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Not Your Granny's Opera

With six stellar musical compositions, Opera Vista Festival is an Idol competition

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Israeli-born Ronnie Reshef asks listeners to consider: What if you were told you had a week to live? What if the person who told you that was wrong? Photo by © Ben Hertzog 2009
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American Idol style competitions are not exclusively for popular music. 

Since 2007, Opera Vista's motto, "It's not your granny's opera," is embedded in all program offerings, including the upcoming week-long musical fete.

In an effort to bridge the gap between audiences, composers and performers, the Opera Vista Festival holds an open forum competition where everyone — audience included — has an equal vote. Seven minute segments of six new chamber operas consisting of no more than eight singers and 10 instrumentalists (although merit-based exceptions are made for slightly larger ensembles) are performed, followed by a question-and-answer period, with audience involvement encouraged.

There are plenty of activities, and you can partake in as little or as much as you'd like, though the folks at Opera Vista prefer to see you often, even at all events if your schedule allows.

The schedule includes the professional premiere of last year's festival winner, Lembit Beecher's And Then I Remember, in collaboration with Sara Draper and Dancepatheatre, a couple of receptions and a kick-off party tonight at Laura Rathe Fine Art Gallery.

Inspired by his own family's story, Beecher's emotional telling of his Estonian grandmother's accounts of the Russian invasion, being separated from her husband and her attempts to find him in Leipzig, gets to you. Juxtaposing music with recordings of her grandmother's voice, the story line is moving and poignant with sophisticated orchestration and a relatable theme. And Then I Remember will be performed on Saturday followed by an opening reception, and at the awards ceremony on March 19 at Bethany Christian Church.

The competitive portion of the festival, the semi-finals and finals, are on March 16 and 18 respectively, at the University of Houston Moores School of Music. New this year is the addition of a chamber music concert on March 17 to highlight some of the instrumentalists participating.

New operatic works can be enigmatic for listeners who are often fearful of the genre, feeling like their opinions are uneducated and invalid.  But demystifying the creative process out in the open in such a competition eradicates misconceptions and shows that contemporary opera is quite accessible.

"The entire motive of the company is built around this festival," Viswa Subbaraman, founder and artistic director of Opera Vista, explained. "This year, we had 40 submissions from 12 different countries including Sweden, Canada, Mexico and Romania."

Narrowing down the submissions can incite even the most composed individuals to engage in fiery and passionate discussions, all in the name of great art. This year, panelists Eliseo Rene Salazar, principal violist of the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet orchestras; Opera Vista executive director Joe Carl White; and Alexander Lawler, who heads Opera Vista's production, had the responsibility of picking the six semi-finalists. 

"Inevitably, people yell at each other as they get really attached to the works," Subbaraman said. "Everyone has such a different view. The instrumentalist in the panel may think the work is unplayable while the vocalist may argue that the vocal line is well written. Some of us are more experimental, where others are more traditional. Inevitably, every submission has an advocate in the panel."

Issues of quality, originality, creativity, vocal line, theatricality, staging and pacing are always subjective and four-hour discussions are common. But, in the end, the panelists picked these semi-finalists:

John Biggs' Ernest Worthing

Based on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, this work is more on traditional side of opera and is compositionally well-crafted. Although it could almost be considered a theater piece, its stiff upper lip style British humor gives it old-fashioned charm and wit. As founder of the John Biggs Consort, a traveling choral ensemble, Biggs has earned him a writing award almost every year since 1974. 

Ronnie Reshef's Requiem for the Living

What would you do if you were told you had one week to live? Erroneously? This work explores the different stages of grief, including imagined interactions with the protagonists' wife, child and a priest. Israeli-born Reschef has a rich orchestration style. The work's story is compelling.

Alberto Garcia Demestres's Il Sequestro

Spanish composer Demestres, already prolific in the operatic genre, tells the story of three kidnapped women in a cave wrapped in a psychotic serial killer dilemma: To kill each other or answer riddles to escape. The work is odd but interesting, using Puccini style vocal style and Catalan as inspiration.

Matthew Peterson's Voir Dire

This film noir crime opera, based on true testimony from court trials, journeys from the hilarious to horrific. The work is intense and bridges genres while attempting to "speak the truth" (the definition of the title) of the character's situations. Peterson, an American composer living in Sweden, has already received many accolades from such music licensing groups as BMI and ASCAP.

Nathan Riebli' Rock Hard Woman

Edgier in style with the use of a drum set, Rock Hard Woman is a comic book opera based on a Greek myth. In his quest for finding the perfect woman, a mad sculptor fabricates one out of stone and comes to life. Perhaps the most non-traditional of the submissions, Riebli's composition has popular appeal. 

Sonia Megias Lopez' News from Silence: The Monkey

The most avant-garde submission, this aleatoric style chamber opera tells the story of a man losing his mind and obsessing over a monkey he saw through a store's window. The orchestration is rich in colors and sonorities, with singers even vocalizing monkey sounds.

The line-up is diverse in compositional approach and thematic material. I will be following the festival closely, so be on the look-out for reviews, commentary and anecdotes, American Idol style. 

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