Birds, balls & battles: Opera Parallèle pairs two one-act operas

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday March 26, 2024
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Nikola Printz as Billie Jean King in 'Balls' (photo: Mathew Pham)
Nikola Printz as Billie Jean King in 'Balls' (photo: Mathew Pham)

Innovative Opera Parallèle is re-teaming with SFJAZZ April 5-7 for a world premiere double bill. Two one-act operas, "Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera" and "Balls" extend the partnerships' repertoire of edgy contemporary works and clever musical hook-ups.

Opera Parallèle (OP) also remains especially supportive of LGBT composers, writers and performers. The highly anticipated West Coast debut of the opera, "Fellow Travelers," based on a 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon and subsequent Showtime miniseries, by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce celebrates June Pride Month 2024.

"Birds & Balls" is lighter in tone, but there are layers of meaning in both of the upcoming shorter pieces. Grammy Award-nominated composer David T. Little and Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Royce Vavrek's fanciful "chamber opera with wings," "Vinkensport" is a spoof of the obscure (to say the least) 400-year-old Flemish folk sport of professional Finch-sitting. Contestant trainers battle to see who has the most melodious bird. Their competitive drive and personal secrets reveal complex relationships to life and to each other.

A recent chat with OP's General & Artistic Director (and conductor) Nicole Paiement made clear her intelligent case for pairing the one-act scores to create a longer production. Not only has she known and admired both composers (some of her favorite people) for a long time; she has been waiting for a chance to work with them.

'Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera' composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek (courtesy photos)  

Bird in hand
Producing short operas is problematical, but combining similarly themed works can create satisfying and seamless results. This is not a new concept for OP. One very successful past pairing celebrated the birth centennial of Leonard Bernstein, meshing composer Jake Heggie's "At the Statue of Venus," libretto by Terrence McNally, with Bernstein's (lyrics and music) melancholy 1951 one-act opera "Trouble in Tahiti."

The idea of connecting "Vinkensport" and "Balls" is a little more tenuous, but the theme is sports and competition. Composer David T. Little has also re-orchestrated the former to blend coherently with Laura Karpman's sound world.

Nicole Paiement has been aware of Oscar-nominated ("American Fiction") Hollywood and television composer Laura Karpman, and New York Times Op-ed columnist and librettist Gail Collins' "Balls" for years, but had to find a harmonizing opera.

"Balls" is a multimedia work about the sensational Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match. The live television event, watched by 90 million people worldwide, was reality TV at its best.

King trounced the buffoonish male chauvinist Riggs, breezily changing attitudes about women in sports, scoring major points for the women's rights movement.

'Balls' composer Laura Karpman (photo: Instagram/ Laura Karpman)  

Oscar nom
Composer Laura Karpman lives and works in Los Angeles with her wife, composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, their son and two dogs. After founding the Alliance for Women Film Composers, she became the first woman governor in the music branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. She achieved changes, helping to create the Academy Women's Initiative and The Academy Code of Conduct, and updating language of the Academy bylaws to be inclusive and representative of the membership.

Karpman is also determined to bring more visibility to LGBT art, saying, "Queer people have always been making art."

A rollicking operatic homage to Billie Jean King (who was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame) fits nicely within her own game plan.

Stage and Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel describes the upcoming show as "one of those rare productions where even the most wild outcomes of our imaginations will be surprised and surpassed!"

"Birds & Balls" is a mashup, a dance, a wild ride, with visitors from the past, love, rivalry and redemption: it is contemporary opera at its best.

Featured members of the cast include Bay Area mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Billie Jean King (Balls); tenor Nathan Granner as Han Sach's Trainer (Vinkensport) and Bobby Riggs (Balls); baritone Daniel Cilli as Atticus Finch's Trainer (Vinkensport) and Larry King (Balls); soprano Shawnette Sulker as Sir Elton John's Trainer (Vinkensport) and Susan B. Anthony (Balls); tenor Mark Hernandez as Referee (Vinkensport) and Howard Cosell (Balls).

"Birds & Balls" SFJAZZ Center's Miner Auditorium, $30-$185. April 5, 7:30pm. April 6, 2pm & 7:30pm. April 7, 2pm. 201 Franklin St.

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