Jesus Montoya and Nicole Paiement in rehearsal
There are few experiences as gripping. Last Thursday, the day after the twenty-four hours that brought us from Rome to San Francisco, we were sitting in a big, beautiful rehearsal space a few blocks from City Hall. To my right, on the flat floor of what must have been designed a century ago as a ballroom, Keisuke Nakagoshi sat with his back to me at a closed grand piano, the condensed score of an opera on its music rack. Beyond the piano Nicole Paiement sat on a wooden stool behind a music desk, the full score in front of her. A Spanish tenor was keening, Flamenco-style; he had just arrived from Europe.
Everyone was wearing black except for a big contingent of young girls in red tee-shirt uniform standing in block formation, upstage right, patiently waiting. With them, a smaller group of older girls, young women in fact, forming another chorus; and, stage left, three female soloists stood in silent concentration. In twenty minutes or so, after more seemingly random individual rehearsing and coaching, we were joined, Lindsey and I, by other audience members; and at six-thirty a young man who had been conferring with the performers individually and in groups introduced himself and the business at hand to us.
Marnie Breckenridge as Margarita Xirgu; Lisa Chavez as Lorca
photo: Steve DiBartolomeo
This was a rehearsal for Ainadamar, an opera by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, which Opera Parallèle is presenting late this week at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. I must admit to not knowing the composer or his work, a testament to my own reclusiveness in the last twenty years or so: Ainadamar has a long and respectable performing history; its recording won two Grammy awards; and Golijov has been commissioned for another opera by the Metropolitan. I found the rehearsal persuasive: this looks like an opera that has to be seen.
The young man was the stage director, Brian Staufenbiel, who quickly described the physical structure of the staging, quite absent in this rehearsal: two horizontal planes or stages, one above the other, configured side by side on a single floor this evening. He introduced the general theme of the opera, the confrontation of the poet Federico García Lorca (and his muse Margarita Xirgu) with the fascist regime during the Spanish Civil War. In performance there will be supertitles in English, but at rehearsal we heard only Spanish, and the boxy acoustics of this ballroom made it difficult to understand more than generally what was actually being said (sung).
But three things were clear. First, the music is both interesting and beautiful, even in piano reduction. (A glance at the score shows brittle, resourceful use of rather a large theater orchestra.) Second, the dramatic content is powerful, its issues of individual and society, and the political and too often violent nature of their intersection, still all too relevant. (The librettist of Ainadamar is David Henry Hwang, well known for M. Butterfly and, more recently, Chinglish; a writer well qualified to portray cultural and political collision.)
Third, this performing group is gifted, disciplined, intense, and completely dedicated to its own role, a role analogous to that emerging from the social forces at the heart of the story of Ainadamar. They negotiate between Golijov's score and the audience, equally responsible to each, clarifying the artistic issues, loyal to the composer, respectful of the audience.
I was very much impressed with the singing we heard. Mezzosoprano Lisa Chavez brings a dark beauty, vocally and physically, to the role of Lorca. The sopranos Marnie Breckenridge and Maya Kherani were similarly even in range, accurate in pitch, and compelling in tonal beauty, and the John Bischoff sounded sympathetic and solid.
Representing the Spanish people, apparently, are Flamenco elements composed into the score and the production. Here I thought Jesus Montoya a particularly expressive and artful tenor: he's sung the role in European productions, and brings authority to this production — while working with an easy and practical cooperation with Staufenbiel's direction and, especially I thought, Paiement's intelligent, sympathetic, and very practical musical authority.
(There will also be three dance interludes, performed by an ensemble led by the Flamenco performer La Tania; they were not included in this rehearsal.)
The choruses work responsively and sound effective. Nakagoshi's contribution, at the rehearsal piano, was a joy to behold, quick and resourceful, always musical, always helpful — and, as seemed to be true of everyone else involved, self-effacing, respectful, cooperative.
I hadn't originally planned on seeing the opera itself, for various personal reasons; but find two reasons to change my mind. One is the interest in thinking of this opera after having recently seen Einstein on the Beach and Shostakovich's opera Nose: like Ainadamar, they are "about" individual and society, politics and history, and are contemporary reflections on significant aspects of the century we have recently lived through.
The other, though, is the beauty of the score, and of the performance this team is bringing to it, judging by the rehearsal we saw a few days ago.*
• Osvaldo Golijov and David Henry Hwang: Ainadamar. Opera Parallèle; Nicole Paiement conducting, Brian Staufenbiel directing; with Marnie Breckenridge, Lisa Chavez, Maya Kherani, John Bischoff, Jesus Montoya, Andres Ramirez, Ryan Bradford, members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and members of the SFCM New Music Ensemble.*A third reason is a new-found interest in this controversial composer, whose (current, February 2013) Wikipedia biography raises some points worth considering for what they reveal of current musical economics, politics, and ethics.
At Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts’ Lam Research Theater, San Francisco; 8 p.m. February 15 and 16; 2 p.m. February 17.