Does experimentation work?
That is a question most artists ask in a time when the art world is insecure and ticket buyers are disappearing. However, for smaller opera companies, that seems to be their means of thriving, and this week Amore Opera will take a stab at experimenting with an unknown work, Donizetti’s rarely performed “La Zingara.”
“We want to do things that are unusual, that I know that it’d be possible to do,” said Nathan Hull, the artistic director of Amore Opera, in a recent interview with OperaWire.
And the result will be seen this week.
For years the Amato Opera dominated the indie opera scene, showing the classic works that audiences love. Hull performed with them for 10 years, but in 2009, owner Tony Amato called it quits, leaving behind costumes, sets, and numerous other assets.
In came Amore Opera, and, as Hull noted, Amato “gave me all the sets and costumes. So unlike some of the operas, or smaller opera companies in town, we started with a leg up and inherited the company of performers that wanted to come with us. And almost 30 productions and thousands of costumes.”
With these sets and costumes, the company took on the task of finding ways to present the top 20 hits of opera and create magnetic productions with full orchestra and some of the best singers in town.
They also wanted to create an environment for up-and-coming singers. “We want to provide a place for people outside of the conservatory to learn their craft. You don’t get a call from the St. Louis Opera saying come on out, we need a Carmen tonight, unless you have gotten on the stage and sung Carmen somewhere. Just singing a role in the studio isn’t enough; you have to get your butt on stage for it to count.”
Education was another key to the company as Hull saw the dwindling number of schools teaching classical music. “I’m really keen on educating the next generation of people on opera and classical music in general. All wonderful. Because let’s face it, the music education in this country has gone down the toilet!”
After a number of years of looking for a venue, the company found a place that seems to be working. “I hope we have found a permanent home at Riverside Theatre, which is about 240-some seats,” a venue that for Hull is intimate and exactly what Amore needs.
Like most independent companies, Amore does not have the budget to run opera all year round. As a result, it only programs three times a year.
“So we do a season at the end of October and over the Christmas holiday and then in the summer.”
The company has presented many of the classics, such as “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “La Traviata,” and “Die Fledermaus,” all in classic productions.
“I mean, I’m not putting them underwater or anything most of the time. I experiment with it a little bit but it doesn’t mean it’s not creative; within the confines of what the composer or what the librettist wants there’s a lot of creativity anyway so I don’t feel like I’m married to what the Met did or La Scala or whatever when we’ve done a lot of things,” Hull said.
But just because the company is trying to introduce these classics to the world does not mean there is no room for experimenting.
Back in 2012 Hull paired Mercadante’s “I Due Figaro” with Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” It was the opportunity to bring an unknown work to the United States and pair it with a well-known opera. The result was a success and one that made Hull curious.
“It’s so tuneful and I couldn’t believe why every major opera house in the world isn’t doing it. I don’t know because it’s as good as ‘Cenerentola’ or any of the big comedies that are still being performed. And I sat around for a while thinking and I realized that fame is a pretty fickle thing.”
So Hull took it upon himself to repeat this.
He wanted to bring a work that had never been performed in the U.S. to the company and really find an overarching theme.
Following the Figaro operas, he decided upon Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” and “Olivo e Pasquale.” The two had nothing in common but the composer and Pasquale. But Hull saw a way to tie them in.
“Theoretically they don’t have much to do with one another, but by the time I was done with them they did. We set it in Sicily at an oil-exporting business so it kinda had a Mafioso theme under it, but I linked the characters, so it’s the same Pasquale and they were a lot of independents so you didn’t really have to see it but it did make sense finally.”
And then came one of his favorites, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Peter Von Winter’s “Das Labyrinth.” Both operas are linked, as “Das Labyrinth” is the sequel to the famed Mozart opera. While the Salzburg Festival had done both operas back to back, no U.S. company had ever attempted it.
Hull was adamant about “Das Labyrinth” not being as showy or masterful as “The Magic Flute,” but he did note that it was a great discovery.
“It has themes that all sound Mozarty; if I played you any one number you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s Mozart.’ But it doesn’t rise to the heights of Mozart. You don’t have something like the Queen of the Night where they go, ‘Uh, this is the most amazing thing of all time.’ But it’s wonderful, funny, tuneful.”
Another pairing that they did was Donizetti’s “L’Elisir D’Amore” and “Poliuto.” While they had nothing in common, it was part of the Donizetti Festival and it gave Hull a chance to try out the classic that Maria Callas, José Carreras, and Franco Corelli dominated during their time and most recently Michael Fabiano and Ana María Martinez.
After years of trying to find a spot for Donizetti’s “La Zingara,” Hull has finally found a place for the neglected Bel Canto work.
For the summer season, the company decided to revive “Carmen,” a work they had actually not performed since 2011, and it was the perfect chance to add another gypsy to the mix in Donizetti’s rare work “La Zingara.”
And it was also a chance to continue his Donizetti affair.
“I’ve done three Donizetti premieres and at this point, I feel like I know him, I know the singers, I understand what’s going through his mind. You can come in and tell the cast I talked to Donizetti last night and he wants a rewrite or whatever, ’cause I really feel like know him and know what he’s trying do in any particular scene.”
“La Zingara” is Donizetti’s seventh opera and the first he wrote for Naples, when he was 24. As a result, there were many things he was experimenting with.
“He has some elements that you don’t see later on because it was a continuum of a new company at that point in Naples; he was writing for those people and they had a tradition of having all the high-class characters speaking standard Italian with all the low-class people speaking Neapolitan,” Hull noted.
And it was something that Hull had to adapt to as he went to his Neapolitan friends to help him translate and find the meaning of the text. And when he was finished he decided to translate the Neapolitan text into English so it was more audience-friendly at the time of the performance.
One other thing that Hull found interesting about this early work was some of Donizetti’s musical inventions.
“What does surprise me, actually, is how sophisticated the music really is, and there is a sextet in the first act which is three simultaneous duets going on that is so sophisticated it took me a couple hearings just to understand what is going on off the recording; I think it’s more obvious on stage. But even so, it’s really intriguing music. There’s also a septet in the second act, not quite as good but intriguing. On the other hand, all the conventions you’re expecting in that kind of opera are there. But what else is intriguing about him, well, he describes it as a Seria buffo. And it’s kind of bifurcated in a way in my mind because there’s like some really serious music and there’s some really stupid music also. But it’s delightful.”
At a glance, “La Zingara” and “Carmen” seem to connect because they have to do with gypsies. But the similarity ends there.
“I’m the link between the two because I’m directing both,” said Hull. “They are so divorced in time period and styles that I don’t think that one really reflects upon the other even though the gypsy element that theoretically links it is treated in very different ways between the two.”
And Hull also finds “Carmen” to be a bit more limiting. “When you do Carmen it’s not like you’re boxed in but there’s certainly a hundred and some odd years of traditions that have built up and people say that in 1932 so-and-so singer put her finger up at this point, how come you’re not doing that.”
Still, directing both works has allowed him to explore gypsy culture and really find a link that Hull hopes audiences will grasp when they see both productions.
With the company growing and continuing to thrive, Hull has found that many popular works have been neglected.
“I’d like to do some more of the Verdi operas; we’ve really only done just ‘Traviata.'”
The first opera that is on his mind is “Il Trovatore.”
“We have a ‘Trovatore’ in stock that I’d like to, that I’m thinking of bringing out that I haven’t seen; in fact, you’ll see some of the scenery for that in ‘La Zingara,’ as we used the castle from ‘Trovatore.'”
There is also Meyerbeer, but he doesn’t just want to look at the grand works, but at more of the smaller Italian and German works that have been neglected for years. Hull also says that the company will shy away from modern works because it would not appeal to their audience. But time will tell what comes next as the company continues its mission and creates an enjoyable and classic environment for new and older opera lovers.
“I’m working my way through my favorites. We’re doing grand opera but on a smaller scale so we actually produce opera on a much larger scale. As far as artistic level I’m really pretty happy with what we’re able to do because people are there—I don’t mean to sound too corny, but the Amore part is actually there because they really love it.”