If you watched the moving Journeys to Justice concert, streaming through May 31, you can see that the 56-year-old Portland Opera’s evolution is taking root in a more inclusive philosophy and broader repertoire. The six-piece program of Black-experience songs and chamber operas, sung by PO’s Resident Artists, all performers of color, is a major step into a broader opera world. It signals that new stories are being told in new ways by new people. This spring PO even crafted a new mission stressing inclusion, collaboration and connection — and thereby reaching out to new, wider audiences.
“Opera is for everybody, not just for millionaires and folks who get all dressed up,” PO co-artistic advisor Damien Geter told Oregon ArtsWatch. “People want to see things about real people, about real things, things that happened in recent times.” The more people that PO’s operas relate to, the faster the audiences will grow, he says.
Geter curated this spring’s Journeys and had a strong hand in shaping the upcoming three-opera 2021-22 season, a change from previous four- and sometimes five-opera seasons. He was not the only shaper. Included on that team: co-artistic advisor soprano Karen Slack, general manager Sue Dixon, interim artistic director Daniel Biaggi, producing director Laura Hassell, stakeholders, audience members and staff. Dixon told ArtsWatch, “it truly takes an ensemble to make an opera season—and the stories and songs that we choose to share should always reflect that spirit of collaboration.”
A hefty part of the reason for the reduced season is Covid-recovery economic tightening, something that many arts organizations face as they try to reopen.
For the upcoming season, don’t expect a revolution. Giacomo Puccini’s well-worn Tosca kicks off the season Oct. 29 through Nov. 6 in the Keller Auditorium. Tosca is an unperformed holdover from the previous season, and an opera in which multi-talented multi-tasking bass-baritone Geter will sing the roles of Angelotti and the Jailer. If Covid restrictions come into play in the fall, Tosca will be postponed until May 13 through 21, 2022.
Aside from the beloved warhorse about passion and politics, two striking contemporary pieces fill out the season. They include the one-act dystopian chamber opera, When The Sun Comes Out, facing down the global criminalization of LBGT people. Originally commissioned by the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival, it premiered in 2013, and will be staged Jan. 28 through Feb. 12 at PO’s intimate Hampton Opera Center. It was composed by Leslie Uyeda, whom Geter described as an “under-represented composer.”
The third opera, which unfolds March 18 through 26, 2022 at the Newmark Theatre, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Central Park Five, based on the real-life coerced confessions of the Black and Latino teens accused of rape and assault in the late ‘80s. There’s even a role for ex-President Donald Trump. Anthony Davis composed the music and Richard Wesley wrote the libretto–two other lesser-known opera creatives. A bit over two hours and directed by Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett, this is the second full production of the piece. Audiences can also catch it online on the Portland Opera channel.
“We wanted to tell stories that haven’t been told before right out of the gate,” Geter said. “And we’re doing just that.”
Besides a shorter, edgier season, summertime will bring Frida, a 90-minute version of Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s opera about the complex bisexual Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (originally produced by the innovative Michigan Opera Theatre). The opera will run for four outdoor performances staged at OMSI’s Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summerstage June 22, 24, 26 and 27, preceded by a 20-minute Ballet Folklorico performance. Tickets go on sale May 17. Digital passes cost $50, though there’s an option to buy them for less, and OMSI parking is $5. As part of the collaboration, members of Oregon Ballet Theatre will dance there June 5 through 12.
Soprano Catalina Cuervo debuts at PO as Frida, reprising her role at the Michigan Opera Theatre, where she inspired an Opera News review gushing that “her titanic performance encompassed Frida’s fire.” Baritone Bernardo Bermudez will sing the role of Kahlo’s partner Diego Rivera, Andreas Mitisek (PO’s 2019 As One) stage-directs, while Andres Cladera conducts. Expect mariachi and folk songs, played by a PO orchestra band, to pop up in the musical story with lyrics by Migdalia Cruz, based on the book by Hilary Blecher.
New artistic leaders
Geter and Slack–who met singing in the American Spiritual Ensemble in Lexington, Kentucky several years ago–took on the co-artistic advisor jobs almost a year ago. Both wanted a change of direction toward less Euro-centric music and more opportunities for minorities.
“I’m all about making change,” said Geter, who has lived in Portland for six years and composes, sings, teaches and conducts (though he has yet to professionally raise the baton). “Classical music has left BIPOC people out of the art form for so many years. It’s a way for me to make a print in the sand.”
Slack, an acclaimed Philadelphia-based soprano, has sung professionally for 18 years at many houses including the Metropolitan Opera (Serena in Porgy and Bess), the Opera Theater of St. Louis (Fire Shut Up in my Bones), and at Austin Opera, a “luminous and dramatic” Aida. She recently created the tough-talking Kiki Konversations, titled for Slack’s nickname. Over the year, the virtual production has created a platform for artists to discuss racial issues. Speaking with ArtsWatch, Slack described it as a chance for “many of us in the industry to gather over a virtual glass of wine and talk about any and everything.”
Dixon told us she was first impressed by Slack at the LA Opera panel discussion on race relations in June, 2020. “When she (Slack) said ‘I’m not asking for your seat, just to be invited to the table and given space,’ I sent her a Facebook message shortly after to meet via zoom.”
Slack was hired, and will continue to live in Philadelphia while coming to Portland a few times a year. She returned in April to coach the Resident Artists in their Journeys’ roles.
Her formula for successful and compelling programming is: not all contemporary music. She told us she wants a mix of the old and the new, “imaginatively produced.”
“I am both a lover of grand traditional repertoire and new works,” Slack said. “Having made a solid career on both sides, I know the power they both possess. A healthy mix of classics reimagined and new works is always exciting. A little something for everyone.”