This Thursday marks the launch of O18, the second edition of Opera Philadelphia’s annual season-opening festival. Comprising seven operatic happenings at multiple citywide venues – two world premieres, two new productions, a two-part young artist showcase, a three-part cabaret event, and a free open-air HD screening in the beloved “Opera on the Mall” series – this game-changing ten-day immersion once again promises to transform the City of Brotherly Love into an urban stage, bringing diverse audiences together through the shared experience of opera (Sep 20-30). By providing thought-provoking subject matter, cutting-edge takes on the classics, and the chance for extraordinary artists to create their most imaginative work, O18 has already generated nationwide buzz, underscoring Opera Philadelphia’s status as “one of the most creative and ambitious companies in this country” (New York Times), and prompting San Francisco Classical Voice to dub it “the HBO of the opera world.”
O18 launches on the eve of World Alzheimer’s Day with the world premiere of Sky on Swings (Sep 20–29). An unflinching yet uplifting exploration of Alzheimer’s disease from the creative team behind O17’s I Have No Stories to Tell You, the new chamber opera finds fleeting beauty in memory loss, pairing the “hauntingly lovely and deeply personal” music of Lembit Beecher (San Francisco Chronicle) with a profoundly sensitive libretto from Hannah Moscovitch, “Canada’s hottest young playwright” (Globe and Mail). Starring mezzo-sopranos Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade, “one of America’s finest artists and singers” (New York Times), Sky on Swings is perhaps the only opera to be headlined by two mature female vocalists. It makes its debut at the intimate Perelman Theater in an original production by celebrated stage director Joanna Settle, under the baton of On Site Opera’s Geoffrey McDonald. The production coincides with World Alzheimer’s Month, an international campaign mounted each September to raise awareness and challenge the stigma that surrounds dementia.
See Beecher, Moscovitch and Settle discuss their new work over drinks in “An Opera Walks Into a Bar: Sky on Swings.” To anchor the company’s year-round Opera at the Academy series, Opera Philadelphia presents a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor (Sep 21-30), created in collaboration with the Vienna State Opera by Laurent Pelly, named Best Director at the 2016 International Opera Awards. Back on the company stage for the first time in more than two decades, Donizetti’s bel canto classic now features a crucial change of orchestration, with a glass harmonica, as the composer originally intended, to illustrate its heroine’s madness. Coloratura soprano Brenda Rae, whose account of the title role has been called “a consummate performance combining vocal agility, physical grace and stylistic nuance” (Santa Fe Reporter), takes center stage; baritone Troy Cook brings his “dynamic elegance” (Opera News) to the role of her brother, Enrico; tenor Michael Spyres, known for his “limitless grace and vocal purity” (The Guardian), makes his company debut as Edgardo; and 2018 Richard Tucker Award winning bass-baritone Christian Van Horn makes his company debut as Raimondo. Music Director Corrado Rovaris – a master of the Donizetti tradition and a native, like the composer, of Bergamo, Italy – leads the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus. After making its debut in Philadelphia, the production travels to Vienna next year, testifying to Opera Philadelphia’s strong presence on the international opera scene.
The second new production of O18 is Ne Quittez Pas, a site-specific reimagining of Poulenc’s 1958 monodrama La voix humaine, based on Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name (Sep 22-30). Presented at Philadelphia’s Theater of Living Arts, the new production is the creation of James Darrah, whose world premiere staging of Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves was a runaway success for Opera Philadelphia, scoring an International Opera Award nomination and winning Best New Opera for 2016 from the Music Critics Association of North America. Darrah’s unique new take on Poulenc’s work expands the one-act monologue into an evening-length event by adding a prologue of Poulenc art songs and additional poetry to offer insight into the gentleman at the other end of La voix humaine’s one-sided telephone conversation. Grammy Award-winning powerhouse soprano Patricia Racette stars in the original monodrama’s sole role, with baritone Edward Nelson, whose performances have been described as “compelling from start to finish” (San Francisco Classical Voice), making his house debut in the prologue. Also making his company debut as the production’s music director and pianist is Christopher Allen, winner of the 2017 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award and “one of the fastest-rising podium stars in North America” (Opera News).
Opera meets art, fashion, dance and film at the world premiere of Glass Handel (Sep 22, 23 & 30), an immersive, multidisciplinary, and boundary-breaking operatic installation headlined and created by American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo – “a bona-fide star” (New Yorker) – in collaboration with producer Cath Brittan and avant-garde fashion/art company Visionaire. The new work will be staged in the Annenberg Court of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, home to O17’s The Wake World, where Costanzo will sing music by Baroque master Handel and living legend Philip Glass, while audience members are taken on different paths through the expansive performance space. There they will discover a visual feast, with live painting on a giant canvas by fine artist George Condo; live dance from ballet dancers David Hallberg, Patricia Delgado, and Ricky Ubeda, as choreographed by New York City Ballet’s 2018 Tony Award-winner Justin Peck; costumes by Raf Simons, Chief Creative Officer of Calvin Klein; and operatic music videos by nine filmmakers ranging from Mark Romanek, best-known for his collaborations with Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, and Taylor Swift, to Merchant Ivory’s James Ivory, winner of a 2018 Academy Award.
Philadelphia’s Theatre of Living Arts also hosts Queens of the Night (Sep 24, 25 & 28), a three-night, three-part cabaret takeover by world-famous tenor Blythely Oratonio, aka Opera News Award-winning mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, and Martha Graham Cracker, “the city’s most popular (not to mention tallest and hairiest) drag queen” (Philly Voice), aka Dito van Reigersberg. The first night, Blythely After Hours, finds Blythe’s alter ego swooning over Martha’s hirsute charms, and seeking friends’ help to transform himself into the rock-god of her dreams. The second, Fauréplay, sees Martha’s assistants help transform her into a classical diva for her first date with Blythely. The third night brings a reprise of Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night, Opera Philadelphia’s 2017 cabaret-play spectacular, of which the Philadelphia Inquirer marveled: “For a night, anyway, Philadelphia managed to put what seemed like one of everyone into a single room – gay, straight, young, slacker, and establishment types – and the world was a loving, funny place.” Written and directed by John Jarboe (Bearded Ladies Cabaret), Dito & Aeneas features costumes by Machine Dazzle, whose elaborate designs have been described as “gaudy, glittery, and gorgeously subversive” (New York Times). Special guests will include Lucia’s Brenda Rae, Ne Quittez Pas’s Patricia Racette, Fred Astaire Award-nominee Virgil “Lil O” Gadson, and Tony Award-nominee Mx. Justin Vivian Bond.
One year after its sold-out world premiere, We Shall Not Be Moved – “a rare work in the genre to be created by artists of color” (New York Times) – comes home to Philadelphia. When it first played to seven sold-out audiences at O17, this timely, Philadelphia-based opera – a company commission from Daniel Bernard Roumain, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Bill T. Jones – was a hit with audiences and critics alike and went on to find relevance with the wider international community at its New York and European debuts. As Opera News noted, with its “compelling score utilizing classical, jazz, music theater, hip-hop and dance music vocabulary,” We Shall Not Be Moved “succeeds on the level of art and not just polemic.” Now, thanks in part to a successful crowdfunding campaign, Opera Philadelphia is able to invite the entire local community to a free outdoor HD screening of the opera at the company’s eighth annual “Opera on the Mall” event (Sep 29). To date, the series has attracted nearly 30,000 opera fans and newcomers to Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, in the shadow of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The setting, in the birthplace of our nation, magnifies one of the central questions posed by We Shall Not Be Moved, which asks: “For whom America the beautiful?”
Finally, to complete the O18 lineup, Opera Philadelphia presents tomorrow’s stars on stage today in two “Fridays at Field” (Sep 21 & 28), when members of the company’s Emerging Artists Program from the Curtis Institute of Music perform in recital at the historic and intimate Field Concert Hall. Soprano Ashley Robillard, mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller, and collaborative pianist Grant Loehnig take listeners first on a musical journey through Europe and then on an exploration of American art song.