I am certain that this will come as a great surprise to all of you after seeing BARN OPERA's productions of The Magic Flute, Carmen, and Così Fan Tutte, but when I originally considered producing this work, I had some very specific and very controversial things in mind. I do need to make one point quite clear, however, in that I don't specifically look to produce controversy in every show. When I see injustice anywhere in life, I believe it is my obligation and responsibility to speak up, and the opera, even written decades or centuries ago, does not get a free pass.
I know that I'm going to be lambasted for this, but I originally looked at this piece as an obsolete work of utopian fiction, with beautiful music. There are instances in the work that 21st century Josh cringes at, and then there are moments that I believe completely capture the entirety of the human experience: It is a very dynamic and emotional ride for me, for such a compact piece.
The first thing that I decided before I ever thought about how this piece would go theatrically, was that I wanted an Amahl to be a young boy of color. The mother, Helen Lyons, is a brilliant soprano and just happens to be white, but every time I have seen this piece, there is a moment when I shrink under my seat: At the moment the kings first arrive to Amahl and his mother's house, Amahl (known for his storytelling, much to the chagrin of his mother) talks to his mother about the identifying features of the kings, and their crowns, and about the third king says "And one of them is BLACK."
This has always, ALWAYS, rubbed me the wrong way, as if the Black King was a novelty sideshow. I believe that it completely (and wrongly) gives Amahl a racial element that I don't believe is intended, but nonetheless, through the 21st century lens, is apparent. I almost put the score away right then, but then I thought about how I might be able to change the reading of that line in order to make it work. In deciding to have a boy of color, the line no longer reads "isn't that weird, this guy is black" but rather reads "he looks like me and is a king? Maybe I could be a king too!" I believe this is much more in line with the messaging of the show and changes the line from tokenism to aspirational, and THAT is something I CAN get behind!
When I eventually decided that BARN OPERA was going to produce Amahl, we were in the middle of the humanitarian crisis on the southern border in our country, Syria was being obliterated, and I was completely disgusted and without any thought as to how to help the situation. It was in that mindset I began to develop my initial "konzept" for our Amahl. I imagined Amahl and his mother to be refugees just on the USA side of the border, awaiting their asylum hearing. I know this isn't exactly how it works, but I imagined the chorus of shepherds as their central American neighbors still in the "holding facilities." I built the idea around the shepherds dressed in their rattiest clothing, each with mylar blankets and ideally a shadow of a chainlink fence over them all. The Kings would be congressmen, and the miracle would be that Amahl and his mother were granted asylum, after the congressmen discovered compassion for the poor transient pilgrims.
While I did have completely fleshed out exactly how I would produce this piece, I did some self analysis and realized that I was just despondent and numb, like everyone, and feeling utterly helpless. I came to realize, however, that regardless of how horrible I felt, me forcing my arguably divisive beliefs and ideas upon my community would be doing just what I was railing against the other side for doing.
And then, just like the Grinch, my heart and understanding grew three sizes that day.
I am sure that not one decent person, regardless of political affiliation, is happy about the situation at the border, or in Syria, and my highlighting and pointing fingers at what will be one of the black marks on America's history is not going to do anything to bring my community together, or heal divides that already exist.
I have ultimately decided that what we need, as humanity, is not a social commentary but a big, warm, compassionate, musical hug.
Amahl and the Night Visitors is just that. It is a story of a poor mother and her crippled son who exhibit extraordinary generosity in giving everything that they own to provide comfort for three kings that are on their way to visit a "more worthy child." In a moment of self-protection, and unconditional love for her son, Amahl's mother tried to right the cosmic financial injustice by stealing some gold. After a brief outbreak, the kings return the humbling generosity, and a miracle occurs as a result.
The universal nature of love, generosity, human spirit, socio-economic unity and the power of the combination thereof, is a phenomenal lesson to us all in this very broken and divided time. We can all learn a great deal from this story, and hopefully we can take the light of love that Amahl's mother gives her son, the light of compassion that the kings give to Amahl's mother, and the light of generosity that Amahl shares with the Christ child, and when we leave the church after the performances, shine our collective light of humanity to dispel the darkness of hate, oppression and otherness.
November 1, 2019
BARN OPERA & The Salisbury Congregational Church's
Amahl and the Night Visitors - G. C. Menotti
December 13 & 14, 2019
Director: Joshua Collier (Artistic Director, BARN OPERA)
Music Director/Pianist: Kristen Carr
Amahl's Mother: Helen Lyons
Amahl: Joshua & Johnathan Kafumbe
King Kaspar: Martin Schriener
King Melchior: Nicholas Tocci
King Balthsazar: Cailin Marcel Manson
Page: Tobias Duke
If you saw BARN OPERA's treatment of "Carmen" in May, you'll probably be a little hesitant to bring your youngster to the opera. However, allow me an analogy to put your mind at ease: if Carmen was "Kubrickian" then BARN OPERA's production of The Magic Flute will be pure Disney.
I knew what I wanted to do with Carmen when I chose to produce the opera, but in knowing that, I similarly knew that I needed to follow it with a much more light-hearted and family friendly production that would not have even a hint of adult theme, but would be whimsical, funny, and family oriented, while maintaining the quality that you have come to expect from BARN OPERA.
To that end, I have found some of the best singing actors in the country to come to Brandon to perform the leading roles. Alongside such established artists as Spencer Viator (Tamino), Jessica Jane Jacobs (Pamina), Scott Ballantine (Papageno), Andrea Wozniak (Papagena), Wes Hunter (Monostatos) Luke Scott (Sarastro), and Heather Bobeck (The Queen of the Night), there will be teenagers from the Vermont Youth Opera Workshop performing the roles of the "Spirits" as well as children from Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon performing as their favorite animal.
The educational opportunity that comes from children not just being exposed to, but being involved in high quality art, is invaluable! Likewise, the emerging artists being given an example of where they could be in a few years, while being mentored by the group of established artists is nothing if not motivating. The inclusivity and the multigenerational approach to this show is the driving force behind my casting decisions and concept design.
When one thinks of The Magic Flute one basically immediately hums the Queen of the Night's SECOND aria (Yes, she has another one before that one, which is equally as virtuosic!) "Der Hölle Rache." Like most operas, most people don't know the story, but know that the music is absolutely entrancing, and fabulous.
For those of you that don't know the story, the first scene of the opera witnesses a heroic prince slay a dragon, who eventually goes on a quest to rescue a princess from an evil sorcerer.
I thought to myself, as I was reading a story to my 3 year old daughter, "this would make a fabulous bedtime story!" So I sought to try to see if the concept of the opera being a bedtime story would work. I have incorporated a secondary plot point - which I won't disclose here, you'll have to come see the show! - that will help to keep the plot moving forward without much of the traditional dialogue that is typical of the "singspiel" - music with dialogue - that The Magic Flute is.
As with many of the operas of the 18th and 19th centuries, we have to grapple with the fact that there are themes of heroism that today would be looked at as misogyny, and classism and racism that are completely inappropriate to present today. If you know me in person, or even by reputation, you will know that neither of those themes, either presented then or now, is something I will allow on my stage.
As I said, I have 3 and 1 year old daughters, Liliana and Chloë, who I want to grow up and know that with enough dedication and work they can do anything that they want to do, without the fact that they are women holding her back. The idea of the princess needing a prince to rescue her is terrifically antiquated, but presented in the right light, it can be almost charming and nostalgic - especially when it happens occasionally that the prince is the one needing saving.
We will be presenting the Andrew Porter translation of the opera from 1984, but as things are quite a bit different now, I have omitted some of the more blatantly offensive and culturally insensitive language of Mr. Porter, have rewritten the rather dated and stilted dialogue in its entirety, and in true Collier fashion, added some topical and contemporary jokes.
With such glorious music, comical situations, kid-friendly play, and heartwarming story, I am thrilled to present this multi-faceted production of The Magic Flute to the BARN OPERA Audience! As always, I welcome any feedback/comments/requests for programming, and I hope to see you all for BARN OPERA's unique and BRANDON NEW production of The Magic Flute!
I know this is not something that an artistic director, who is trying to get you to buy tickets to come see the show should say, but to be honest: I really hate this opera... now, keep reading:)
When I say that, I am truly not intending to degrade anyone's deep love of the Seguidilla, or the memories of one's grandmother playing the Habanera on the slightly out-of-tune piano in the living room. However, sometimes we are able to attribute positive memories of something because of environmental circumstances, rather than rational and objective consideration of an issue.
How many of us have seen popular competition shows on television such as America's Got Talent, and the like? How many of us have witnessed a 12-16 year old young girl sing the arguably most famous aria in the operatic repertoire "Nessun Dorma" while seemingly floating on clouds of fog, with some angelic lighting technical element, emotive strings, and an exuberant choir? The audience is completely rapt, more than one tear is shed, and everyone is amazed by this young girl that is able to sing this iconic song.
On its face, it seems like a heartwarming, wonderful, and warm experience for all involved. However, upon further inspection and understanding of the opera (Turandot) that "Nessun Dorma" comes from, it is more than obvious that the aria that the virile, aggressive, egotistical, hero Prince Calaf sings is not appropriate; with reference to "having" the Princess at daybreak - against her will - and that he will "win."
My point about this is that without the full context, a seemingly innocuous performance by a young girl of a pretty melody, is actually something that glorifies misogyny, physicality without consent, and gender and culturally insensitive stereotypes.
This is exactly what Carmen is, in the historical sense. Carmen is traditionally a Gypsy who is the ultimate sex symbol, who seduces or falls in love with multiple men, spurring one jilted lover to stalk her, beg her to return, and when ultimately rejected, dies at the hand of that scorned lover.
Considering where we are as a society, and how I personally feel about the role of women in these historical art pieces, as evidenced by this article by Amy Lilly of Seven Days, I do not want to be responsible for glorifying another domestic homicide, where the woman falls victim to a jealous man. If the theatrical characterization of the man were completely shunned from society, I would not have the type of problem that I have, as typically Don Jose remains the romantic, sympathetic and romantic lover, such that it almost makes the audience question whose fault it is that Carmen dies.
I think that is completely unacceptable, and I am sure that you all know that I will never glorify this type (or any) misogyny on the BARN OPERA stage.
My treatment of this show is to update the piece, and turn character relationships on their heads. The BARN OPERA production will concern a production company in NYC producing the opera "Carmen." The main characters' interactions are varied in that Carmen is the prima donna of the opera, but also a former dominatrix (hence, always in control.) Jose is the assistant director of the production. Escamillo is the leading man of the show, and Michaela is Jose's hometown ex-girlfriend who tries to get him to come back home.
This production explores the idea of infidelity and perceived infidelity, the notion of ownership and rights within a relationship, and the limits that the human psyche has to cope with external forces.
This production will not be like any other production that BARN OPERA has produced in the past. It will be edgy, and sexy, and very adult in nature. Considering the progressive and controversial nature of the production, we are willing to allow anyone who contacts us with concerns (Prior to May 12, 2019), to transfer their tickets to another future BARN OPERA production that may better suit your aesthetics.
However, as I said at many opening nights in the past, my job is not to just produce pretty music concerts, but rather productions that question status quo, question society, and force us to self-analyze our actions and our positions on human interests. If you see the show, and hate it, please let me know! I know that this is hard to believe as well, but as Artistic Director, I find constructive feedback a really valuable tool to determine what aesthetics our beloved BARN OPERA audience would like. Ultimately, I want to be able to bring new life and new perspective to these old warhorses, and any feedback as far as how much boundary pushing, will be most welcome!
I so hope that you love the production, but even if you don't, I know you'll love the music just as much as you did before the Collier treatment of Carmen. These singers are some of the best in not just the country, but internationally. Julia Mintzer (Carmen) will be singing the same role of Carmen in the spring of 2020 with the Welsh National Opera, as well as is an established director worldwide; Jessica Jane Jacobs was the winner of the 2018 Vermont Vocal Competition, and is becoming one of the most sought after sopranos in the Boston area, Cailin Marcel Manson will return to BARN OPERA after singing Sharpless in the inaugural production, and I will sing the role of Jose.
If the gritty nature of the production does not sit well with you, just feel free to close your eyes; the opera will be sung in the native french, and even though it is a reduction (total 1:40 of music) it will have all of your favorite musical moments intact. If you close your eyes, you can imagine your own mythical traditional production! However, my whole ambition with this production and BARN OPERA in general is to open the eyes of adventurous opera-goers, and move the conversation forward.
I hope that you will join me in that mission of proving the operatic art form's viability in the 21st century, and I know that if nothing else, this production will create conversation, which would be enough for me. I am looking forward to seeing you all at the BARN soon, and anytime you would be interested in chatting about this, know that the coffee is always on.
I'll keep an espresso cup ready for you.
Until May 17 & 18, or sooner, all my absolute best,
Experience Barn OPera