Since 2006, a scrappy young opera company, Boston Opera Collaborative, has been presenting grand opera on shoestring budgets at unconventional locations. The results have frequently exceeded expectations, looking and sounding far better that they have any right to. A production of Verdi’s Falstaff scheduled at the Somerville Theatre on July 15-24 is next in line for the non-profit enterprise, “dedicated to providing opportunities for emerging artists — including singers, directors, conductors, and theater technicians — to bridge the gap between higher education and a career in the arts. Members of Boston Opera Collaborative share in the management of the organization, developing their own skills as artists and administrators through productions and professional development.” BMInt recently interviewed Stage Director Heidi Lauren Duke, Music Director Mischa Santora, and Artistic Director David Gram by email.
BMInt: Verdi’s first comic opera and the second opera he wrote, Un giorno di regno, was a failure. He waited fifty-three years before setting another comedy. Falstaff is his last, and in the minds of some cognoscenti, his greatest, opera even though there are no memorable arias, curses, or elephants. It’s also not ha-ha funny. What makes it great?
H.L D.: Well, of course I would disagree strongly about the ha ha funny — our production will leave you laughing your opera glasses off! In fact, if any of your readers come and don’t laugh once, I will personally refund their ticket price (or refer them to my therapist). How’s that? It’s also a great piece because Verdi wrote amazing ensembles in which people argue, yell, whisper, and exclaim exactly as they do in real life, but it always sounds bouncy and fun and lyrical at the same time. He also improved upon Shakespeare’s play, which I have also directed, by streamlining characters and side plots.
Boston Opera Collaborative has a propensity to produce operas on stages where operas have never been produced before. Why don’t you find a permanent home?
D.G.: Given the demands of the form and the nature of the work we are producing, finding a venue that not only fits within our budget but also allows us to employ an orchestra and “contain” the scale of the work we are producing … is always a challenge. It goes without saying that we’d love an artistic home. One of my goals as artistic director is to cultivate relationships with venues around town, so that we may not only reach out to a wider audience but also to help our own long-term production planning. Somerville Theatre has been wonderful in this regard, and we hope this is the beginning of a fruitful collaboration. We are doing a production at the Oberon (A.R.T.’s second stage) in the fall. We hope Somerville Theatre will be a place to return to!
The Somerville Theatre is an intriguing location. It’s a vaudeville house that opened in 1914. It’s perhaps the closest thing to an opera house that BOC has ever performed in. How does it sound and how will your Falstaff production look?
H.L.D.: The audience will come into a gold- and burgundy-curtained opera house, with a full balcony and orchestra pit. Set in the ‘Me” decade of the 1970s, this hilarious farce is an ode to Mafia dons, feminine mystique, boogie nights, and the dusk of Aquarius. And throwing opera propriety aside, you can bring the beer into the show and even have your own cup holder! There will be two intermissions, so lots of time for mingling, but the evening will still be well under three hours — much shorter than many operas.
The production is fully designed and staged by me and my brilliant design team, straight from Broadway, international opera, and HBO … Ada Smith, Scott Bolman, designer for Robert Wilson, and Andrea Lauer, designer, American Idiot on Broadway. Ada has designed an ingenious set that flows through the six scenes, perfectly depicting the seedy underbelly of Falstaff’s gang as well as burgeoning suburban America. Things will get stranger in the last scene, so if you’ve never seen a disco boogie or roller skates in an opera house, you’re in for a treat!
I’ve done a lot of research on Verdi’s times and his letters. He was a modern man who wrote this opera for real people, to whom the audience can relate. Verdi and his Italian audience didn’t know any more about Elizabethan England than most Americans do now, and I don’t think he wrote it to be English. He wanted to use real rags on stage. He wrote characters with Italian blood, and that’s what our production reflects. You can read more of my thoughts on the subject here.
How big will the orchestra be? How will they be seated? Are all the players members of BOC?
H.L.D.:The orchestra will consist of twenty-three players including harp and percussion. They will play from the pit; they are not BOC members.
Tell us about the singers.
D.G.: Over half the cast is comprised of BOC members as well as many alumni. We are also fortunate to have a few guest artists join us. In particular, it’s important to acknowledge the work of our two Falstaffs, Kevin Kees and Dongkyu Oh, who anchor the show with confidence and a wonderful sense of play. I am extremely proud of both our casts, how they have attacked this show with vim and vigor. Their musicianship, generosity, and humor are to be admired and applauded. This is challenging work and they not only sound great, but they are having a great deal of fun too. I credit Heidi Lauren and Mischa for pushing the entire Falstaff ensemble as both musicians and performers.
H.L D.: Kevin Kees, whom I worked with in NYC on Ravel’s l’enfant et les sortileges, is one of the best acting singers I know. He is hilarious and charming and spontaneous. Dongkyu Oh is also an extremely charming, adorable Falstaff, and his voice conquers all. The featured women are a bouquet of beauty, wit, and sass. Nick Hebert is also a standout character tenor as Bardolpho. But all the singers attack this most difficult score with razor-sharp accuracy and sumptuous tone. You will want to join their party by the end!