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BOC II: Behind the Scenes


This is the second segment in a multi-part feature on Boston Opera Collaborative, in which BMint writer Basil Considine discussed Boston Opera Collaborative’s current season with Andrew Altenbach and Chelsea Lewis, the company’s artistic and general directors. Some extracts of this interview are below.

BMInt: Who has input into the creation of a season?

AA: This current season was programmed by me; what I’m trying to institute is a little more collaborative of a process… You need a team of creative minds that are working in tandem that have certain practical knowledge, so you have checks and balances, like:

“We could do this piece, but that not might be the best fit because of xyz, or have we considered this?”

“We have – that would be a really good idea, but would it work in that venue versus this venue?”

If you are just sitting at home trying to think of what to do, your imagination can run wild, but it can also be frustrating, sometimes.

At what point in the year do you sit down and plan the season?

CL: We announced this current season back in May, midway between Dead Man Walking and Cenerentola. We just sat down last week to start talking about the ’14-’15 season… All three of us [directors] are very excited and energetic and are on the same lines about what we’re all passionate about in the world of opera, with similar ideas about why we do the things that we do and what we put on stage. We’re really excited about trying to hone down on that and putting together something that will be exciting for us to produce. With the amount of work that goes into a season, you have to be excited about it – or why do it? [We also think about] what would also be really exciting and great for our singers, that will sell well, that will bring in new audiences…

AA: We have a lot of considerations. We might say, “We really want to do a piece because of our artistic goals. We know that marketing the piece will be really challenging to your average operagoer who likes to [only] see Bohème; to get them in the door will take some different tactics. So sometimes there are moments when you have to say, “We have a lot of goals and think this will be very popular,” versus, “This won’t be as popular, but it’s going to be artistically very interesting for the artists.” …Sometimes you can get something that’s equally interesting for both, which is an ideal but is hard to find.

Are there any external factors in selecting programming? With the proliferation of pocket opera companies have proliferated, it’s become very easy to say, “Someone’s going to be doing Bohème, someone’s going to be doing Magic Flute

CL: In eight – seven complete – seasons, we’ve moved through a lot of the standard repertoire. We’ve done a Carmen, we’ve done a Flute, [AA: “A Bohème.”] a Figaro. It’s not to say that we’d never consider bringing one of those back into our season, but that we’ve [already] approached almost all of the really standard repertoire.

AA: We’ve done a lot of meat and potatoes. We’ve [also] done some more unusual pieces like Dead Man Walking, Little Women

I think it’s important when our audiences come into the theater that they are excited about the possibilities, but that they don’t go in with lots and lots of preexisting assumptions about what they need to see and what they need to hear – which is one of the dangers of the standard repertoire, both in the symphonic and in the opera world. There is a lot of rep out there that doesn’t get enough attention that should, but you have people who are saying, “Well, this should sound like one of the four recordings that I have of Traviata, or else I think this stinks.” Among certain audiences, that’s what they’re thinking, and sometimes you can’t win with them. [But] if a student’s 21 years old, they probably haven’t heard four recordings of those pieces.

The Current Season

BMInt: “Underlying Rhythms” has an interesting combination, juxtaposing Spanish and Russian music. How did that come about?

AA: I wanted to develop a program that incorporated dance and I think that offering some new language possibilities for the artists would be interesting. If there are two cultures that have a long history of dance, it would be the Spanish culture and the Russian culture…playing that music myself, there’s always a sense of movement about it. I wanted the singers to have a chance to experience those pieces and [knew] that these works had to connect the idea that it should have a sense of movement other than just stand, bark, sing, clap, whatever.

Some of it was also inspired by a Baroque [concert with a] harpsichordist, a dancer, and [countertenor] Anthony Ross Costanzo in New York… An interesting evening. This is not a copycat, but it was…

Inspired in some way?

AA: Yeah. Sometimes, people say, “I’m a fan of dance and I’m a fan of opera and I’m a fan of symphonies and of visual art, but yet there’s a lot more crossover in these things than people quite realize.

Are the dancers in “Underlying Rhythms” members of Boston Opera Collaborative?

AA: (quickly) No! [General laughter.] I have two flamencos dancers and two modern dancers.

Did you poll the membership to see if anyone had that background before making that decision?

AA: No. [More laughter.] I think that the singers will have to move – it won’t just be them standing while the dancers do something around them, there has to be some sort of interaction, but the exact details are still being worked out.

Tell me about the decision to program Sumeida’s Song.

AA: I had been researching different pieces that were on the scene, then at the same time I was playing a recital with a soprano…she sang 3 songs by Mohammed Fairouz. I’d never heard of or played any songs by him, and thought, “This is really cool. It’s unusual, there’s a very unique voice here…” At the same time, it had a lot of dissonance but was very lyrical. It had a very good sense of what the voice should be doing and how the voice should be phrased and I started researching him a little more.

I came across his name in some other places and then Sumeida’s Song came up. There was a recording and I listened to it and emailed him, and I had an email back in 4 hours, 6 hours, something like that. So [then] we talked on the phone for a while; one thing led to another to make it all happen. It took a while to make the full decision, of course, but working with living composers is always interesting – especially those who are still writing lyrically. They really are interested in the human voice in its capacity to be very expressive, rather than writing… [for it as] an arbitrary instrument.

Were these conversations taking place before that feature in Opera News last spring?

AA: Yes, these were occurring in January and February. I actually didn’t know anything about the article.

In Closing

BMInt: Any closing comments or observations?

CL: [To AA] When you were talking about the singer who is well rounded or understands it all, I think that is what we are trying to sell: that the entrepreneurial singer, the smart singer, is a successful singer. Whether they’re successful in having a full-blown professional career where they travel 365 days a year or whether it’s a singer that understands how to make a living freelancing here in Boston, or a singer that knows how to really develop a great studio, or moves to the administrative things…all of these are skills that BOC is helping to teach the singers that come through the membership.

There’re many different ways to come out of it and [there are as many] stories that have come out of the membership as there are singers. There’ve been 150 singers in 8 years and we have 27 more hanging out with us right now. What we’re doing is different and exciting and we’re excited to help propel it because we’re helping those who are hanging out [with us] for a while to learn some useful skills and be part of a community. That’s a good place to be.

AA: From the community standpoint, as a company, we’re very interested in a public that’s looking for a very – not unusual, but very individual artistic theatre experience. If you come to the French Postcards [at “Voyage à Paris”], you’re going to see an artistic event that’s like nothing else in this city. We could produce Manon, we could produce Werther – that might also belong in this city, [but] I’m sure the Met’s Werther is better than anything we might produce…but this kind of event is very original.

Being tapped into the cultural life of this city is just a big part of being a human being. If you’re looking for an original experience, then these sorts of shows are really for you. If you just want to just see standard repertoire, it’s not necessarily the best venue – but if people just want to watch Traviata, they can sit home and watch it for free and watch the great Traviatas on YouTube or something. We’re different from that. We like being part of the cultural fabric of the city as a different entity.

Basil Considine studied music and drama at Boston University and the University of San Diego. A composer-librettist, scholar, and playwright, he was the Artistic Director of the Reduced Spice Opera Company of Brookline from 2006-2012.

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