Making a Scene: New MO for MAW Opera Event

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 28, 2018
Los Angeles-based director and designer James Darrah

Come Saturday and Monday, opera will be busting out all over the place at Miraflores. Rather than staging OperaFest – nee Opera Scenes – in its entirety in the cozy confines of Hahn Hall, where the Music Academy of the West (MAW) vocal Fellows are normally accompanied only by a single pianist, vignettes will be “staged” all around the picturesque seaside campus of the Music Academy of the West. 

During the event’s first half, small scenes, arias, and ensembles will be performed in unusual locations in and around the summer festival’s main building, including the gardens and other outdoor spaces. And it will be the audience’s job to move from location to location to take in the offerings.

But that’s not the only difference with this year’s OperaFest. James Darrah – the ambitious Los Angeles-based director and designer who has taken both theater and opera down unexpected new avenues, including installations, and who helmed the acclaimed world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s operatic adaptation of Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves for Opera Philadelphia and the Prototype Festival in New York two years ago before directing a full-scale production of The Elixir of Love for MAW last summer – has come up with an ultra-modern program, including the Love scene and duet from Act One of Waves, plus the final scene, Ma’s aria, end, from Mazzoli’s Proving Up, her latest work, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, which is being heard for the first time on the West Coast after its world premiere this past January at the Kennedy Center.

Also on tap are the otherworldly Floats The Roving Nebula scene from Ellen Reid’s Hopscotch, which was originally performed by the experimental opera company the Industry in cars on the streets of L.A. and will take place in a special outdoor setting here too. Reid will be in residence with the MAW Fellows for the event, a boon since her piece is performed with only multiple speakers and electronics and voice – with no piano or orchestra accompaniment.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Dove’sone-act opera L’Atra Euridice (The Other Euridice) will be performed in full over the course of the evening with special instrumental Fellow guests, as will the entire one-act opera A Hand of Bridge by Samuel Barber. Rounding out the pre-intermission set is the Act Two excerpt “Jamais d’amour je ne jouirai” from Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour D’Loin. Not coincidentally, several were written in the 2000s by composers who are still alive, and four of the works are by women. Sara Widzer and Darrah are splitting up directing duties for the evening’s initial offerings.

Following the “Opera Takeover” that comprises Act I of the annual offering, OperaFest returns to a more traditional venue back at Hahn Hall for a new fully staged production (directed and designed by Peabody Southwell) of Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-infused one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, in its entirety as part of the centennial celebration of the famed American composer and conductor. But there’s even a twist in that presentation as the singers will be accompanied by small instrumental ensemble conducted by Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony music director Edwin Outwater, rather than a single pianist.

Pretty exciting stuff. Even better news, as of press time, tickets were still available for both the 2 pm performance on Saturday, June 30, and the 7 pm show on Monday, July 2. But note: while the audience will experience a wide range of narratives and compositions over the course of the first hour, there will be separate groups, each of which is guaranteed a unique and slightly varied experience. So, you might want to attend both shows.

Meanwhile, hopefully Darrah is saving something enticing for later as the adventurous director will stick around to stage MAW’s annual operatic centerpiece, a new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, with the Fellows-powered Academy Festival Orchestra led by James Conlon, the Grammy Award-winning music director of Los Angeles Opera, who will be making his own exciting festival debut with the new production at the Granada on August 3 & 5.

Book it: Clev-Rev Streams Online

The second annual Music Academy of the West Classical Evolution/Revolution Conference, which took place at Hahn Hall last Friday, June 22, was a resounding success, with increased attendance and lots of fascinating panels that including speakers from such organizations as the U.S. Dept. of State, Disney, Sonos, NPR, Americans For the Arts, Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, London’s Southbank Centre, and many more covering a wide variety of topics and issues facing classical musicians and executives today.

But if you decided not to take a day off from work to indulge in the talk-fest, fear not: the event streamed live on MAW’s Facebook page ( and is still available for viewing at your leisure. There weren’t any Jerry Springer-style chair-throwing incidents, but the panels offered lots of food for thought and grist for the artist’s mill.

Where Have All the Alumni Gone?

Not all that long ago, repeaters formed a sizable percentage of the Fellow population, and it wasn’t unusual for more than one violinist or pianist to run up against MAW’s three-summer limitation of festival participation. No more. There’s been a decline in alumni attendance over the past few years, reaching what appears to be a new low this summer, with by our count only 24 of 120 Fellows, or 20 percent, representing returnees, and just a handful are back for a third go-round.

Is this indicative of an extra effort toward exclusivity? A conscious choice to cut back on alumni to let others ambitious and talented young musicians sample the program? A determined decision to find fresh blood?

Nope. None of the above. At least not according to Patrick Posey, MAW’s vice president for Artistic Planning and Educational Programs. Asked about the numbers via email, Posey had a simple response: “They all got jobs!”

The cryptic remark wasn’t even tongue-in-cheek, but more a reality check about the ever-increasing quality of the Fellows who matriculate each summer to what has become one of the nation’s, if not the world’s, most coveted warm-weather festival. Further proof showed up just this past Monday when word came that current Fellow (and 2017 alumni) William Welter just won the principal oboe position at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Welter was one of the MAW/New York Philharmonic partnership Zarin Mehta Fellows earlier this year and has been studying recently with faculty artist Eugene Izotov, who formerly held the same position in Chicago, and, coincidentally, is featured in this week’s season-opening Music Academy Festival Artist Series concert at the Lobero (more details below).

This Week at the Music Academy

Thursday, June 28: Mark H. Lawrence, the former principal trombone of the San Francisco Symphony for 34 years, curates and conducts MAW’s annual BrassFest, featuring hallmarks of the brass repertoire a variety of genres played by small and large ensembles, some including percussion. The program spans the centuries from Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheeba to two of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, to Street Song by Michael Tilson Thomas and Bruce Broughton’s Music from Silverado. Also of note: selections from Carl Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite (Hahn Hall; 7:30 pm; $10 to $25).

Friday, June 29: Picnic Concerts – the evening hodgepodge of chamber music offerings performed by fellow ensembles or soloists – have perennially been so popular that it was next to impossible to secure single tickets for an event after the season started. No longer, apparently. At press time, we counted about two dozen ducats still for sale for tonight’s event online, so snap ’em up, pack up the picnic basket for dining al fresco on campus, and get ready to marvel as the Fellows share their talents in solos, duets, trios, quartets, and more (Hahn Hall; 7:30 pm; $10 to $40).

Saturday, June 30: Prefer your chamber music downtown? No problem. MAW’s Community Chamber Concerts at Santa Barbara Public Library consist of similar repertoire to their cousin, the Picnic Concert. And while tickets are no longer offered on a first-come, first-served basis, they’re also available either online or at the door, and still for free. The season’s first show takes place 1 pm today at the Faulkner Gallery…. OperaFest (see above)… AFO there! Yes, it’s time for MAW’s first Academy Festival Orchestra concert of the summer, once again conducted by the great teacher Larry Rachleff, who has been handling the first time out for the Fellows for seemingly forever (in actuality about a decade). We’ll be shocked if you’re not surprised at how tight and professional the players sound after knowing each other for less than two weeks. The program? Oh, yeah. That’s not too shabby either: Berlioz’ Le corsaire, Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, Suite No. 2, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (Granada Theater; 7:30 pm; $10 to $100).

Tuesday, July 3: Don’t blame Eugene Izotov if he skips the July 4 parties and fireworks displays on Wednesday. After all, the oboist is doing double duty during the second Music Academy Festival Artist Series concert at the Lobero tonight, performing in both Poulenc’s concert-opening Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano and closing out the concert with Serenade for Winds, No. 11, as Fellows are paired with faculty members to round out the octet for Mozart’s beauty. On the other hand, Izotov might have it easy compared to Nico Abondolo, who is once again taking on Tom Johnson’s aptly named “Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass”, a work that requires self-referential talking while performing the absurdly challenging passages, a work that Abondolo likes to play at MAW, he once told me, about once a decade. (Has it really been that long?) It’s truly a wonder to witness. Also on the program: The Pendericki Clarinet Quartet, with guest violinist Martin Beaver joining regular faculty artists (7:30 pm; $10 to $46).


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