New operas for the new year; 'Everest' and 'Prospero'

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday January 24, 2023
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(L-R) Sasha Cooke, Kevin Burdette, Nathan Granner, and Hadleigh Adams in 'Everest: An Immersive Experience'
(L-R) Sasha Cooke, Kevin Burdette, Nathan Granner, and Hadleigh Adams in 'Everest: An Immersive Experience'

Two new opera productions from groundbreaking creators are coming to San Francisco in February and March. Collaborations between a veritable Who's Who of contemporary artists give encouraging evidence of the state of the art.

Innovative Opera Parallele (OP) introduced its adaptation of the opera "Everest" in 2021 streaming a "graphic novel opera" video during the pandemic shutdown. British composer Joby Talbot and American librettist Gene Scheer originally dramatized a true-life 1996 Mount Everest expedition that took the lives of eight hikers. The world premiere in 2015 was a fully staged production at Dallas Opera.

The later reimagining brought the work to a wider audience with a brilliant workaround, using graphics and pre-recorded voices to assure social distancing while still providing a uniquely intimate experience.

Tickets are on sale now for the opera's newest iteration, "Everest: An Immersive Experience" at Z Space on February 3-12.

Directed by Brian Staufenbiel and conducted by OP's General Director and Conductor Nicole Paiement, the husband and wife pillars of the Company lead the production team of illustrator Mark Simmons; projection designer and director of photography David Murakami; sound engineer Miles Lassi; and scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott.

Featured singers include two-time Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Kevin Burdette, repeating their roles from the Dallas production, along with tenor Nathan Granner, a member of Sony Masterworks The American Tenors and barihunk Hadleigh Adams (well known from San Francisco Opera and West Edge Opera). Their voices, mixed in a digital soundtrack, are visualized with "motion capture" technology.

Audience members will be surrounded by 360-degree imagery and sound and offered white smocks to become part of the projected landscape, fully immersed in the experience. It might sound a little gimmicky, but judging from OP's impressive artistic record, it will probably be cutting-edge.

A few matinees require masking, but most performances do not and Z Space is a 13,000-square-foot venue with 40-foot tall ceilings, so there's plenty of breathing room. "Everest: An Immersive Experience" could be just the ticket to get audiences back into live performances. It is also a great way to show case opera as an evolving art form.

(L-R) Shawnette Sulker, Andrew Dwan and Bradley Kynard star in 'Prospero's Island'  

Island Magic
Allen Shearer and Claudia Stevens' chamber opera, "Prospero's Island" comes to the Herbst Theatre for its world premiere Saturday March 25, 7:30pm. Presented by Ninth Planet and InTandem, the one-night-only event is a modern (1950s) take on Shakespeare's "The Tempest," moved to the Falkland Islands and featuring seven characters from the play with an additional chorus of penguins sung by members of the Grammy-winning San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Respect for the natural world is a subtext of the opera and the titular main character is given a darker past in Stevens' libretto. His transgressions (crossing animals with humans, which have produced the sprite Ariel, and the loutish Caliban) breached ethics and basic humanity.

Despite his efforts at apology, he still rules his island autocratically. With his teenaged daughter Miranda, Prospero remains marooned in his own world. The real world comes to him when Stephano and Trinculo, reimagined as rowdy female members of an aircrew parachute down, and join with Caliban to plot and party.

The Shearer and Stevens partnership has produced ten chamber operas, with well-received recent works including "Middlemarch in Spring" and "Howards End America."

Andrew Dwan stars as Prospero. In my 2019 review of his performance in the Merola Opera Program's 62nd season opener, singing Mephistopheles' serenade from Gounod's "Faust," I noted his "rich and flexible tone and convincing acting." The title role here seems well cast.

Coloratura soprano Shawnette Sulker as Ariel has many Bay Area credits including roles at San Francisco Opera (SFO). Baritone Bradley Kynard as Caliban has also appeared with SFO, OP, and Opera San Jose.

Soprano Amy Foote is Miranda. She has sung at the San Francisco Symphony in the trendy SoundBox series. Tenor Sergio Gonzalez is Miranda's suitor in the role of Andy (Fernando). He graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and has appeared with OP.

Soprano Candace Johnson, in the comic role of Trish (Trinculo), Soprano Julia Hathaway as Steffi (Stephano), and tenor Michael Mendelsohn, as Captain Al (Alonso) complete the cast.
Nathaniel Berman conducts the chamber orchestra and Phil Lowery is stage director.

Ninth Planet is a music ensemble and organization dedicated to fostering new music, especially works by young composers and artists and those from underrepresented communities. Their concert programs cover a range of styles highlighting local composers, women and LGBTQ composers, and composers of color.

"The Tempest" has enjoyed a long history of interpretations including ballet, opera, symphonic tone poems, incidental music, and film (anyone remember "Forbidden Planet" with Robby the Robot or Paul Mazursky's "Tempest"?). "Prospero's Island" continues the tradition with an intriguing premise and a promising production.

'Everest: An Immersive Experience' at Z Space on February 3-12. $20-$115 (opening night gala). 450 Florida St.

'Prospero's Island' at the Herbst Theatre, Saturday March 25, 7:30pm. $25-$45. 401 Van Ness Ave.

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