Madame Tussaud’s. The Cotton Club. The Bronx Zoo. The West Side Community Gardens. The Museum of Natural History.
What do all of these have in common? On Site Opera.
The organization, which is the brainchild of Eric Einhorn and Jessica Kiger, has either performed at all of these venues, among others or is slated to showcase an opera in the environment. The company will close out its 2016-17 season with two more productions, including Mozart’s “The Secret Gardener,” which will be performed at the West Side Community Garden.
Off to the Garden
That production will be unique not only because the presentation will be conducted in an outdoor setting, but because it is the first collaboration that OSO will have with the Atlanta Opera.
Interestingly, the idea to stage the Mozart Opera didn’t even come from Einhorn’s company. It came from Tomer Zvulun, Atlanta’s General and Artistic Director. Einhorn and Zvulun met at Tel Aviv at the International Vocal Arts Institute and then spent some time working at the Metropolitan Opera as staff directors.
“When Tomer went to Atlanta, from the beginning of tenure he wanted to do something with us. He added the Discovery Series, which helped us start the conversation about what we wanted to do,” Einhorn told OperaWire. “Then about two years ago, he said, ‘I want to do ‘Secret Gardener’ in a Garden.’”
So Einhorn sought out the piece and studied.
“I told Tomer, ‘This isn’t really about a garden.’ And then I suggested a bunch of other rep that might be more appropriate to a garden setting,” Einhorn noted. “But he insisted. He wanted Mozart.”
The first step to making it work was actually adapting the opera. The usual Mozart orchestra was not suitable for the garden setting so the company reorchestrated the worked for wind octet and double bass. Then they made revisions to the libretto, commissioning new English text from Kelley Rourke.
The other elements were adapted to suit the locale, including the costume design that included “floral prints and botanical silhouettes that pervade the whole piece.”
Finding the Right Fit
Of course, the biggest challenge of all is the setting itself. Since OSO does not have its own venue, it must constantly find ways to adapt to the ever-changing surroundings.
After several major misfires, the organization figured out a process for making the locale work for the productions.
For example, the company put on Rameau’s “Pygmalion” on at Madame Tussaud’s back in 2014.
Einhorn was told that the background music at the museum could be turned off for the performance, but when they did get rid of it, he had another realization.
“We learned 20 minutes before curtain that there was a massive air conditioning system that they couldn’t turn off. There was this wind turbine that just kept humming loudly because the building had to be climate controlled,” Einhorn noted. “So, there we were with this delicate baroque ensemble and this crystalline French baroque score all competing against this air conditioner.
“Everyone was understanding and we persevered but now we look at air handling systems at our venues.”
They also look at a number of other factors including dressing room space and availability to bring in additional lighting.
Every tour is vetted alongside music director Geoffrey McDonald who evaluates acoustics, orchestra placement,
“A significant part of our conversation is about the customer service experience for the audience. How many chairs can we fit? Are there restrooms? Is it wheelchair accessible? Is it easy to get to? What’s the mass transit situation? Is it a location that our audience would enjoy coming to? For us, there is a huge customer service element to it. We want to create a total experience. That has to be a part of every step of the process.”
Finishing Up Beaumarchais
Once “The Secret Gardener” production comes to end, Einhorn and company will turn their attention toward the conclusion of a three-year Beaumarchais project. After showing rare versions of “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2015 and 2016 respectively, the company will stage Darius Milhaud’s “The Guilty Mother” this June.
Years ago, when the company was but an idea, Einhorn came across a mansion on the East Side.
“I got there and I was struck how perfect it would be for ‘Barber of Seville.’ It has an L-Shape and on the second story there was a beautiful library with a window looking out into the courtyard,” he narrated. “One window looked out onto the courtyard. It gave you everything for ‘Barber.’”
Once On Site developed he started to really consider pursuing the idea of mounting productions of Beaumarchais’ famed “Figaro” trilogy.
He had done more exploring into the obscure repertoire and came across Giovanni Paisiello’s version of “The Barber of Seville.”
“Rossini is a bigger longer piece. Paisiello is smaller and shorter. It is even more faithful to Beaumarchais,” he stated. He was also aware of Darius Milhaud’s version of the third episode in the trilogy, “The Guilty Mother.”
He had the two-outer works of the trilogy figured out, which sparked him to consider the essential question at the heart of the trilogy: “Wouldn’t it be great if there was an alternative ‘Marriage of Figaro?’”
He looked about until he stumbled upon Bampton Classical Opera in the UK, an organization that does reconstructions and modern revivals of 18th and 19th-century works. From them, he discovered Marcos Portugal’s version of “The Marriage of Figaro.”
He rented the appropriate materials, got in touch with an expert at a university in Portugal and adapted the work to suit OSO’s needs.
“This trilogy has worked out so wonderfully so far. It’s been everything I hoped.”
Time for Dinosaurs
Einhorn noted that he has an interest to turn to the more traditional repertoire in the future, but before that, he has his hands full with a very personal project which represents a major first for him, the role of the librettist.
Years ago, Kiger, who now works with Atlanta Opera, came to Einhorn with an idea that came about from a meeting with a woman named Rhoda. While conversing at a fundraising dinner, Rhoda told Kiger about her grandfather who did naturalist painting.
The company had already been considering an opera for kids and family and this idea seemed to fit right in.
Einhorn then met with Rhoda, heard her story and saw what she wrote. He proposed the idea about an opera regarding her grandfather and she immediately gave a ringing endorsement.
The idea then evolved into an opera about a young girl who loves dinosaur.
Einhorn was immediately enamored with the idea of staging the work at the Museum of Natural History but faced a bit of trepidation. The museum would only bring outside performances if they had an educational opportunity. When he had previously attempted a pitch back in 2012, he was lacking that aspect and could not make it happen.
But this time he reached out again with the idea of a short opera that featured educational portions for the dinosaur section of the museum.
The next step was to find the right composer and Einhorn found him in John Musto.
“We wanted something that was a legitimate opera score that didn’t pander or try to be cute,” Einhorn explained. “His vocal writing is great and his way with text is top notch.”
Then he pitched the work to the Chicago Lyric’s Unlimited series and the Pittsburgh opera. Both organizations quickly responded in the affirmative and agreed to come on as co-commissioners and co-producers.
For Einhorn, the project has challenged him a way he had never expected. Being his first libretto, he was immediately challenged with figuring out the right words to set the right tone for the opera.
“I really wanted to write a libretto in some sort of rhyme scheme but to make sure it didn’t feel like Mother Goose,” he noted. “I worked a lot to toe that line. I was trying to rhyme but not be too predictable or basic. I didn’t want it to be a nursery rhyme.”
Another challenge was the educational aspects of the libretto and finding a balance there.
“I had to fit scientific information into it. That was challenging where you put dinosaur names and facts that had to be vetted with the museum.”
At one point, he had a scene full of dinosaur information. He thought he had it all right but upon inspection from a Paleontologist, he discovered that there was a gray area and had to reshape the scene.
“It completely destroyed the rhyme and rhythm of the section.”
But he managed to find a way through, using his own experiences as a father to model Rhoda on his own children. He also made sure to give his main character a strong emotional journey that other kids could connect to.
“Showing a child a character’s emotional journey through crisis and back again is just as informative as presenting them with scientific information. To see that experience has a lot of value,” he noted.