The Perseid meteor showers just rocked Rooster State Park. One after another, every thirty seconds or so, bright gliding jolts of universal perspective pass above our heads to confound and conflate science and magic. The Perseids arrive the same time each year as predictable celestial fireworks and always a part of my summer trip to Portland, Oregon.
With yummy tap water, verdant hikes, niche food culture, and a four story book store Portland has a European casualness with a post-punk fervor for tattoos. Throw in some great coffee and opera and what else could one want to make the city feel like home.
Joining me for the opera is my world-traveling photographer cousin who’s taste for music stretches from Mozart to the Mountain Goats. By day she dons the superhero cape of a children’s Occupational Therapist. Her husband who has equally great taste in music (though we disagree on Queensryche) unfortunately can’t join us for this one, but is around for a fun afternoon of coffee hunting.
My favorite coffee spots in Portland are Coava, Stumptown, and CaseStudy; but today we try something new and drive over the Morrison bridge on a coffee lark to Proud Mary’s Cafe. Word is they serve a ten dollar cup of coffee and I need to taste what merits this outrageous sum.
A barista carries equal parts expertise and hustle to help us choose our bean preference. I choose mine from a farm in East Java, Indonesia and am handed a card that describes its origin and back story. After reading I can’t help but conclude that this bean has more pedigree than I do and I probably don’t deserve it. She grinds these precious seeds into a small tin and brings them back for us to smell. The aroma is of earth and mushroom. She prepares then pours hot water over top that drips a caramel colored ambrosia into a steamy clear glass below. The taste is wildly different from the smell and brings forward flavors of apricot and lingering aftertastes of licorice and currants. Delicious! Like many high quality flavors there is a distinctive beginning, middle, and finish to savor. Now I just need to change careers so I can afford one every morning.
The coffee pairs incredibly well with the following non sequitur; opera in Portland. Particularly Christopher Mattaliano’s new company Orpheus PDX who provide their own intimate and elevated opera experience.* In his own words, “Everyone belongs here—no matter who you are, how you identify, or how you dress. At our performances we are one community, coming together to experience this incredible art form.”
Yay Portland and yah opera! Now, let’s get ready to hear some Mozart.
I’m thrilled, yet I can’t help but wonder though if today’s performance of The Royal Shepherd will sound ‘lesser’ somehow because Mozart was just 19 when he wrote it. Will there be signs of teenage naïveté to bring the notion of “genius” into question. Maybe the “Mozart for Babies” generation would have been better off as “Shostakovich babies?” My doubt is not unfounded. The Royal Shepherd does sound simple and trite at times, but then again, Mozart always does – until he doesn’t. His piano concertos for example begin so sparsely that I start to think shucks maybe I should be a composer too. But fortunately for the music loving world, before I can buy composition paper, there’s a shift, a gradual interweaving around his test-the-water diatonic simplicity. Notes begin to stretch, squeeze, and invert toward a complexity so sensuous that without exaggeration (encore) without exaggeration takes me into a space of soaring exaltation. Like ending up in Hawaii not remembering the planes, trains, and automobiles that got me there.
Without much more profundity or suspense, l can tell you; Mozart at 19 is great and he brilliantly elevates the rigid opera-seria style of the 1700’s into the realm of the sublime.
Beyond Mozarts masterful reshuffling of every-good-boy-does-fine. The vocal dynamics also soar. In the clouds, above the instrumentation, they are positively acrobatic. His music is like a ‘feeling amplifier’ for the libretto by Piestro Metastasio, already rich in humanity and heart. Todays conductor Nicholas Fox says, “A performance of Il Re Pastore is more than merely a curiosity; more than the interesting venture of the operatic completist wanting to shine a light on an obscure corner of musical antiquity. On the contrary, a performance of Il Re Pastore is a major event, for it is a glimpse into the wondrous adolescence of the single greatest musical dramatist who has ever graced the Earth.”
To hear Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a small city on the west coast of the United States 250 years on speaks to the profundity of art and the human spirit. It is a wondrous hear.
I close my eyes. Mozart’s galloping journey of sound begins. The overture to The Royal Shephard parallels the earlier smell of coffee grounds to offer an exhillerating tease of joy and excitement for what’s to follow. I still can’t believe he is only 19. By time I open my eyes my cousin and I are fully transported to the pan-Mediterranean world that has been hiding just behind the curtain where we find our two stars for the evening, fallen to earth.
Holly Flack and Katherine Whyte are so convincing in their love that I can’t help but wonder if maybe they are a real couple off stage like Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak. The connection between them glues everything together and the nearly full audience erupts after each cadenza. I enjoy the intimate detail of combing the wool from their farm. It’s so much fun and the singing is so great… but… if I’m being honest… I also have a very distracting neighbor on my other side.
For the entire first act my attention is divided by the woman beside me who is fervently caressing herself. At first I believe she must be dealing with some heavy anxiety. knowing anxiety personally for the uncomfortable bully it can be, I feel a really deep sympathy for her. The increasing rigor to her self-care though gives me pause and as her movements become more focused and frankly more provocative I conclude she’s more likely on a drug like Molly, either that or she is truly appreciating Mozart like no one else has before. I lose all sympathy for her after she serendipitously begins to film some of the show. !@#$ that. I resign to move my seat for Act II if she returns, but being in such a state, she does not.
Following the intermission her seat is wonderfully empty and there are no interruptions during Act II for the hit of the opera “L’amero,” where Aminta professes her love for Elisa. It’s sung with gorgeous affection.
The orchestra players are on point, but anything from 1775 is dominated by the voice like above. It is a recatative style where along with harpsicordal sections, the orchestra functions mostly as a sympathetic friend for the singers, an amplifier to their emotions. That being said it is all conducted with a fine touch. Mattaliano too is a builder and bringer of people together and I love that he has mixed in two younger players for this professional experience, I mean why not, Mozart wrote his first opera at 11, so bravo to these young players for rising to the expecation!
Surprises abound. Madeline Ross is here.
Her and Brandon Michael also show great chemistry today. Madeline really gets her voice in the rafters and I’m so excited to see her again. She has her own opera company named Renegade Opera. Last year not only did we see them do a fun production of Mozart’s la clemenza di Tito, but I also got to perform in it; kinda.
Both The Shepherd and Tito have interesting political commentary and both productions find ways to further promote the progress and fight of our own times for greater democracy and equality. Both operas promote benevolent and compassionate and generous leaders who put the good of the people above their own interests.
I really am thrilled to see Madeline on stage with Orpheus PDX. I just feel like both companies are advocating for the best of what opera has to bring to an audience and to Portland. Their passion for the potential of opera to connect with audiences comes across enthusiastically and I’m really excited to see them mingling.
The Royal Shepherd delivers on Matalliano’s promise of, “presenting beautiful music, beautifully sung.” I’ll add, with a sensitivity to build a bridge between our time and the time of Mozart in a way that speaks to a contemporary audience.
Portland is a perfect town for opera and a perfect town for me to find a cafe’ and reflect. My head is in the stars. Before the curtain closes Allesandro gives everyone a joyous end that messages ‘love IS love’, and like the librettist Metastasio wrote for Il Re Pasture, ‘A heart cannot resist love.’
So What’s The Royal Shepard all about?“Opera is when a tenor and a soprano want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.” George Bernard Shaw. In The Royal Shepard the Shepard Elisa is unknowingly the heir to the throne, but was sent to grow up with another family. She is deeply in love with Aminta* Funnily after a DNA test Allesandro’s people recognize her as the heir to the kingdom. Sadly, she is encouraged to marry someone else. She wrestles with the conflict of her true love and her duty to the people of her country. Must she give up love to be a good king? Once Allesandro realizes that he is breaking up to couples in love, he marries everyone to the love of their choice and all ends happily.
Notes on the Production:
Alessandro: Omar Najmi
Aminta: Katherine Whyte
Elisa: Holly Flack
Tamiri: Madeline Ross
Agenore: Brandon Michael
Conductor: Nicholas Fox
Director: Dan Rigazzi
Set Design: Peter Ksander
Costume Design: Sydney Dufka
Lighting Design: Connie Yun
*Orpheus Pdx mission is to offer high quality opera at a manageable scale to bring one classic and one contemporary opera a year that goes deeply inward with a deep bench of talent.
*We stayed for the talk afterward and I loved the last question from a young college student who asked about the state of opera and how to get the word out there that opera is awesome… The stage was full of ambassadors: I liked Omar Najmi’s anecdote about embracing the awkward moments when people say, ‘sing something for me.’ And rather than walk away from it to take on the role of ambassador and bring them on board and de-stigmatize the operatic voice. Throughout writing about these operas it’s been a constant interest of mine this question. My naive hope is that someone would read my enthusiasm and think, ‘maybe I’ll give opera a try,’ but in this world there are so many distractions and opera has a stigma that feels like a closed door unless someone personally opens it up. I’m proud to say I’ve taken many people to their first opera.
A real curiosity is not Mozarts compositional maturity at such a young age, but his not letting go of it and holding on to the ascending optimism and momentum over time. That wry smile will surface again and again right up to The Magic Flute 16 years later.
Orpheus PDX/Portland State College