Opera’s Renaissance in Orange County

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Pacific Symphony’s 2018 production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

Opera seems analogous to a bumblebee: it’s an anatomical impossibility that somehow shouldn’t fly, and yet it does. English satirist Terry Pratchett once quipped: “Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong.” And, indeed, when things miraculously fail to go wrong, opera is an astonishing art form.

Opera in Orange County has experienced glory days and lean times. Many Orange County opera lovers have treasured memories of Opera Pacific, which operated for 22 critically celebrated seasons. That company could trace its roots to 1962 and the annual Festival of Opera Association in Laguna Beach, which performed opera in English. In the early 1980s, the Opera Festival members and opera aficionados became the core audience when Opera Pacific was incorporated and in 1988 began presenting at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, eventually becoming one of four resident companies. In its heyday, Opera Pacific staged six productions a year, but in its final years the season consisted of only three productions under its artistic and music director, John DeMain.

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Opera Pacific’s rendition of Verdi’s “Aida” from 2006

Opera Pacific became a casualty of the economic collapse in 2008, and the audience felt the loss deeply. Once it became clear there was no way the company could make a comeback, Pacific Symphony in 2010 convened a town meeting of local opera leaders and supporters to explore how to revive opera in Orange County.

The mastermind behind the effort to bring opera back after the unfortunate demise of Opera Pacific was Maestro Carl St.Clair, who celebrates his 30th anniversary as Music Director with Pacific Symphony this season. St.Clair’s stellar reputation as an opera conductor in Europe set the ideal stage for such a venture. St.Clair had concluded his tenure as general music director and chief conductor of the German National Theater and Staatskapelle (GNTS) in Weimar, Germany, where he had led Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” to great critical acclaim. St.Clair was the first non–European to hold his position at the GNTS, and he also had served as general music director of the Komische Oper Berlin.

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Our 2019 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”

By 2011, St.Clair and Pacific Symphony had decided to experiment with a three-year plan to test the audience appeal of operas that are semi-staged. A semi-staged production is tailored to the concert hall with the orchestra on stage instead of in the pit. Scenes are evoked with partial sets—enhanced with lighting, projections, and video—rather than represented with fully designed sets. Singers are costumed and perform in character. This engenders a deeper intensity between performers and audience, creating heightened dramatic impact and compelling performances. Previously, audiences have been faced with two extremes: bare-bones concert opera where the singers stand and sing as soloists in front of the orchestra or an extravagant full opera house production. Marc A. Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, calls semi-staged opera “a flowering of the space in between those two points.”

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“La Bohème,” 2012

The Symphony’s opera-vocal initiative offered a “prelude” with two semi-staged performances of “Hansel and Gretel,” adapted for children, as part of the Family Musical Mornings series in early 2012. Later that season, “La Bohème” was presented on the main stage, the Symphony’s first full opera production met with lavish praise from critics and audiences alike. Two of the three performances of the Puccini favorite sold out, confirming there was a strong appetite for opera in Orange County.

St.Clair feels that “opera is now part of Pacific Symphony’s DNA.” The Symphony is a gifted and versatile ensemble that has evolved into a sensitive opera orchestra under St.Clair’s masterful leadership. In addition, the Symphony’s commitment to artistic collaborations have expanded the roles of Pacific Chorale and Southern California Children’s Chorus through the opera-vocal initiative.

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Puccini’s “Tosca,” 2013

Since the initial launch of the opera-vocal initiative, presentations have included Tosca (2013); La Traviata (2014); Carmen (2015); Turandot (2016); Aida (2017); The Magic Flute (2018); Madame Butterfly, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, and The Music Man (2019). Similar to last season, this year boasts three great vocal masterworks: Carl Orff’s magnificent cantata, Carmina Burana, for vocal soloists, orchestra and chorus on opening weekend; Verdi’s Otello; and Mahler’s monumental “Symphony of a Thousand” as a grand finale to a grand season. And each season has featured an Opera for Kids production: this year Donizetti’s Elixir of Love will be presented.

With three productions last season, and three again this year, Pacific Symphony’s Opera-Vocal Initiative has grown into a festival of sorts. Opera-lovers can feel at home at the Symphony. In addition to memorable local performances, members of Pacific Symphony’s Opera Focus group travel on outings to enjoy the art form at Los Angeles Opera and San Diego Opera, as well as attend Metropolitan Opera Live in HD cinema broadcasts in local movie theatres.

Thanks to Carl St.Clair’s vision and the boundless energy of enthusiastic volunteers and supporters, opera is not only once again a part of Orange County’s “musical DNA,” but it’s clearly a significant part of its cultural future.

Samson et Dalila - Saint-Saens - Grange Park Opera - 20th June 2015Conductor - Gianluca Marciano
Director - Patrick Mason
Designer - Francis O’Connor
Choreographer - Nikki Woollaston
Lighting - Paul Keogan

Samson - Carl Tanner
Dalila - Sara Fulgoni
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Carl Tanner, who is joining us for “Otello” this season

From trucker, to gun-toting bounty hunter, to world-class tenor, Carl Tanner’s backstory reads a movie script. In fact, the script is already written and actor Michael Keaton will direct the biopic. Tanner has had an interesting past and an even more exciting present. As a singer, he’s always been a natural. After a neighbor heard him singing the shower, Tanner decided to try out for high school choir. He went on to Shendandoah Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1985 without any aspirations to sing professionally. After college, he got his commercial driver’s license and became a trucker. A friend got Tanner into bounty-hunting for a while where he made 172 arrests in 190 pursuits.

Fate intervened when he was driving his big rig in Washington, D.C. singing along to opera on the radio. A woman in a convertible pulled up alongside him and asked it what she heard was him or the radio. “Because if it’s you,” she said, “you’re missing your calling.” His boss had been telling him the same thing, so he decided to go to New York to try his luck. He took voice lessons and got a telemarketing job to pay for them.

During that time, he wandered into a restaurant where he had heard opera music playing. The proprietor asked Tanner if he could sing. When he did, the force of destiny struck again. Two customers in the restaurant were top administrators at Santa Fe Opera. They offered him a summer apprenticeship in Santa Fe in 1992, and the trucker-turned-tenor was on his way.

Tanner performed his first Otello at the Metropolitan Opera last season to rave reviews. And now Orange County audiences will have a chance to hear him in the Pacific Symphony production of Verdi’s great masterpiece (April 23, 25, and 28).


 

Written by the ever-elusive Jeanne Quill.

 

 

The arts-X-press Impact: Letter of Joy

There I was, in the summer of sixth or seventh grade, sitting in the string ensemble having the time of my life at school. I loved playing violin, and the human touch of music. I was able to say what I needed to say when I played the violin. I was still quiet as ever because playing the violin was all I thought I needed to express myself. My teacher, Mrs. Green, pulled me aside and told me about this great program called arts-X-press. I was hesitant because I was aware from a young age that money is sparse, but the opportunity of a scholarship was presented. I was able to go!

I was excited to go, but scared to stay. Who would I meet? Where would I sleep? HOW WOULD I EAT? Turns out arts-X-press answered those questions beautifully, and deliciously. I remember struggling to play the music, but challenge is what I thrive on. I remember going to see a Frank Sinatra show. I was so excited to tell my dad because we love that guy. I remember making ceramics and finding the little details in art. I remember taking an acting workshop and getting to be whatever I wanted to be. I got to find another art I love by singing my little heart out.

I remember seeing Carl St.Clair because he, his wife, Susan, and his son, Cole, were the reason this program started. Everyone involved let me express myself in more ways than one. I was able to act, talk, dance, sing and find other ways to be who I wanted to be. I felt I was in a box before, but now I saw the world more open than before. It was all due to the art I was shown.

I went home and always thought about that camp. I thought and thought. So, I thought I’d stop thinking about it and apply to be a camp counselor for arts-X-press. I knew I still liked music and I still acted like a kid at heart, so why not?

Everything came back full circle. I was able to feel a little bit of what Carl and Susan felt: giving the campers their “magic moments.” Luckily, I was able to get my magic moment as well. Several times.

One of them was getting to share with the children how lucky we all were to be there. I know there is a picture out there somewhere where we all got in a group hug. We then proceeded to play the arts-X-press theme song on the kazoo. Everyone in the room could feel the magic. Maybe it was the kazoos, maybe it was the vibrant energy of the children, or maybe it was the exhaustion from making sure all the logistics were set. One thing I know for sure: the magic was there.

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My second magic moment was when I met Carl St.Clair. As a child I was aware of what I didn’t have, but when I grew up, I knew I had to be aware and fortunate for what I did get to have. I knew my role as a camp counselor meant giving back to what was given to me. Listening to Carl St.Clair talking about the vision of arts-X-press brought tears to my eyes. Now it’s all I think about. Many people believing in the power of the visual and performing arts to better the individuals that come to arts-X-press. The vision that when we better the children of now, they can help us better the future.

As I approach my last year at Cal State Fullerton, which will be filled with conducting classes and student teaching, I think about how fortunate I am for that one day I will be able to have a vision that can change a child’s life, such as the vision of arts-X-press that Carl and Susan shared with all of us.

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Jocelyne Ramirez with Carl St.Clair

I got to talk to Carl about how thankful I am to be part of the camp as a child, serve as a camp counselor and now study the same art as he does every day. I can’t wait for the day I get to make it happen. Just as Carl does every summer for the young and young at heart, as they get to experience their magic moments.

 

Thank you to Carl and Susan and thank you to arts-X-press for creating a vision painted in joy, sung with passion, acted with courage, played with strength and written for everyone to join.

– Jocelyne Ramirez, former arts-X-press camper

 


 

arts-X-press is Pacific Symphony’s summer arts immersion program where incoming 7th and 8th graders come together to explore the arts, nourish their sense of self and make lasting friendships. Each summer, 150 students are selected to be part of this diverse community of artists and creative thinkers.

Over the course of five days students sleep overnight in the dorms and eat meals in the cafeteria at Concordia University Irvine. Staff and counselors lead students in playing music, singing, acting, dancing, making art and writing – all in a supportive and non-competitive environment.

arts-X-press is a safe haven for self-expression that values each student’s individuality and cultivates students’ ability to appreciate the magic in life and the courage to make meaningful contributions to their communities.

For more information on how to apply or nominate a student, visit our website here. Applications are due March 10. 

 

A Resolution for Carl, from Senator Tom Umberg!

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To celebrate his 30 years with the Symphony, Carl St.Clair was awarded this commemorative resolution by Senator Tom Umberg, who stopped by the offices today!

The Resolution commemorated Carl’s dedication to the Arts in Orange County, our Hail To The Heroes concert this past summer, Carl’s joining Chapman University’s Presidential Fellowship program, the numerous commissions the Symphony has performed over the years, and more. Thank you, Senator!

Resolution for CSC

 

Happy Birthday, Beethoven!

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Today is the 249th anniversary of the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday! Born on December 16th, 1770 in the city of Bonn, he first started performing concerts at age 7, lost his hearing at age 28 and spectacularly went on to have one of the longest-enduring and most important musical footprints of all time. To this day, his various compositions have garnished over a billion views on Youtube, been featured in movies and TV shows, been spun into countless electronic and disco remixes—the list goes on.

To celebrate the anniversary, the city of Bonn, Germany, where he was born, is planning a 365-day programmed celebration that culminates in an enormous festival next December for his 250th. If you can’t make it to the celebration overseas, then join us for Pacific Symphony’s own celebration!

On January 16-18 we will have the renowned violinist Clara-Jumi Kang joining us to perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto—the only concerto for that instrument he composed. It is called the “King of the Concertos,” and regarded as one of Beethoven’s greatest work.

Then, on March 19-21 we will be having an all-Beethoven weekend featuring all five of his piano concertos with the talented Alexander Romanovsky returning to join the Symphony. Each night, Romanovsky will be performing a different set of concertos—an incredible feat. In addition, we will perform different selections each day from his romance collection and overtures, as well as Symphony No. 8 on the last day.

Finally, on May 10 at 3 p.m., Café Ludwig wraps up with Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet (No. 7) and his Trio for Piano, Flute and Bassoon, all led by the series’ wonderful and longtime host, Orli Shaham. While the String Quartet No. 7 is notorious for its technical demands, we know our stellar principal musicians can handle it. Enjoy coffee, tea and pastries that afternoon in the intimate Samueli Theater as Shaham guides you through the program.

Once again, Happy Birthday Beethoven! The countdown to 2020, and his 250th, begins now.


 

Jacob Sanchez is an arts and culture writer based in Southern California. His work has been published in the “Inkslinger” and “River Voice” journals.

 

“Opera Buff-in-Chief” & Opera’s Future in Orange County

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2019’s semi-staged production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”

Peter Lefevre of Orange County’s Voice of OC recently interviewed Symphony President John Forsyte, and Gary Good, who Lefevre playfully refers to as our “de facto Opera Buff-in-Chief,” about opera’s future in Orange County – an interesting topic ever since Opera Pacific left the region’s stage in 2008 amid a myriad of issues after 22 beloved seasons.

“We’ve had ample feedback and evidence that opera in the concert hall, with the orchestra onstage, and the singers more intimate with audience, is meaningful to both traditional opera goers and people new to the art.”

– Gary Good

Check out Lefevre’s article here, and make sure to support your local arts organizations and non-profit news outlets, such as Voice of OC!

Did you know that we produce a semi-staged opera every year? Beginning in the 2011-12 season, the Symphony undertook a major opera and vocal initiative in an effort to restore local, professional productions of this irreplaceable art form to Orange County—one opera at a time. Following 2019’s “Madame Butterfly,” 2020 promises an incredible version of Verdi’s “Otello,” starring returning tenor Carl Tanner!

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Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (2018)

Interviewing Charlotte Rubino, Longtime Family Series Talent

Below is an interview with longtime Family Musical Mornings talent Charlotte Rubino. She’s been with us for 7 shows now, and currently attends OCSA, Orange County’s preeminent arts high school.


 

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Rubino as “Lucy Hufflepuff” in “The Magic & Music of Harry Potter”

1) You’ve been in so many shows with us for Pacific Symphony’s Family Musical Mornings series; could you tell us which other shows you’ve joined us for?

Between Pacific Symphony’s Family Mornings series and Class Act, this will be my 9th show with Pacific Symphony. This is my second time narrating “The Nutcracker.” In a third one I was a dancing dreidel! I have also performed in “The Life of Aaron Copland,” “Halloween Masquerade,” “Endless Imagination,” “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “Spooktacular” and “The Magic and Music of Harry Potter.”

2) Tell us about your arts-X-press experience! What was the most important takeaway or lesson you learned during your time?

My experience with arts-X-press was amazing! It was my first camp away from home. I loved being around so many other young people as passionate about the arts as I was. I met a few students who ended up at OCSA with me. We are still good friends. I would highly recommend all 6th and 7th graders apply to arts-X-press. It certainly made a difference in my life. And, no previous arts training experience is necessary!

Class Act Performance

Rubino, 2nd from left, in a 2012 Class Act Youth Concert

3) How is OCSA going so far? What are you studying there, and how has working with Pacific Symphony informed your time at OCSA?

This is my 5th year at OCSA and I have loved every day there. I’m sad to think I only have a year and a half left there before I go off to college. The best part is, after all the musical theatre and acting training I have received there, I feel confident to both auditioning for any show and to applying to colleges.

I was fortunate to have performed with Pacific Symphony several times before I applied to OSCA. Those shows gave me the confidence to know I was ready to seriously further my training. It is hard to describe the exhilaration I feel every time I’m on stage listening to this world class symphony. My dream is to one day actually get to sing while they play!

4) Tell us about “Nutcracker for Kids” (which was just performed this past weekend) – what was your role, and what was the rehearsal process been like? What’s it like working with the full orchestra, led by Roger Kalia, with the Festival Ballet Theatre?

Along with Luke Bruderer, I am narrating the classic story of “The Nutcracker.” Luke is very professional, so the rehearsals have been quick, efficient and fun. Getting to work again with Roger Kalia alongside Pacific Symphony and the amazing ballet dancers is a dream come true! I have to pinch myself each time I’m on stage with them to make sure I’m really there! Truly, there is nothing in the world as exhilarating as being on stage with those sights and sounds swirling around me.

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Rubino playing the “Narrator” with Santa Claus in 2014’s “Nutcracker for Kids”

5) One final question: what do you think the importance of access to the arts is in education?

Access to the arts education for all is a mission I am very passionate about. I see firsthand daily how the arts changes lives for the better. Friends of mine at OCSA tell me their love for the arts has helped them through many rough periods. Personally, my confidence has soared and my love for theater grows each day. I think it is so important that last summer, along with a friend, we planned and implemented a 2-week musical theater camp for disadvantaged students at no cost to them. Our camp filled up immediately and we ended up with a waitlist. Kids came from all over, some taking several buses to get there, and we had few absences. Our camp culminated with the students performing songs and monologues for their families and friends. Several of our kids have asked us to help them with the OCSA application process. Next summer we are going to expand our program to try and reach more students around Orange County.

Yes, access to arts education certainly changes lives!


Pacific Symphony’s Family Musical Mornings series is generously sponsored by Farmers & Merchants Bank.

On the Body Language of Conductors

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A recent article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlights an interesting, but rarely discussed, part of the classical music performance: the body language of the conductor, and how they use it to control the sound of the orchestra.

Just as actors and dancers are experts in communicating with their anatomy, orchestra conductors also extensively train in nonverbal communication, as their primary role is to beat time and use their bodies to direct emotional intensity and nuance during a performance.

At the root level, some cues have obvious meanings. When Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, sets his feet wide, furrows his brow and flings his arms out, this essentially boils down to “play louder.” But to a trumpet player, his meaning might be as nuanced as “play this as though you’re standing alone on a precipice yowling into an infinite void.” His smoother, smaller movements generally imply softer melodies and phrases but might suggest to a violinist playing with a sound no louder than the pattering of a mouse’s footsteps.

A body language and communication expert walks you through how the smallest, and largest, motions can change any interaction, especially when it comes to making music on stage with so many dozens of professional musicians. They even discuss the body language of Leonard Bernstein from a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 (4th movement). Check it out!