Opera, Outdoors and Out of the Box

By Steven Libowitz   |   April 7, 2021

Opera director Josh Shaw has never been one to follow conventions. After setting aside a career as a tenor (his resume includes appearing at the now-defunct “Opera Under the Stars” series at the Arts and Letters Café in the Sullivan Goss Gallery back in 2010), he co-founded Pacific Opera Project a decade ago to provide L.A. residents and singers innovative, yet high-quality opera at affordable prices (“Good opera doesn’t have to cost a million bucks,” he says). As artistic director, Shaw has directed and designed every production in the company’s history, with such outside-the-box fare as his molding of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to fit in the world of 1980s video games, reimagining the composer’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” as an episode of Star Trek, and fashioning a Wild West setting for Lehár’s “The Merry Widow.”

So, it came as no surprise that Shaw and POP found a way during the late fall of the pandemic to “do what we do for our audiences and our lives rather than sitting home watching Netflix” by producing three outdoor “drive-in” operas in the parking lot at the Camarillo United Methodist Church in Ventura County, kicking off with his modern-Mozart adaptation dubbed “COVID Fan Tutte” that starred three real-life couples who all quarantined together throughout the run.

Now, Shaw – who stage-directed Opera Santa Barbara’s well-received productions of The Barber of Seville (2017) and Doctor Miracle (2018) at the Granada – will once again visit Ventura as he stages Donizetti’s Don Pasquale as the kick-off of the new season of Concerts in Your Car at the Ventura County Fairgrounds at Seaside Park, where OSB produced Car-men, a live drive-in opera, last December. 

Rising soprano and Santa Barbara native Jana McIntyre, bass Andrew Potter, and tenor Matthew Grills are all making their OSB debuts, joined by former OSB Studio Artist baritone Efraín Solís in the bel canto masterpiece by the composer of The Elixir of Love, Lucia di Lammermoor, and many other blockbuster opera house hits. OSB’s Artistic and General Director Kostis Protopapas conducts the single performance at 7:30 pm on Saturday, April 10, that features a visual light show and multimedia entertainment across jumbo video screens with sound available over FM radio. (The opera will be sung in Italian with English translations projected on screen. Visit www.operasb.org for tickets and more information.)

Given that doing something completely straightforward would-be anathema to Shaw, the director has a few tricks up his sleeve, including setting Don Pasquale in the Santa Barbara silent film business of the early 1920s where the title character is a movie mogul. He talked about his approach to the outdoor opportunity over the phone last week. 

Q. You seem to be fearless in bringing new ideas to an old art form. What informs your choices? 

A. I always look at what is the shortest route between whatever opera we’re doing and the common person off the street – how can I get them to care about coming to an opera when maybe it’s the last thing they ever thought they would do. I want to reach new people with opera so I’m always trying to always find that hook to get new people in the door. Luckily it seems once they come once, they really like it enough to at least give it a shot when it might not be the hook that gets them in. 

Is that what drove your decision to set the show in 1920s Santa Barbara? 

I’m always looking for that connection to the local audience. At first, I was going to set it in the soap opera Santa Barbara, but I quickly decided there was too much I’d need to research, a year to get through all those episodes and that’d be very painful. I’m a sucker for that early period in film, and with the Flying A Studio having been based here, it was a natural. It’s a very simple plot of an older guy who has a lot of money that he doesn’t want to give to his nephew unless he marries the person, he tells him to marry. 

That worked to turn the Don into Donald as the head of the studio who’s not the big shot he once was because the talkies came along. So, I made (love interest) Norina an aspiring actress, which works really well. There’s even a reference to the convent because I try to throw in local things everywhere we can. Beyond that, it’s a great era for costuming. We’re having a lot of fun with it. 

We’ve got some 1920s choreography and dance, and lots of silly gags and slapstick bits, taking things from Charlie Chaplin (another local reference, as he built the Montecito Inn) and Buster Keaton and all those legends that were around during that time and trying to find places to put them in the show. I promise you’ll laugh.

How do you make sure it also appeals to traditional opera enthusiasts? 

First and foremost, the singing is fantastic. There are parts of this opera in particular where the music is the only thing to carry it. When we reach the love duets, there’s not going to be crazy shenanigans going on, just beautiful singing. There are full costumes and most of the stuff you expect from OSB at the Granada. 

How is it to be staging an opera for cars? 

Actually, it kind of goes back to the beginnings of opera when people sat in their own box and talked through the whole opera, barely paying attention sometimes because it was just the new thing to do. So, if you want, you can turn it up, be quiet, and listen to every note, or talk to your partner the whole time about whether you like the singer. Nobody can hear you, so it’s kind of cool. 


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