A stripper pole may not be the quintessential opera prop. But then again, Opera Vista isn't your granny's opera either.
As art in bars becomes progressively mainstream, the idea of including the environment as part of the work's aesthetic is also entering into the vocabulary of performing arts organization decision makers. And as Opera Vista's artistic director Viswa Subbaraman was planning to put on Daron Hagen's Vera of Las Vegas, he couldn't resist heading over to Rich's, infamous for appealing to a youngish under twentysomething crowd and featuring loud banging techno-esque music and skimpy outfits.
"The work takes place at an airport, a casino and a gentlemen's club," Subbaraman said of a production, which premieres Thursday night and runs through Saturday. "I wanted to avoid proscenium style seating while thinking outside the box as far as opera goes. Breaking that fourth wall between the audience and stage is part of our mission."
The mission's not about doing operas like Aida. Opera Vista strives for smaller intimate productions, sometimes appealing to the young professional generation.
Subbaraman had been wanting to stage Hagen's work since 2006, when the company was in its formative stage. "Four years ago, we weren't ready to take on the piece," Subbaraman explained. "Opera Vista has grown and now we are ready to tackle Hagen's opera."
It's one that Houston audiences will love.
"The musical style is very accessible but not in a way that panders down to the audience," Subbaraman said. "It sometimes reminds me of the tonal language of West Side Story, which is not surprising given that Daron studied with Bernstein."
The cabaret style composition is dubbed "A Nightmare Opera in One Act" and occurs inside the tortured mind of ex-IRA operative named Taco Bell. He passes out and finds himself stranded in Las Vegas in between flights with his buddy Dumdum Devine. They meet Doll, an INS agent disguised as a stewardess, and Vera the transvestite, end up in a gentlemen's club and a wedding chapel. Just kidding. It was all a dream.
But was it?
It may appear Vera of Las Vegas treads that fine line between popular high art and entertainment, especially as the music is infused with jazz and '70s rock. But don't confuse popular genres for low brow entertainment, the opera is very well thought out.
"Vera of Las Vegas is absolutely high art," Hagen said. "The music is extremely sophisticated in its use of musical style and vocal production techniques; the libretto is highly allusive and literary."
In a recent blog entry, Hagen explains that he assembled the work using flash cards rather than using a traditional compositional approach. Using material from one of his brass quintets, he shuffled the cards with ideas written on them and noted the patterns dealt.
"When I composed An Overture to Vera and the opera Vera of Las Vegas, the idea of flipping cards over to compose the way that a blackjack dealer flips them struck me as an ideal wedding of subject and process," Hagen wrote in his blog.
The libretto is by Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner Paul Muldoon, born in Northern Ireland and now serving as the poetry editor at The New Yorker.
For this production, Subbarman recruited Moores Opera Center founder, Buck Ross, who is often heard saying, "now ladies, grab your stripper poles and line up on stage" during rehearsals.
The central theme of Vera of Las Vegas is transformation, calling on people's tendencies to be both honest and dishonest at the same time. In a seven-minute aria near its conclusion, Vera sings about acceptance and virtue, about being truthful with oneself. Taco overcomes homophobia to fall in love with Vera, evoking themes of personal growth, tolerance and social inclusion.
Hagen wrote the work for full orchestra, but also provided versions for smaller ensembles, including one for four musicians. Opera Vista's production calls for a jazz band set up including vibes, drum kit, clarinet doubling bass clarinet, soprano and alto sax, bass and keyboard on synthesizer.
Vera will be played by local countertenor Eduardo Lopez de Casas, Taco by Eamon Pereyra, Dumdum by Brian Shircliffe and Doll by Cassandra Black, who mesmerized audiences in Lembit Beecher's And Then I Remembered, last year's Opera Vista festival winning opera.
"When it comes to productions of new operas, I perceive several currents," Hagen said. "In the biggest houses, the tradition of main-stage operas featuring large casts, choruses and orchestras continues; in the regional houses, projections are taking the place of many sets, reduced orchestrations are the norm; in the small houses, lots of electronica and so-called experimental opera which uses several singers, no chorus, and what are essentially staged song cycles are being featured —this ends up being less expensive to produce."
For Vera of Las Vegas, Opera Vista is donating a portion of its profits to Bering Omega Community Services, an organization providing support programs for people living with HIV/AIDS.