The Toronto Star: ONE Festival Review

Opera Omaha is making a name for itself with festivals, productions
By: William Littler

Granted, Omaha may be home to Warren Buffett, but home to a noteworthy opera company, an enterprise that recently mounted a festival capped by a significant world premiere? The days when musical headlines had to be made in New York and a few other culture capitals have obviously gone now, thanks to a continent-wide flourishing of the arts on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Opera Omaha is a relatively small company, the only one in the state of Nebraska, its budget a fraction of the size of the Canadian Opera Company’s. And yet, my April visit was the third — over a considerable number of years — to attend a world premiere. Enterprise doesn’t have to be a function of size. What Opera Omaha, in common with an increasing number of opera producers, is discovering is that today’s public is open to new experiences.
When the Metropolitan Opera House opened its doors in the late 19th century it performed Gounod’s Faust so often for its conservative public that its nickname became the Faustspielhaus. Well, Opera Omaha will also be performing Faust this coming season, along with such other standard repertory staples as Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. But it will be performing as well Les Enfants Terribles by today’s minimalist superstar, Philip Glass.

And there will be another festival, too. ONE Festival, as this year’s two-week, 50-plus-event program of performances, exhibitions, concerts and installations was called, inaugurated a three-season pilot project under the direction of James Darrah, designed to broaden the community’s range of artistic experiences. At the core of the project were two major operatic productions, one of them Cherubini’s rarely staged Medea (1797), co-produced with Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera; the other the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up, co-produced with Washington National Opera and Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. In tandem with these operas the festival mounted three multidisciplinary explorations of the artistic process, one of them a multi-screen film installation complementing John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur; the second a working rehearsal of Handel’s Ariodante and the third, The Wreck, an original work created by a team of artists during an Omaha residency.

It isn’t often the public is afforded a chance to peer into the operatic laboratory, but the test tubes and beakers were on display in Omaha, along with various panel discussions and talks designed to further enhance audience enjoyment. In other words, this smallish company in the vast North American prairie is trying to make opera more of an interactive art form. I didn’t see Warren Buffett in the audience but, hey, you can’t reach everybody.

What I did see was a public obviously intrigued by an art form all too often regarded as formal and elitist. Medea is a rather formal opera, at least musically, but in this modern dress production director Andrew Eggert focused attention on the raw emotions of the ancient Greek drama and Euripides’ tale obviously held its audience. As for Proving Up, it offered probably the most depressing tale I’ve ever experienced in an opera, told by Mazzoli and her Canadian-born librettist Royce Vavrek, directed by Darrah and conducted by Christopher Rountree with a directness and power equal to its subject. Its subject is the destruction of a homesteading family in Nebraska in the years following the Civil War, a family crushed by drought, famine and loss. Performed in Kaneko, a spacious modern art gallery, on a stage covered with soil and surrounded by the audience on three sides, by a cast almost frightening in its intensity, Proving Up clearly resonated with its Nebraska audience and left this visitor shaken. Yes, opera can do that and an opera company brave enough to take its audience where it hasn’t been before understands the difference between a living art form and a museum.

On a previous visit I attended the premiere of Eric Hermanson’s Soul, an opera by Libby Larsen based on another locally rooted story, by Nebraska’s foremost writer, Willa Cather. Operas don’t have to be about long ago and far away. They do have to connect with their audience. They seem to understand this in Omaha.