Why stage the totally obscure Noli Me Tangere in the Strand Theater of Dorchester in these days of dramatically truncated arts funding with opera companies folding almost every month? For me, opera, albeit expensive, remains essential, particularly when some compelling lyric theater is forthcoming.
The co-producers, Opera Brittenica of Boston and KGB Productions of Chicago have very different missions. The former, better known to Bostonians for bringing attention to, and producing imaginative and unique performances of the music of English language composers, specifically Benjamin Britten, and also to promote the interests and social agenda that Britten held dear. KGB Productions and the Mid Atlantic Foundation for Asian Artists (MAFFAA) are dedicated to bringing Asian art and culture to both Asian and non-Asian audiences in the United States.
So, how do these two seemingly incompatible mission statements intersect? Britten was a life-long pacifist and wrote a great many important works on the subject of alienation and reaching out to underserved global populations. He took a great deal of interest in music of the Far East as a result of Britten’s and Pears’s extensive travels in the South Pacific. In particular, he had a distinct affinity for the Balinese gamelan, as exemplified in his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, written for Sadler’s Wells Ballet (1957). Britten also wrote a short song cycle for tenor and guitar in the same year called Songs from the Chinese, another Asian influence, though the songs are in English much as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is written in German after Chinese poetry.
Outside of the Filipino community, Noli Me Tangere is virtually unknown. Filipe de Leon took “Guillermo Tolentino” as his libretto, after the novel by José Rizal. Of utmost cultural significance to the Filipino people, it precipitated the Filipino revolution and ultimately their independence. Rizal, Britten’s companion in pacifism, wrote of the oppression of the Spanish clergy upon the indigenous peoples of the islands, with the central figure rising up and fighting the oppression with the only useful and time-honored tool for the impoverished to use against the ruling class; education. As history has shown repeatedly, insurrection is not met with approval from those in authority. The struggle for intellectual independence as it relates to physical independence is a central element to both Rizal’s novel, and to de Leon’s operatic treatment.
First performed in Manila in 1957, the opera was revived in 1987 for the centennial of the novel’s first publication; it was not performed outside of the Philippines until its United States premiere in Chicago by KGB Productions, in 2012. It thus remains essentially a new work with the attendant excitement and exploration. As of yet, there are no professional recordings or videos, and those who will be in attendance at the Strand will be getting glimpses of an often-overlooked eastern culture.
If the cultural connection to the Philippines does not resonate with one’s western sensibilities, then the music of Felipe de Leon certainly will. The score is filled with lush, western romantic harmonic language, soaring vocal lines in aria, thrilling ensembles, tragedy in music, a Mad Scene to rival that of Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as elements of operatic frivolity. Echoes of Puccini, Wagner, Donizetti, Verdi, and of course, Gilbert and Sullivan also enliven the mood.
The plot contains quintessentially operatic elements, such as: a passionate love story; a villain who tries to keep them apart; a madwoman, political implications, and a distinctly UN-western concept of a Crocodile attack. The fairly sparse stage setting will use 3 LCD panels to suggest many different locations. The costumes are in a traditional aesthetic. A reduced orchestra of 13 with piano will be in the pit.
The show will be sung in the native Filipino language, Tagalog. It is a unique challenge for singers, as although the language has a significant Spanish influence in pronunciation and borrowed words and is a terrifically lyrical language, the construction of the language is distinctly foreign to most westerners. This is by design, to provide an occasion for an operatically deprived population to hear their language sung by people outside of their ethnic and linguistic background.
Those who have seen any of Opera Brittenica’s previous productions will be quite taken aback at how “traditional” this staging is. We are presenting a new work to the public, with significant historical ties, and as the likelihood of the US. Tour of “Noli Me Tangere” coming back to Boston is less than slim, we chose to present the opera in a manner that is more historically accurate in a proscenium theatre like the Strand Theatre, rather than seen from a 21st-century lens. Fear not, however, as Opera Brittenica has productions in the works for the future that return to the site-specific and innovative productions that Boston has come to recognize and expect.
We have assembled a stellar cast, orchestra, and production team of mixed race, ethnicity, and linguistic heritage, to show Boston that this work is not only something that can be enjoyed by people of Filipino descent, but that it is a viable work of art that transcends national and geographic boundaries, and speaks to the universal issues of equality, freedom, love, and passion, that everyone, of any nationality, can relate to.
Conductor: Anthony Smith (University of Richmond, Virginia Opera)
Director: PJ Freebourn
Designer: Gretta Daughtry
Thomas Dawkins: Assistant Musical Director
Rachel Nugent: Production Stage Manager
Leading Cast: Sonja Krenek – Soprano (BU Opera Institute, but now NYC based), tenor Joshua Collier,
Luke Scott (Figaro 90210! Cast, off Broadway-NYC) Emily Thorner (Soprano in town),
Local ensemble Cast: Maya Pardo, Jeremy Ayres Fisher, Tahanee Aluwire Celeste Godin, Anna Galavis, Maddie Studt, Timothy Passetto.
Out of town cast: Adrian Rosales (Tarquinius in OB’s Rape of Lucretia), Peter Rolfe Dauz (San Francisco) and Joachim Luis(Chicago) (Filipino descent, and wanted to be involved), Forrest Glass (previous production ensemble), Andrew Zimmerman (NYC).
Noli Me Tangere
The Strand Theater
Uphams Corner, Dorchester
Friday, Saturday June 16-17, 2017 @ 7:00pm, Sunday June 18 @ 3pm.
Tickets and more at www.noliboston.com