Pacific Opera Project’s Newest Offering Has Laughs, High Romanticism
Pacific Opera Project, the hip California high-art company that recently put on the hugely successful Star Trek-themed “Abduction from the Seraglio” in North Hollywood (we loved it—see our review here) chose Highland Park’s historic Ebell Club as their next venue. And created a unique “Ariadne auf Naxos,” Richard Strauss’ popular opera combining “high” and “low” art in the form of haughty opera versus naughty vaudeville, which highlighted fantastic performers, creative sets, an intimate setting, and special libretto and backstory featuring the Ebell Club itself.
The Highland Park Ebell Club is right off the 110 Freeway in North Los Angeles, surrounded by parking lots and backs of buildings full of graffiti (some of it as good as commissioned murals). It is an old, tall building with a chalky white façade, and looks the part of “historic.” Inside, high dark woods ceilings with exposed beams create an almost cathedral-like opening. For the past two weekends, the dance floor was dotted with small tables and folding chairs under white tablecloths. An orchestra took up residence behind the full-serve bar. The stage up front was decorated, front and sides, with giant packages and rough “boulders” creating an island look.
Every seat in the house was packed for opening night, and “Ariadne” began.
First, a little backstory: the myth of Ariadne begins with the Greek demigod hero Theseus, who successfully made his way through the Labyrinth and defeated the dreadful Minotaur, half-man and half bull. Ariadne was the princess who helped Theseus by giving him golden thread to make his way through the Labyrinth, and in return, Theseus promised to take her away with him and marry her. He did take her away, but then he forgot her (or maliciously abandoned her) on the island of Naxos. There, she meets the god Bacchus and he takes her as his wife.
This is where “Ariadne auf Naxos” comes in. Originally made as a play (about the making of the opera) plus the opera itself; when “Ariadne” debuted in 1912 critics panned the play, but praised the opera. Later productions shortened the play, and POP’s version solved this with a charming written version of the play (involving the Ebell Club of 1913) printed on the playbill. Audiences read all about the history of original character Mr. H.H. Meyer (Timothy Campbell), the “husband of one of the most prominent and outspoken ladies of the Club,” who starts a hullabaloo by saying, “’Why don’t we just have them both?’”—the high-brow Opera and the low-brow Vaudeville act.
The basic story has Act One dealing with the behind-the-scenes drama, histrionics, and hilarity (all sung in English) that ensues when the Ebell Club, due to noise restrictions, has the two performances scheduled for the opening night gala (the newly composed German opera Ariadne auf Naxos and the vaudeville The Naughty Vixen Zerbinetta) and decides they must perform simultaneously. The Composer (mezzo-soprano Claire Shackelton) was distraught. The Stars Ariadne (Tracy Cox) and Bacchus (Brendan Sliger) were offended. And The Naughty Vixen Zerbinetta (coloratura soprano Sara Duchovnay) didn’t care as long as she was in the spotlight.
Act Two was a straightforward presentation of the very Serious (sung in German) Opera Ariadne auf Naxos—with Zerbinetta and her Merry Men (goofy and delightful Nicholas LaGesse, Jon Lee Keenan, Robert Norman of Abduction’s Mr. Spock fame, and Keith Colclough) showing up spontaneously on the island and performing goofy numbers every so often. But the laughs fell away as the show wrapped up in pure, Wagner-esque high Romantic fashion with Ariadne and Bacchus meeting, falling in love, and ascending to the heavens.
Ariadne’s Tracy Cox, 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Finalist and Domingo-Thorton Young Artist, started off the show as the exasperated diva in Act One during the “behind the scenes” play, and transformed beautifully (with just a few eyerolls at Zerbinetta) into the passionate young heroine who is loved by a god. Her Bacchus (Brendan Sliger) also performed the turn from frazzled actor to believable and straightforward character, in song and action.
Sara Duchovnay’s Zerbinetta (and her legs) were a standout in every way—an impeccable vocal performance was delivered while romping, mugging, and seducing everyone on stage (and some of the audience). Her Merry Men were a delight as well.
This is an opera lover’s opera—Act One had many in-jokes about the making of an opera, and drew chuckles from the more experienced audience members. An opera pianist sitting next to us whispered how clever this version was, and how spectacular the performances were. We fully believed her, but as opera novices, didn’t understand why the vaudeville performer never sang vaudeville—she was as operatic as the whole cast.
After more than 27 sold-out performances in a row, Pacific Opera Project has developed an inimitable style that combines “high” art and “low” art just as successfully as Ariadne auf Naxos. They bring wine, women, and song—reasonably priced, entertaining, and local—to Angelenos who may not know one bit about opera. But that’s okay. By adding in English translations, going heavy on the humor, and casting truly talented people, POP’s mission is amply accomplished. That mission? To bring accessible, affordable, and entertaining opera to Los Angeles. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.