Utah Opera to open season safely with a corona-conscious double bill

Mon Oct 05, 2020 at 11:21 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Brian Stucki (left) and Christopher Clayton rehearse for Utah Opera’s Gentleman’s Island. Photo: Kathleen Sykes/Utah Opera

Art goes on, even in a pandemic. Utah Opera will open its season Friday night with a new set of health protocols and a pair of one-act operas that explore the timely themes of isolation and connection.

In place of the originally scheduled Flying Dutchman by Wagner, the company will present ten performances of Francis Poulenc’s one-woman monodrama La voix humaine (presented in a new English-language translation as The Human Voice). The double-bill will be rounded out with Joseph Horovitz’s two-man Gentleman’s Island, a comedy of manners based on William Gilbert’s poem “Etiquette.”

Utah Opera will observe the same public-health precautions that the Utah Symphony has had in place since the orchestra’s musicians reported to work in early September. (No coronavirus outbreaks have been reported so far among the musicians.)

  • Performers will be separated by at least six feet of space and will wear face masks whenever possible.
  • Audience members will have a similar buffer and must agree to wear masks at all times within the theater.
  • Attendance in the 1,700-seat house will be greatly reduced—artistic director Christopher McBeth expects about 250 audience members at each performance.
  • Ticketing and the playbill will be through the company’s mobile app.
  • Intermission will be eliminated to further reduce patron interactions. (There will be a standing pause of six or seven minutes between the two one-acts, to allow for a set change and the recirculation of air onstage.)

Salt Lake County, which owns and operates the Capitol Theatre, approved performances only after health experts conducted an air-flow study. “We really didn’t have an answer for what would be possible in the Capitol Theatre until well into July and August,” McBeth said. He noted, however, that the building’s recent renovations included a filtration system that exceeds industry standards for coronavirus safety.

Utah Opera, along with Tulsa Opera, is one of the few American opera companies presenting live performances (with audiences) this fall. Conductor Jim Lowe and the cast members said they’ve been impressed with the company’s caution.

“Utah Opera has been really great in setting up protocols to keep people safe,” said baritone Christopher Clayton, who portrays indigo importer Mr. Somers in Gentleman’s Island. “Performers want to perform, and this is a great opportunity. I don’t feel unsafe at all.” Rehearsals have been conducted in face masks, which won’t come off until Wednesday’s Sitzprobe.

With a highly contagious airborne virus spreading through the community, “pits are bad news, as you can imagine,” Lowe said. Accordingly, the orchestra will sit upstage, while the singers stand atop the pit space, separated from the instrumentalists and conductor by a screen. (“We always have monitors anyway,” director Kristine McIntyre noted. “It’s different, but not so unusual.”) Projections on the screen will augment the staging.

The company will use McIntyre’s translation of Jean Cocteau’s libretto for La voix humaine. Utah Symphony principal keyboardist Jason Hardink and Utah Opera principal coach Carol Anderson will alternate playing Poulenc’s piano reduction of the 1958 score.

The opera revolves around a woman, alone in a room, talking to a former lover on the phone. Some of her text messages, as well as photos she scrolls through, will be projected on the screen, but the audience is privy to only one side of the conversation. “If it’s well-played, if I’ve done my job, the audience really has a sense of [the man],” McIntyre said.

“It took so little to update,” the director adds, of the libretto. “The [1928] Cocteau play was so modern in its way. … Were he alive today, he would be fascinated at what we do with our little cellphones. They connect and divide us. He would be thrilled.”

Soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer, who grew up just north of Salt Lake City in Bountiful, will sing the role of Elle (French for “she”). Harmer is known as a Wagner singer, based primarily at the Metropolitan Opera, and originally was contracted to sing the role of Senta in Utah Opera’s planned production of The Flying Dutchman. This is her first Poulenc opera.

“I really, really like her,” Harmer said of her character. “It’s an interesting role, perfect for this time because of our isolation. … It’s a time when a lot of people are trying to understand and explore what isolation does to our mental health.”

Gentleman’s Island, like La voix humaine, dates from 1958, though a more obscure and rarely performed work. McBeth, who encountered it in college, acknowledged that it’s obscure. But current circumstances made it seem like a logical fit. “Isolation and distance are baked into the story,” he said, “so it wouldn’t be a stretch to have some distance between the singers.”

Tenor Brian Stucki, who portrays the tea taster Mr. Gray, summarized the plot: Two men are stranded on a deserted island. Because they have not been properly introduced, propriety precludes them speaking to one another. Oysters are plentiful in the spot where Mr. Gray has set up camp, but he hates oysters and loves turtles; conversely, turtles abound on Mr. Somers’ part of the island, but he hates turtles and loves oysters. By eavesdropping on one another’s laments, the men discover they have a mutual friend, which they agree will suffice in lieu of an introduction. All is well until a passing ship brings an unexpected complication.

“Our one-act brings a little bit of levity,” Stucki said. “Shows on themes of isolation can be an intense thing. People need to go into a discussion of the hardness of it, but also need to be able to laugh about where we are.”

Clayton agreed. “It’s a fun show,” he said. “It’s a foil to the Poulenc.”

The baritone described the music as “Brittenesque, kind of like a marriage of Britten and Gilbert & Sullivan.” (Gilbert, whose poem inspired Gordon Snell’s libretto, was half of that famed duo.)

“It’s not the ethereal language of the Aldeburgh operas—it’s somehow easier and more colorful,” said McBeth, who agreed with Clayton that Albert Herring would be a good musical comparison. “It’s a comedy, and the music reflects that.”

With hardly any American opera companies resuming in-person performances, McBeth and company know that a lot could be riding on what happens at this week’s Utah Opera performances.

“The staff, across the board, including our artists and orchestra colleagues, have been exceptionally flexible and joyful in trying to address all the challenges of performing in the era of Covid,” McBeth said. “A lot of industry colleagues are watching to see: ‘Did it work? Is it possible?’

“We feel super confident that it is. We are not walking on eggshells. Yes, we are following protocols. But we feel that, wow, this can work. We can have performances.”

Utah Opera presents La voix humaine and Gentleman’s Island October 9-18 at the Capitol Theatre. Resident artists Edith Grossman, Daniel O’Hearn and Brandon Bell will sing the roles in selected performances. utahopera.org; 801-533-6683.

One Response to “Utah Opera to open season safely with a corona-conscious double bill”

  1. Posted Oct 08, 2020 at 8:18 pm by Donald Wayman

    We plan on attending Friday Oct 16th. Hoping to attend several more Operas too.

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