Opera Parallele Marries Weill & Poulenc

  • by Michael McDonagh
  • Friday April 25, 2014
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"Some people thought it was a bit inappropriate to write something light after the war," Opera Parallele music director Nicole Paiement notes. The subject? Gay French composer Francis Poulenc's first opera "Les Mamelles de Tiresias (The Breasts of Tiresias)," which he wrote in 1944. "Poulenc was a very vocal and outspoken individual who wrote about things he believed in," she continues, speaking rapidly and with enthusiasm. "It's extremely powerful dramatically."

Her director, Brian Staufenbiel, who conceived the Opera Parallele ensemble's latest show, has chosen to marry Poulenc's setting of Guillaume Apollinaire's 1918 play with German composer Kurt Weill's first collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, "Mahagonny Songspiel," which they wrote in 1927. It's a daring conceit and could make for a shaky marriage, but Paiement and Staufenbiel hope their take on the two pieces will work.

Their "Mahagonny" troupe will be seen traveling through the desert in search not of paradise or "the next whisky bottle," but of that now most precious commodity, water. The group hopes to find an audience for their performance of Poulenc's surreal satire, which Paiement says will be about the place "where art intersects with social issues." And how could it not? Brecht and Weill wrote their piece in the long shadow between "the war to end all wars" and the next one, with the economic devastation in Germany and especially Berlin all around them, and Poulenc wrote his opera when Paris was liberated from war.

His opera has a further contemporary ring. It's about the confusion of "sexual identities and overpopulation." A woman becomes a man, and her husband becomes a woman who gives birth to 40,049 babies in a single day.

Apollinaire's take on male/female identities/roles may be outre, but the atmosphere at the Sunday afternoon rehearsal at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center's big, squarish, high-ceilinged white room is serious. The 40-odd complement of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, a large female one, a smaller male one, plus soloists, have memorized their parts and seem to have them in their voices and bodies. Staufenbiel, standing next to and above Paiement, jumps down and around frequently, positioning his singing actors both for sound and look, and demonstrating gestures. He gets quick results, and the physicality of Poulenc's jazz-infused score, with its rapid changes of density and meter, seems to have inspired him to divide his choruses into massive blocs, with the soloists - soprano Rachel Schutz as Therese/Tiresias, and baritone Gabriel Preisser as her husband - sometimes standing in-between them.

Paiement focuses on diction and volume - "ce soir: don't say it so loudly" - and rhythmic precision. She's more than aided and abetted by pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, who makes loud or soft sounds in less than a nanosecond. His playing seems to lay bare the percussive character of the score.

"Mahagonny" inhabits a different yet complementary world, and it will be interesting to see how Staufenbiel, who's an often "busy" director, manages to capture its deceptive simplicity. It's a product of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity ) and Amerikanismus movements in the 1920s, and a nascent example of Brecht's ideas of epic theater, which Walter Benjamin has called "putting on a show." Staufenbiel's solutions here, like the colloquial walking back and forth, look apt and unforced, and his singers - tenor Thomas Glenn as Charlie, and baritone Daniel Cilli as Billy, who looks to have one big show-stopping moment - project their words with fervor and precision. Brecht requires those very German qualities of exactitude and control, which may be why Paiement says that his co-conspirator Weill "was not as much appreciated in his own country," though the severe political climate he had to weather before he emigrated (he was Jewish) surely had more to do with it.

The sounds from Paiement's pit band: Poulenc - big, irreverent, heartbreaking. Weill - acerbic, plain-spoken, sophisticated, and those clarinets. "O, moon of Alabama!"

Opera Parallele performs April 25-27 at LAM Research Theater, YBCA, 720 Howard St., SF. www.cityboxoffice.comwww.operaparallele.org