Portland becomes a hot city for opera

A wide range of companies is taking chances in repertoire and bold approaches. It's paying off in some indelible performances and young audiences. Here's a survey of the past year's highlights.
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Angela Niederloh as Cinderella in Portland Opera's <i>La Cenerentola</i>. (Cory Weaver)

A wide range of companies is taking chances in repertoire and bold approaches. It's paying off in some indelible performances and young audiences. Here's a survey of the past year's highlights.

First time out, it was gin with Gounod. A few months later, mid-summer: Bizet and rum. And in the fall? Donizetti and a cosmo.

No, I wasn't downing operatically inclined drinks at some swanky patron's party for Portland Pearl District habitués. It was Friday night, and I was interested in hearing what all the buzz surrounding a new Portland opera company was about. I squeezed into the Someday Lounge. The tightly packed crowd in this high-ceilinged, low-lit Chinatown venue was conspicuously young and rowdy, in low-rise jeans and graphic tees. IDs checked, hands stamped, drink in hand, they were ready to hear some arias.

Across town at the Keller Auditorium, same weekend. Dressed and suited for expensive eyes, the mass of opera patrons shuffled past tuxedoed elder ushers. It's a sold-out house; elbowing your way through the overflow Keller lobby seems like the only possible way to reach the bar (no mid-performance drinks allowed here though, damn).

A typical weekend in Portland? Increasingly, yes. As the city's choice classical music offerings continue to grow, opera is emerging - and this may be surprising - as the hot-ticket cultural attraction in town. Where chamber music and symphony programs in the Portland scene struggle to generate real buzz or attract new and diverse audiences, opera sprints ahead of the pack.

And under the leadership of two spirited artistic directors, Portland is emerging as an opera market to keep your eyes and ears on. There's the institutional glamour of big-shouldered Portland Opera and the indie ingenuity of scrappy young Opera Theater Oregon. Add in the occasional opera offerings from Third Angle New Music, composer David Schiff (whose opera, Gimpel the Fool, rated an enthusiastic recent review in Opera News), Portland State University's annual production, and opera endeavors as far afield as Eugene (Eugene Opera, University of Oregon) and Astoria (Cascadia Academy, offering two Handel operas in 2008), and it's clear that Oregon is hungry for opera.

Five years ago this robust Portland opera scene would have been unthinkable. The city's flagship company, Portland Opera, was undergoing a major transition in artistic leadership. Several attempts at starting a smaller, more experimental opera troupe had come and gone. Repertoire offerings were stagnant, and administrators report audiences were shrinking.

Christopher Mattaliano's arrival as Portland Opera's new General Director in July of 2003 signaled a first major shift in the landscape. Mattaliano began to program major 20th century opera previously neglected by the company: Kurt Weill's Street Scene, for instance, or the chamber operas of Benjamin Britten, performed by the company's ambitious new Young Artist program for emerging opera singers. And he had the vision to involve Portland Opera in a new national co-production of John Adams' seminal 20th century masterwork, Nixon in China, a production still being talked about today.

Audiences are responding to Mattaliano's mix of standard and nontraditional rep. Subscriptions increased 10 percent from the 2005-06 to 2006-07 seasons, and two of the company's four mainstage operas in 2006-07 sold out completely. The company's success has attracted a record $2.1 million three-year grant from the James and Marion Miller Foundation, and a sizable donation from the Early family.

Some are hoping that Mattaliano will take more chances like Nixon. If he's looking for innovative inspiration, he need only check out Katie Taylor's rambunctious Opera Theater Oregon.

As Portland's scrappy young opera-misfits collective, OTO is redefining the opera experience for a new generation of live performance fans in Portland. They're doing it their own hip and highly unorthodox style, and audiences are responding to what have become must-see events in Portland's increasingly crowded classical calendar.

A recent OTO performance at the Someday Lounge was called Muscle-Max, a new English adaptation of Gaetano Donizetti's lithe and lively L'elisir d'amore. OTO Artistic Director Katie Taylor - an accomplished singer turned opera impresario - was bored with what she calls "dumb characters" in the opera. So she updated the setting, rewrote the libretto in 1980s-era American-ese, and punched up the story. Nemorino became a hot-dog jockey in a 1980s suburban mall; his much-admired Adina sported sky-high bangs and sporty leg warmers. "Steve" Belcore led a men's dance aerobics team in outrageous callisthenic routines. The orchestra consisted of violin, percussion, and a vaguely in-tune upright piano.

As unsatisfactory as I found the purely musical qualities of the performance, one thing was unmistakable: this was an ambitious and crafty ensemble of singers doing important work. I didn't love everything I heard or saw onstage. But it was risky, heartfelt, and deliriously over the top.

The second weekend of OTO's Muscle-Max at the Someday (sold out), Portland Opera was in full bel canto swing, too, opening a new production, created by the company, of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the cavernous Keller Auditorium. Although this version of the Cinderella story ultimately fell short on fairy-tale magic, Portland-reared mezzo Angela Niederloh rose from the ashes with a superlatively sung performance that could stand on any American opera stage. Niederloh trained at Portland State and went on to win the national MetOpera Council auditions. She's had a stop and start career since then, but Mattaliano believes in her and he was wise to offer a rising homegrown opera singer her own vehicle. She's certainly earned it.

Two of the most moving opera productions I've seen anywhere have happened right here in Portland.

The first was Portland Opera's mounting of Christopher Alden's spare, emotionally raw staging of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, last March. It was 140 intermission-less minutes of screw-turning intensity and exquisitely dramatic singing. Richard Paul Fink (the Dutchman) and Elizabeth Byrne (Senta) gave two of the best-sung, fully embodied opera performances I've ever seen. As prepared by chorusmaster Robert Ainsley, the men's chorus outdid themselves, and the orchestra played their hearts out for guest conductor David Parry.

Opera Theater Oregon's Carmen, an abridged performance of Bizet's evergreen cut to 70 minutes and performed by fresh-faced young singers, was another indelible performance. As the singers passionately delivered the words and music of Bizet's opera, the 1930 Cecil B. DeMille silent film version of the work flashed on a screen upstage. Portland mezzo Beth Madsen Bradford delivered a sly, well-sung Carmen with point and thrust, and without resorting to the typical swivel-hipped caricature. The audience roared its approval. Taylor says the show will return early in 2008.

The best news from these Portland's opera companies, in the region's notoriously tight-fisted philanthropic landscape, may be this: Both companies are financially breaking even. Portland Opera is doing this on a $5 million annual budget, and it has been in the black for nine out of 10 seasons. (Seattle Opera's budget, by comparison, is around $20 million.) OTO manages on its annual shoestring of much less than six figures. It turns out producing great work in Portland is well rewarded after all.


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