With their inaugural production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio) debuting this Friday, we chatted with Angel City Opera‘s general director Tania Solomon, to talk about the travails of launching a new company, plans for the future, and social service in the arts:
LDG: Thanks so much for doing this for us, Tania. So, how long have you been planning this launch? Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a long time, or was there something specific that triggered the idea?
TS: I guess this question has a two-part answer, because this company came about in two phases. You might say I ran a beta version when I lived in Florida. At that time, I was still in full swing pursuing my career as a singer, and producing was a more of a means to showcase myself. Bringing along other singers was an added bonus, to be sure, but producing was not a great love of mine. My only show was La Traviata because I didn’t have a burning desire to have a company then.
This time is different. I’m at a different phase of my life and building something is much more important to me now. You might say there has been a shift from being a bird to building a nest. I want have an interface with the community- the singer’s community, the arts’ community, the community at large. It’s not just about me or feathering my own nest any more. I see my function in life as one of stewardship and service.
You might say there has been a shift from being a bird to building a nest…. I see my function in life as one of stewardship and service.
LDG: Why Abduction as a first production? Was there something in particular that draws you to this show?
TS: There are a lot of factors that go into choosing operas for a company that’s just starting out. Abduction lends itself because there is a nice ensemble cast, the choruses are easily cut or adapted, and there isn’t a bunch of recit that needs to be handled. Until our budget increases, we are following a concert format and this show works well within that construct. The dialogue was easily cut and replaced with a narration that I penned in English, which helps to move the story along without distracting the audience. I may be in a minority of one, but I am not a huge fan of supertitles. I prefer to engage the audience throughout the performance with acting. Oh, and I happen to love the role of Konstanze! Not that I will be singing every role that comes along in my fach…in fact, I am farming out Norina in March.
LDG: This quote stands out in your press release: “Opera is bursting with relatable human emotion and conflict relevant to modern society.” This is absolutely true, but it could be argued that Mozart’s Abduction isn’t as relatable as some. It’s an unusual choice, considering your stated mission and the unique setting, and the opera is notoriously difficult to cast… What themes do you hope to draw out of this rather fantastical work? Do you have an approach that will make it more relatable for modern audiences, or have you found another focus within the work that people will identify with?
TS: Well, it’s interesting that you would ask this. First of all, you are right about casting. I knew right off that I would have had a hard time casting this somewhere else, but I had every faith casting it here in LA. There is a very rich talent pool here. Los Angeles is highly underrated as an opera scene and my aim is to change that perception. My only challenge casting these roles was finding people who were in town in July!
There is a very rich talent pool here. Los Angeles is highly underrated as an opera scene and my aim is to change that perception.
As for the relevance of the opera, I find it is exquisitely suited to our times. Every day we are confronted with themes of xenophobia and clashes of conflict between Muslims and Christians on our own soil and throughout the world. We watch hideous things portrayed in the news and struggle to comprehend how to coexist in society without blanket judgment. These issues existed at the time Mozart wrote Die Entführung. Certainly, it is open to interpretation, but it is [my interpretation] that he saw these issues as complex and thorny.
Mozart always saw the humanity in everything he did — that was his true genius. This opera is no exception. The way love, doubt, tension, suspicion, betrayal, culture, religion, and ultimately mercy and reconciliation are dealt with in this opera transcend time and language. My program notes address the historical context and its parallels to day and the narration is written as a kind of “twin soliloquies” between Konstanze and the Pasha, to illustrate the two perspectives in the show. Without being heavy-handed, it was my aim to get the audience thinking about how these issues never really go away- they just keep resurfacing in new guises.
LDG: Singing the lead in your own production is risky, of course, and provides bonus hurdles. What challenges have you found in wearing multiple hats? Will this be an ongoing challenge, or is this a one-time thing?
TS: Ha ha! I love a challenge! Plus, I love hats! Seriously though, it has been an interesting journey for me. When I produced La Traviata, I did the whole thing in ten weeks from inception to downbeat (and yes, I sang Violetta). This time there have been six months of ramp-up before the first note will be sung. I am really laying the groundwork for a company that will outlast this show. What I have discovered is that I am a natural at project management, with no real problem compartmentalizing, the way you need to, in order to get everything done. It helps that I knew most of this role before we embarked. I am singing the title role in Sappho as well, as I have sung it before. However, when Don Pasquale comes around, I will be very happy to focus on other aspects of running the company and give up the glory of Norina to a deserving diva. I also want to be sure the message is clear that while I still love to sing and have the chops to do it, this is not a vanity project, and I am serious about building a haven for local talent, including the lovely ladies in my own fach!
LDG: Performing opera with piano alone can involve a texture shift that is tricky for some performers, and can throw directors as well. Have you found this instrumentation to be a significant adjustment? If so, how are you compensating or embracing it?
TS: I have to say, most singers are pretty experienced performing with a piano reduction of the score and comfortable with it. Personally, I find that there are elements of singing with piano only that make the production leaner for the listener. The voices are more exposed and it creates a more intimate, personal experience. There was a woman who came to my concert production of La Traviata who had never been to the opera before — a school teacher. She was so moved, she became a lifelong opera-goer! This is the power of our art form: when it’s done right, it doesn’t even need the trappings! Someday I want to have the budget for those trappings, to be sure, but will never lose sight of what’s underneath.
LDG: Will the show be staged and/or costumed at all, or is it a more traditional concert format?
TS: We will be in formal dress and in a concert format. This doesn’t mean we will “park and bark”, however. We’ll have a painted backdrop and may incorporate a prop or two. The most important part is that we have engaged terrific performers.
LDG: Again, from your press release: “laughing and clapping is encouraged!” This sets a nice tone, and shows that you’re obviously having fun putting this together. Are there any other elements of the production that encourage the audience to get involved?
TS: That line is to let people know we are not a stuffy operation. And hey, if anyone wants to join in the final chorus… Down the line, I plan to implement an opera club where people can attend special informative talks and Q&A sessions pertaining to the operas. They will be similar to the pre-show talks at the “big” houses, but less formal and more interactive. They will also happen on a different day than the performances, and be for people who have signed up.
LDG: Were there cultural issues in the opera’s subject matter that you tried to view the sensitivity of modern eyes? Have you made changes or cuts to music and/or text, for this or other reasons?
TS: I have written program notes that address this issue in depth. In fact, it’s rather unorthodox, but I have published them on both the Facebook Page and the website (angelcityopera.com) in advance of the production. I feel the English narration and its emphasis on the Pasha’s point of view helps to weight the production into his “corner”, if you will. There is always the issue of how Osmin is viewed, and it will always be there. It’s pointless to try to whitewash him, in my opinion. I think his character is there intentionally to impress upon the audience the ludicrousness of their own stereotypes. He also serves as a foil against which the Pasha is even more noble and restrained. There are valid arguments to be made on both sides of course, as there are about Huckleberry Finn. But I always like to consider the source: Mark Twain was an outspoken abolitionist, and I have a lot of faith in Mozart!
LDG: I love the idea of your “Angel Tickets” program, which offers attendees a chance to add a little to their ticket price and help someone else attend. Did that project spring from a personal experience? How did you figure out how to set up the program?
TS: Thank you! I guess the idea sprang from an experience I had when I produced La Traviata in Florida. There was a man who contacted me and said he wanted to come with his son but couldn’t afford the ticket. He said he had never come to the opera before, but was intrigued by an article he had read and wanted to expose his son to the art form. Of course, I told him to come! I wish I could say that to everyone but I wanted to find a more financially sustainable option. It’s really a major pillar of my mission with this company to fully interface with the community and provide opera to all different populations. Building audiences means lots of things including bringing opera to people who might feel shut out from a socio-economical standpoint.
LDG: Will the church in NoHo be your regular home, or will your shows also be presented in other venues?
TS: The First Christian Church of North Hollywood is a lovely venue and they have been really easy to work with. I can see working with them again, however Angel City Opera is committed to bringing opera to the LA metropolitan area. I would like to concentrate those efforts on the Valley side of the hill, since I feel we have a very arts-oriented population here and there isn’t enough opera on this side of the hill. Our fiscal sponsor is Glendale Arts and we are in talks to do some creative staging in the beautiful, historic Alex Theatre. I guess that’s a long answer that’s basically “We’ll see…”