Angela Allen

Portland Opera's Postcard from Morocco

Love and death are opera’s go-to themes, but erase those traditional expectations when Postcard from Morocco opens Friday for a four-performance premier run at Portland’s Newmark Theater. Expect a brew of Beckett-like suspense flavored with quirky characters with such names as Woman with a Hatbox and Man with a Shoe Sample Kit. Instead of a conventional orchestra, eight instruments – guitar, alto saxophone and trombone included – will accompany the seven singers.

Instead of a love story, Portland Opera’s seven-character chamber piece is about a journey, a trip that goes nowhere, a waiting game, an existential dilemma. Yes, there is one poster of Morocco in a generic waiting room but … (use your imagination). Originally set in a 1920s railroad station, this PO production imagines it in some time when Polaroid cameras were in vogue and cell phones weren’t ubiquitous. Every character has baggage – literally and figuratively. Finding out what’s in it keeps us on our toes. American composer Dominick Argento’s one-act opera steers clear of star-focused, plot-heavy sturm und drang. With the entire cast onstage for the full 90 minutes, it’s a whirlwind romp (and sometimes downer) of relentless action built on seven individual journeys. There are arias and duets, but Postcard is ensemble- rather than star-driven. You might have to see the opera several times to keep track of each journey.

Argento’s music with libretto by playwright John Donahue premiered in 1971 at Minnesota Opera. Spiced with eclectic music ranging from Wagner to ragtime, Postcard put Argento, now his late 80s, on the international music map, where he went on to win recognition for his singer-friendly pieces, including a 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his song cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.

“It is wild and humorous, deep and profound – a roller-coaster,” said Kevin Newbury, the opera’s 36-year-old director who directed PO’s 2012 sparkling Galileo Galilei. “You will be moved. You won’t be bored.”

Newbury, who calls his style “collaborative” and who loves to work with ensemble casts, directs the company’s talented resident artists – up-and-comers who take on smaller parts in PO’s major operas — Caitlin Mathes, Melissa Fajardo, Ian Jose Ramirez and Alexander Elliott. Visiting singers Lindsay Russell, Deac Guidi and Ryan MacPherson fill out the cast. Because Newbury’s tempo is fast, fluid and visually detailed, expect to have something to look at every second. “There are no dead moments,” he said. “Things are constantly in motion.”

Newbury, who directed four new operas in 2013, including Doubt and Oscar, loves brand-new productions. “You tell the story for the first time,” he explained. “It’s my job as a young professional to keep the art form alive, to work with these unsung masterpieces.” This one lends itself to fresh interpretation. “Cross out the original stage directions and the material is timeless,” he said.

Portland Opera’s first Argento opera, this new production of Postcard from Morocco is premiering in Portland and is co-produced with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where it will open in April. Sets are designed by Curt Enderle and costumes by Sue Bonde, both of whom worked with Newbury on PO’s Galileo Galilei. Connie Yon designed the lighting and William Vendice, of PO’s 2011 Ravel double-bill (which like Galileo and Postcard, was another Newmark production with resident artists), will conduct.