The LSU Opera is staging a celebration of American opera this weekend.
And why not? The United States is producing more contemporary opera than any other country, so the LSU Opera will stage scenes from five popular productions in the compilation show, “Opera NOW!,” which opens Friday, April 15, in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre.
“This is a time of abundance. Opera isn’t slowing down at all in the United States,” says Dugg McDonough, director of LSU Opera. “It’s an exciting time in American opera, and it doesn’t take away from the great European operas.”
“Opera NOW!” will open with a scene from Ricky Ian Gordon’s 2007 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” then moves to Gordon’s 2014 opera, “27,” which tells the story of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon for artists and writers.
Next up will be a vignette from John Musto’s 2008 opera congregation of characters from Edward Hopper’s paintings in “Later the Same Evening,” followed by Jake Heggie’s 2013 Holocaust-themed opera, “Out of Darkness — An Opera of Survival.” Heggie came to Baton Rouge last spring for a concert performance of his opera “Dead Man Walking.”
The program will wrap up with a vignette from Jennifer Higdon’s 2015 adaptation of Charles Frazier’s best-selling Civil War novel, “Cold Mountain.”
The set is designed to accommodate all of the vignettes, which will be played out in full costumes from each opera.
“The set is painted to look like an American flag, and we’ll have theater seats and an aisle over here for the Edward Hopper characters in John Musto’s piece,” McDonough says, walking across the stage before rehearsal. “Over there, we’ll have Gertrude Stein at her typewriter, and we’ll have Union and Confederate soldiers on stage for ‘Cold Mountain.’”
At one point, the stage will become the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz as the piece from Heggie’s opera explores three types of prisoners that would have been there — Jewish, political and homosexual.
“Heggie’s opera looks at these three prisoners, who weren’t in the same camp at the same time, and each of them wears a different symbol,” McDonough says. “The political prisoner wears an inverted red triangle, the Jewish prisoner wears a yellow Star of David and the homosexual prisoner wears a pink inverted triangle. I saw this opera, and the symbols play a prominent part in the story.”
McDonough purposely chose productions composed in the last decade for this opera round-up. The music in each is challenging, yet different from European operas.
“These composers are writing for their audiences,” McDonough says. “All of the subjects, except for the Holocaust opera, are American stories, and the Holocaust resonates with American audiences. These composers are not afraid to entertain. They’re not only providing beautiful music, but they’re also not stepping away from important social subjects.”
McDonough was granted permission by each of the composers to perform these vignettes.
“People ask me why we didn’t stage one of the complete operas, and the answer is easy — we couldn’t get the rights,” he says. “But it’s my hope to stage one of these operas in one of the coming seasons.”
And since LSU Opera is made up of students in the LSU School of Music, McDonough also sees this program as an enhancement to their education.
“This is an exciting time in American opera, and these are the operas that are being performed around the country,” McDonough says. “We want our students to have experience performing the great European operas, but the American operas, too.”
Follow Robin Miller on Twitter at @rmillerbr.