in English reveal their inner thoughts and feelings. The battles they wage are mostly within themselves and primarily end in dejected retreat. Glaubitz said stage-directing Tahiti requires a different approach than a grander opera might.

“You have to work a lot more on directing characters in a very intimate way, really maximizing that connection, which is, of course, important in any theater, but it becomes even more important in a work like Trouble in Tahiti where the characters speak more directly to each other sometimes and the issues are less black-and-white,” Glaubitz said. “This is more indie movie in scope than a big blockbuster hit. … If we’re not relating to each other as human beings onstage, then it just, to me, feels fake.”

When done right, Glaubitz said, Trouble in Tahiti might be more relatable to modern audiences than many of the classical operas.

“We’ve all been in these situations where we’re arguing over stupid stuff that doesn’t really matter and it’s hiding bigger issues,” Glaubitz said. “Not that many people have their daughters stolen away by a duke, like in Rigoletto. I think the subject matter itself is what’s going to help make it hit home a little bit because we can all see ourselves a little bit easier in the characters in Trouble in Tahiti than we can in the characters of Rigoletto.”

Other than Sam and Dinah, the only other characters on stage are the trio (Autumn West, Jeffrey Picón and Zachary DeVault in Painted Sky’s production) that serves the same function as a chorus in Greek drama, commenting on the action and further revealing the character’s thoughts and motivations, though Bernstein mainly uses this for ironic affect. The opera opens with the trio extolling the domestic bliss of waking in a sun-kissed house in suburbia as a prelude to the bitter arguing and accusations that immediately follow when Sam and Dinah take the stage. Glaubitz said Bernstein uses the contrast between the jazzy prelude and the strife-filled scene following it to make a satirical point about “how materialism in our lives is separating us.”

“The striving for a great house and a beautiful car and the perfect job and the perfect body are all just getting in the way of us communicating with each other and being happier human beings sometimes,” he said.

André Chiang and Megan Berti play Sam and Dinah in Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. - MUTZ PHOTOGRAPHY / PROVIDED
  • Mutz Photography / provided
  • André Chiang and Megan Berti play Sam and Dinah in Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti.

Creating connections

While Painted Sky staged Rigoletto in 286-seat Freede Little Theatre at Civic Center Music Hall, the company is scheduled to stage Trouble in Tahiti in the center’s smaller 90-seat CitySpace Theatre, 201 N. Walker Ave.

“CitySpace is such a cool space to direct in because the stage is pretty much a square,” Glaubitz said, “and you have audience on three sides and they’re 3-4 feet from the stage at times. To direct an opera in that way is just something that we don’t get to see very much and that opera singers don’t get to do very much. In opera, one of the things you always have to worry about is making sure everyone can hear you, so you’re pointing out towards the audience, but if they’re on three sides of you in a theater that small, you can actually act in a more realistic way because you don’t have to worry about the mechanics of singing.”

By staging the opera in CitySpace Theatre, Glaubitz said Painted Sky hopes to offer audiences a stronger connection to the performance than they might have in a larger venue.

“We have opera singers that are used to singing for 1,000 people, and to sit in the audience and feel the power of that kind of voice 5 feet away is something that most people don’t have a chance to do,” Glaubitz said. “It’s thrilling to me. We all got into opera because we think it’s thrilling, but I think a lot of people don’t understand that because they’re always watching it from 100 feet away instead of up close and personal like we the singers are experiencing it. I mean, you feel it in your body.”

Trouble in Tahiti, presented in one act, has a runtime of about 45 minutes. The opera will be preceded by a staged version of Bernstein’s similarly themed song cycle Arias and Barcarolles. Tickets are $30-$45. Visit paintedskyopera.org

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