In a year marked by elaborate bicentennial productions of works by Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, one might predict that the centennial celebration of England’s Benjamin Britten would be understated, yet many of our local institutions are giving celebratory productions of real substance, including Opera Brittenica, a new Britten-based opera company, intending to give the English their due. I had the opportunity to speak with Executive Director Joshua Collier about the new company and its first production, “The Rape of Lucretia,” which begins a free, three-day run Friday at the Cambridge YMCA.
Joseph E. Morgan: What inspired the creation of Opera Brittenica?
Joshua Collier: I was singing some community operetta at MIT and I met David Sawicki, and we were musing about the lack of varied Britten repertoire that has recently been performed in Boston (this was about the time the BSO was doing Britten’s Four Sea Interludes). Initially, we considered doing just one production, but when word of our project got out, we received so much interest that we started a crowdsourcing campaign which succeeded in funding the entire project and we decided to start a company.
Why another small opera company in Boston of all places? Are you crazy?
In Boston, there are tons of small opera companies, but they do mostly standard repertory in a learning and traditional environment. Guerilla Opera, on the other hand, focuses only on newly composed works. Opera Brittenica would like to focus on Britten repertory that is on the margins. What I loved about Opera Boston (may they rest in peace) was the daring nature of their productions outside the box and we would like to take inspiration from that. In all, we are interested in filling a niche that was left vacant with the close of Opera Boston. In performance, Boston is so great about revitalizing works, but it has lacked any productions of Britten that reach outside the mainstream.
Why have you chosen to inaugurate the company with the Rape of Lucretia?
We were debating that it needed to be a chamber opera with just piano but as it has snowballed and we have since assembled a small orchestra. Being that it is a Britten centennial we sought a work that wouldn’t be done in America this year. We just finished our first cast run through last night and the work is really going to blow people’s minds. It is incredible theater. Britten’s music is so evocative. This show is adept at analyzing the human experience. It is a really powerful experience and this piece is what Boston needs right now.
Can you give us a hint as to what we should expect in staging?
Giselle Ty is a visceral director. Her staging emphasizes the raw aspect of the character’s physical and emotional health, whether it is Lucretia who is violated, Tarquinius who is doing the violating, or the guilt of the onlookers. Britten’s Greek choruses are very complex characters providing both a moral compass and instigation for the action, ultimately holding up a mirror to society. In general, as a company, we are interested in singing actors: the theatrical element is very important to us. There will be no park and bark. I think that this is something that the Boston audiences will come to expect from us.
Remember, the title is The Rape of Lucretia, there is graphic material that my upset people. As Landford Wilson said: “Don’t come to the theater expecting us to conform to the community standards of morality.” We intend to show that there is something more to art than the mainstream. This is a production to see if you want something evocative, emotional and to change outlooks. I’m trying to let people know that there is more to opera. This is something that needs to happen, and I expect backlash. Some may be offended but I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. I think to have questions posed that are un-answerable is a real feat, that is the job of the theater.
As a company, do you intend to focus solely on Britten’s Chamber works?
Yes and No, What I’ll say is that for the next few years, yes. With the variety of music that Britten wrote, he has something for everyone, musicologists, sociologists, literary theorists, historians. He uses stories that are applicable to the human experience. My idea for the long term is to further Britten’s ideals for musical performance. There is some leeway in the operas. The progressive nature in his writing permits a reinterpretation in the staging.
Tell me about the space at the Cambridge YMCA.
It is a funky space, the stage is up about four feet. From a bird’s-eye view, it’s a rectangle dissected by a proscenium and it has orchestra as well as balcony seating. It is an intimate, theatrical space. I looked at a lot of different venues, but what I liked about this venue is its character. The acoustics are fantastic.
Do you see the organization as based in Cambridge, Boston or New York?
I live in Boston and most of our productions will be done in Boston, but I’d rather consider it as a New England company. Dave and I wanted to expand the reach and we have quite a few donors from New York. In order to accommodate the NYC audience, we will be producing a concert version in the West Village, and our idea has shifted to bring a concert version to New York. We made the productions for this year free of charge because what I’m more interested in doing is getting people into the theater. Opera has such a stigma, ticket prices can isolate people on a financial basis, it shouldn’t be divided on socio-economic lines. We are asking a $10 suggested donation, but will certainly welcome anyone to the theatre regardless of financial ability.
The production, which comes with a warning that it “contains graphic material and is not recommended for those under 17,” will be held on October 18, 20, and 22 at the Cambridge YMCA at 7:30 PM. Tickets are free of charge, but must be reserved here.
Cast and Crew of The Rape of Lucretia
Conductor Geoffrey Pope
Stage Director Giselle Ty
Male Chorus Jonathan Price & Joshua Collier (Tenors)
Female Chorus Amal El-Shrafi & Aliana de la Guardia (Sopranos)
Collatinus RaShaun Campbell & Gyasi Barber (Bass-Baritones)
Junius Zachary Ballard & Samuel Bowen(Baritones)”
Tarquinius Colin Levin & Adrian Rosales (Baritones)
Lucretia Sophie Michaux and Erika Mitchell (Mezzo-Sopranos)
Bianca Stephanie Benkert & Alexandra Alene Dietrich (Mezzo-Sopranos)
Lucia Katelyn Parker Bray & Emily Thorner (Sopranos)