Opera Omaha embraces and enfolds Valentine’s Day, offering a love story which transcends the ages,in music-theatre whose sound and story reach across boundaries. Behold A Flowering Tree by one of today’s best known and most popular contemporary composers, John Adams. He’s been much in the news recently, stirring up passions; though not for his music which resonates with many appealing types of sounds. In this case, you’ll hear elements from India, South America, Bali, several American idioms, even scat-singing. And Mozart. Adams has a “truly unique compositional voice,” says the production’s 30 year old director, James Darrah, “one of constantly shifting styles, tonalities, instrumentation, intimacy. It’s a roller-coaster ride of an orchestral score.”
Adams explains he was inspired and moved by Mozart’s final works, especially The Magic Flute, “ an opera about young people and the emergence of moral sensibility.” Both operas derive from folk tales where a young couple comes of age and awakes to the complexities of adulthood. In each, a young prince finds himself enchanted by an other-worldly woman and goes through trials and tribulations to gain eternal love. Adams, along with co- librettist Peter Sellars, seek to explore how love can transform and redeem human life. Further, Adams tells us, “lingering just below the surface…(are) class privilege, sexual oppression, physical deformity, sexual impotence, sibling hatred.”
They do so in a non-traditional way, evoking ancient cultures and traditions. The woman, Kumudha, and The Prince are the only characters. While The Narrator tells the tale, dancers and a 31-member chorus provide the rest: colors, movements, sound. This is no conventional opera, says Opera Omaha General Director Roger Weitz. No breaks for arias, ensemble moments, production numbers. “It is sung-through,” he points out. “Once it starts, it never stops.”
Darrah also calls it a departure from normal expectations. “You don’t want literal depiction; you go in other directions. That makes exciting theatre. We are keeping the staging simple and human, but we have a few visual tricks.” (Weitz calls them “cutting-edge technology.”)
Kumudha is granted the power to become a flowering tree, having prayed for a way to help her poor family. They sell the flowers after which she returns to human form. A prince, witnessing such transformation, is enraptured, courts and marries her. But his jealous sister breaks the magic spell, turning Kumudha into a hideous creature that is part tree. She flees. The despondent Prince searches the world for her, wandering for years.
The fable goes back centuries in the Kannada language of South India. Using a translation into English by poet and scholar, A.K. Ramanujan, Adams also weaves in ancient Tamil and Hindu love poetry. Plus Spanish. “Our country’s second most common language,” Adams explains.
Yet, nothing could be clearer than that this composer is very much of our time. Within the last few months, his opera The Death of Klinghoffer has been front- page news, causing controversy, people opposing it demonstrating in front of The Metropolitan Opera, causing the Met to cancel national theatre broadcasts. It would have screened in Omaha last November.
“This shows that opera can be incredibly potent,” Darrah comments. “John Adams’ work is inevitably related to bold choices. John Adams is never complacent.”
Weitz adds, “Adams can stir very powerful emotions. Such art can challenge us and, if it can start dialogue, that’s a very good thing.”
Los Angeles-based Darrah has been connected to the composer before, as associate director in the 2013 premiere of opera/oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Darrah leads L.A.- based production and design company Chromatic, a collective of interdisciplinary artists creating multi-media events, Adams and the Philharmonic included. They staged HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!! , Adams conducting, plus Frank Zappa’s rock opera 200 Motels.Darrah is also a composer.
“There are a lot of young musicians these days interested in new work including opera, with major music festivals and premieres,” observes Weitz, reminding us that multi-media experiences are all over the map and that opera itself is multi-media. In fact, the 31 year-old conductor of these Omaha performances, Christopher Rountree, founded Wildup which has staged such events outside the box: bars, museums, conservatories.
Music of our time is not new for Opera Omaha amid eight world premieres and four American ones in its 54-year history. In the last 10 years there has been the work of Americans Anthony Davis, Carlisle Floyd, Aaron Copland, Stephen Mager and Paul Moravec plus that of Bela Bartok, Benjamin Britten and Richard Rodney Bennett.”From the beginning Opera Omaha has been instilled with a spirit of adventure,” Weitz continues.He chose A Flowering Tree “because of its sheer beauty and powerful story” and because, like other works for audiences here, they “are about who we are as human beings, at any time, in any period, in any culture.”
The performers: soprano Andriana Chuchman, tenor Andrew Staples, baritone Franco Pomponi, dancers Julia Eichten, Morgan Lugo, Yusha-Marie Sorzano, Jason Collins, Ana-Maria Lucaciu, Robbie Moore, the Opera Omaha Chorus and Orchestra and conductor Christopher Rountree.
A Flowering Tree: Friday, February 13 ,7:30 p.m. & Sunday February 14 , 2 p.m. Orpheum Theater. 409 S. 16th St. Omaha. Tickets: $19-$99. http://www.operaomaha.org