Q & A: Pacific Opera Project’s Artistic Director Josh Shaw On Reaching New Audiences With A ‘Pop’ Aesthetic

By Gordon Williams

POP, the acronym for Los Angeles’ youthful Pacific Opera Project has a number of meanings. It can stand for Pop-up Theater (Pacific Opera Project’s productions can take place in a variety of venues and even at short notice). It can also mean “popular” (POP makes opera accessible for audiences whose principle interest might simply be an affordable night out).

Over the past several years – Pacific Opera Project has been going since 2011 – POP has had incredible success with their LA hipster-style “La Bohème” and the season which begins at the Ebell Club in LA’s Highland Park on December 7, 2018 will be their “Bohème’s” fourth outing.

OperaWire recently had an opportunity to speak with the company’s Founding Artistic Director Josh Shaw about how Pacific Opera Project’s the genesis and popularity of this particular production.

OperaWire: How did this production for the Puccini classic come about?

Josh Shaw: This production was almost an afterthought to a really big production of “Sweeney Todd” we’d just completed. A couple of singers were sitting around with me in a cafe over in Eagle Rock and we were all thinking, “What are we going to do after ‘Sweeney Todd?’”

And I said, “I’ve got to go back to the restaurant to pick up some shifts.” And another guy said, “I’ve got to give more lessons,” and somebody said, “Hey, it’s just like ‘La Bohème.’” And we thought, “Why go back to work? Let’s just do another show right after this.”

And one thing led to another. We set it in Highland Park, and that was the genesis of something that ended up becoming really special and fostered the first show where we had cheese and wine and table seating. That led to a huge branding thing for us. That’s how we do most of our shows now.

It also led to this idea of doing super, super-short rehearsal periods so that “Sweeney Todd” ended on Sunday and we did “La Bohème” on Friday, and we called this “pop up” which of course is a play on our name.

OW: POP’s productions have evolved into full-blown opera but “Bohème” sticks to popup – piano accompaniment, table seating.

JS: It gave us our brand. It gave us our mascot Puccini. It gave us irreverent and very loosely translated supertitles which we typically use and update. It’s just really become who POP is. And so we decided let’s do it several years in a row and make it our “Christmas Carol.”

OW: So you use supertitles even though you present “La Bohème” in a club. Do you convert the Ebell club into a theater?

JS: We set up a stage and cram 42 little tables in there.

OW: POP does have multiple meanings I understand. One of them is “popular.” I think on your website you say you’re bringing opera to the age of Facebook. What is your demographic?

JS: It’s changing production by production. When we started it was very much young, very young [people] and mostly not opera-goers. It was mostly just theatergoers or people looking for some kind of affordable night out. And now as we’ve become more and more established, long-time opera fans have found us. We’re actually seeing our demographic age due to our popularity which is fine but we’re always looking to keep that young audience coming in the door.

OW: You’re kind of experimental, but it’s not experimental repertoire per se. It’s the staging and the concept.

JS: Oh yes, that’s why “Bohème” is a perfect example of who POP is. It’s one of the most popular operas in the world but it’s a completely new take on it. Everything we do is really about some way of making opera more accessible and appealing to people who don’t know opera at all. And this one? It’s “Oh, this is about my neighborhood. This is about my life. I should go see it.” It’s not crazy repertoire most of the time. It’s generally the standards mixed in with a few other things.

OW: I saw your Mozart/Salieri double bill, replicating what took place the first time Mozart’s “Impresario” was performed. Salieri’s not hard to listen to but he’s different. I’m interested that you use TV shows and films as themes at times.

JS: Los Angeles – it just makes sense, right? Also, that poster shot – somebody says, “Oh, that looks like ‘Gone with the Wind,'” and it catches their eye and then they realize it’s an opera and they think, “Yeah, why not? Let’s give it a try.”

OW: I looked ahead at your 2019 season and I noticed there that you are going to do “Madam Butterfly” with Butterfly’s own lines in Japanese. Just talk a little about the challenges of that.

JS: I don’t think we’d really have time for all the challenges but that’s an idea I’ve had for a long time. I was a singer before this and I sang Pinkerton a few times and then I thought, “Wait, [Butterfly and Pinkerton] obviously wouldn’t speak the same language at all.” And so, that stirred in my mind for many years and then POP got to a place where I thought we could probably pull it off.

It’s extremely challenging on so many levels. I just finished writing all the English sections of the libretto last week. There are two or three places where I had to figure out how they’d actually understand what each other is saying. We’ve gone to great lengths to cast all Japanese or Japanese-American singers for the Japanese roles. My co-librettist and partner in this is Eiki Isomura [Artistic Director and Conductor of Houston’s Opera in the Heights] and he’s doing the Japanese sections and most of our singers speak Japanese so it’s no big deal for them, but we have a couple who aren’t fluent in Japanese and then we have the character of Sharpless who is of course Caucasian.

OW: But would Sharpless speak Japanese as a US diplomat would speak Japanese?

JS: Exactly. So, when he speaks to Cho-Cho San he’ll speak in Japanese and when he speaks to Pinkerton he’ll speak in English and kind of serve as a translator, as will the character of Goro. He’ll go back and forth as well.

OW: But I do notice that the next opera after that is “The Mikado.” Are you commenting on – what you would call it – “Japaneserie?”

JS: I don’t know if we’re commenting on it. If we’re going to get away with “Mikado” this is the year. “Mikado” is my favorite opera of all time. I think it’s a great show.

We’re doing a “Magic Flute” inspired by 90s video games, “Mario Bros” and “The Legend of Zelda” and all that, and that’s going to be in English with a new libretto.

OW: You do “Bohème” with a piano so it’s got this experimental feel. It’s kind of guerilla theater, isn’t it?

JS: Completely. The last 24 hours I’ve spent running cable all over the place and we bring in everything – all the tables, all the chairs, the supertitle screens. We love the Ebell Club. It’s a social club that was built in 1912. And it hasn’t changed much. There’s hardly a dressing room for the singers, but there’s a feeling in there of intimacy and it’s acoustically amazing. And no-one is sitting more than 50 feet from the stage and that’s what people just love about the space. They can feel the voices washing over them and they’re in the action. They go crazy for it.

OW: You’ve changed the intimacy-ratio with the audience. How do your singers react to that, because they would be trained to project into a grand opera theater space?

JS: Essentially they sing the same. The acting is different because it’s almost like you’re on TV. But vocally they sing as loud as they naturally sing. It’s very exciting. But it’s just a different experience. And then twice we’ve done a night at the Ford Amphitheater where there’ll be 1200 POP fans. We did “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” our “Star Trek” take. It was like a rock concert.

OW: So with “Bohème” you’re kind of returning to your roots in Highland Park, and to your tradition. You’re kind of an institution in Highland Park/Eagle Rock.

JS: Every production we ever do, someone says, “How have I not heard about you? I live right down the street. I love opera and somehow I’ve never heard of you.” And that’s the thing about living in Los Angeles with millions and millions of people. It’s hard to get on everybody’s radar, but every time we do “Bohème” – one: I’m amazed how much work it still is, and two: it feels so good. As soon as the show starts, it’s, “Oh yes, this is POP, this is what we do and this is what we need to be doing for years and years to come.”


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