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Opera director and singer: Offstage they’re happily engaged, onstage he’s toxic masculinity

The California Opera Association’s annual Summer Opera Arts & Education Festival concludes with a busy weekend highlighted by two fully staged productions at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre in Clovis.

Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” will be performed 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10. And Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti” will be performed 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12. Admission is free, with donations accepted. (Also on the festival lineup: the popular “Doctors at the Met” performance at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11.)

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The cast of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’: Linda Baird, left, Gabriel Manro, Courtney Dunn, Chelsea Spoon and Julia Yu. Photo / California Opera

Two of the shining names at this year’s festival are baritone Gabriel Manro and stage director Justine Prado — who just happen to be engaged. (And what a story their engagement is. More on that in a moment.) She’s directing the two 20th century operas for the Fresno festival. I caught up with them for an email interview.

Donald: Justine, let’s start with “Trouble in Tahiti.” Did Bernstein really begin composing it on his honeymoon? (And should that have been a danger sign to his wife?)

Justine: Yes, as a soon-to-be bride, I can only imagine how horrified I would be if my new groom was writing this opera just days after our wedding. “Trouble in Tahiti” is a story of a married couple who have lost all connection with each other. On the surface, they have everything: nice house in the suburbs, shiny car, beautiful child. They’re the American dream. But we peel back the layers and discover there is trouble in the suburbs. The shiny facade is easily tarnished, and this couple can barely communicate, and they can’t touch each other. It could easily be played as the collapse of a marriage, of unhappy rich people being miserable. But Bernstein was critiquing more than just suburban life, he was showing us how all the things we are sold, all the material goods that are advertised to us — supposedly to make us happy — are actually making us miserable. Things and stuff are the building blocks of the walls we build to isolate us and separate from what really matters — love.

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Donald: What does the opera has to say about post-war American materialism?

Justine: This supposedly happy 1950s suburban couple has everything money can buy, yet they are miserable and isolated. It may not seem revolutionary today, but to question the idea that material goods can make you happy was once a raucous thought. We’ve since had many films and television series that explore this very concept (set in this same era), so the challenge then becomes how to twist the story to create something new — and to somehow find a glimmer of hope in the muck and mire that copious consumption leaves us wallowing in. One of my favorite lyrics in the piece has both the husband (Sam) and wife (Dinah) singing simultaneously, but not to each other, “Can we find our way back to the garden again?” We know we’ve lost our way, but can we get it back — whatever it is — and claim some peace and true happiness for ourselves?

Donald: What is your directorial concept for “Tahiti”?

I was inspired by the man to whom Bernstein dedicated this opera, an American composer named Marc Blitzstein. Blitzstein was a pro-union, openly gay communist. He was brought before the U.S. House of Un-American Activities in 1958. He was also married to a woman named Eva Goldbeck who died early in their marriage. Researching him while creating my concept sent me in an exciting new direction, and I decided to pay homage to Blitzstein just as Bernstein did, and based my version of the character of Sam on him.

Suddenly the gruff and dismissive Sam had a new reason to be so fraught with anger and guilt. And if Sam is dealing with what it was like to be closeted in the 50s, Dinah’s desires and repression take on a new shape — a woman who needs to feel loved, and is so suppressed due to lack of physical attention, she develops anxiety and lashes out because she doesn’t know what else she can do. I wanted to continue my Blitzstein journey with the characters in the Trio (in our show, a quartet). This group of singers serves as a Greek chorus, commenting on the scene we’re watching without being a part of the narrative. In this production, they are radio singers, who are working hard to sell us the Suburban Dream in the beginning. But we peel back their layers, and we find overworked and underpaid musicians whose real life doesn’t match the glamorous harmonies they use to sell the goods. They’re just like everyone else – -alienated from their work and cracking under the pressure.

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Donald: Gabriel, tell us about your formative years in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Gabriel: My mother and father, Patricia Taylor and Mike Manro, were high school sweethearts at Tulare Union High School. My paternal grandfather was a science teacher there and they lived right across the street from the High School. Mom grew up in Tipton. My parents were married shortly after high school and they both went to Fresno State, dad on a basketball scholarship (yes, all the Manros are very tall). I was born 10 years later at the Adventist Community Hospital in Hanford.

Growing up, my mother lived in San Luis Obispo County and my father in Hanford/Fresno. I spent every holiday, and summer vacation in Hanford or Fresno and lived there full time for some of those years. I took violin lessons in Hanford and gave many recitals and began composing violin music there in the 6th grade. I went to Clovis High School in the summer. It was the experience that my step brother Davin McHenry had in the band at Clovis West High School that led me to opera. He played the sax in several band field shows that featured the music of new musicals like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon.” These were brand new musicals at the time, and the Clovis West band director listened to and wrote out all of the parts for the entire band before any other kind of band arrangements were ever published. Both of us began listening to a host of musicals and became obsessed, seeing everything we possibly could. I vividly remember seeing the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “CATS” at Warnors Center. This led me to majoring in music at Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles and then subsequently singing with the Los Angeles Opera.

Donald: Set the scene for us in terms of your recent wedding proposal. (A heads-up to readers: Gabriel got a little wordy in his response, but I wanted to include the whole thing because it’s just so darn cute. It’s well worth the read.)

Gabriel: A few years ago, I was singing at Opera San Luis Obipso on a double bill of “I Pagliacci” and “Cavalleria Rusticana,” two glorious verismo operas. This is where I met Justine Prado, the stage manager of those operas. It really was love at first sight for the both of us, but we maintained a totally professional relationship throughout those productions. It turned out she was helping out her sister, the stage director, by stage managing those operas but was, actually, a screenwriter and film director by trade and lived in Los Angeles, just a little ways from me.

Upon our return home, we began dating, and two years later I was asked to sing the leading role in Opera SLO’s production of “Oklahoma” with Justine as assistant director. Now, by this point, I had been carrying around a ring with me for months looking for all the stars to align and just the right moment to ask her. It was becoming a little stressful because I had created such high expectations for the event. Then the universe started throwing me hints.

One day, while rehearsing “Oklahoma,” I was walking through the green room and one of the esteemed Opera SLO choristers said, “We’re all taking bets that you might do something big on stage at the end of the show.”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

He replied, “Ask Justine to marry you!”

With certainty, I stated “Oh no no, Justine hates public proposals and I promised NEVER to do such a thing.”

Without missing a beat, he replied, “All the more reason!”

I laughed and went on my merry way. I also had not asked Justine’s father yet because, all of the times I had tried, there was some interruption and no way to have a moment alone with him. Well, the very next day, I got thrown another screaming sign.

We were out with Justine’s parents shopping at an antique shop and I found myself alone in one of the far flung furniture rooms at the back of the store with the girls totally occupied at the front with their own thing. I thought, this is the moment! So I asked him then and there and he said yes.

Then I threw in the idea about the possibility of asking her at the curtain call. He thought it was a wonderful idea and shared his view on Justine’s aversion to public proposals: This type of public proposal was totally different than one at a baseball game or restaurant etc. — in those situations, the couple has much less of a connection with the venue. In our case, we will have just created a show together with a production team and crew that we have worked with for years, in front of an audience that has seen our work many times, at the opera company where we met, with both of our parents in the audience who will meet each other for the first time. Yes, I’d say the stars were aligning! Another great thing about it was that it would be totally unexpected.

I would do it on our opening day, which had an unheard-of two shows with just an hour in between.

Justine would be so focused and exhausted from such a whirlwind opening that she would never suspect. So I planned to do it. I spoke to the conductor who made the theatrical arrangements. No one in the production knew save myself, the conductor, house stage manager, and sound technician until the moment it happened.

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A video of Gabriel and Julia’s engagement at “Oklahoma” was part of coverage by the San Luis Obispo Tribune. You can go to that story to watch it.

Right after Justine took her director’s bow, I took her downstage. With my body mic still live, I began addressing the audience. Having also just performed a very wordy, dialogue-heavy lead role in two opening shows in one day, I had not a moment to prepare anything I was about to say. My voice cracked and I couldn’t speak for a moment. Then I said to the audience, “I’m sorry, I’m just very nervous right now.”

At this point, it is just dawning on Justine what is happening. I told the audience about how Justine and I had met at Opera SLO and how much we love it there. I told them that our parents are here in the audience tonight and are meeting for the first time. I talked about the opera family that we shared on stage including Edna Garabedian, who directed “Oklahoma” and who, by this time, had directed me in ten different opera productions.

Then I got down on one knee and said “Justine….Ane…..Vicenta…..McCracken….Prado….’Please M’am’ (a little nod to the proposal that occurs in Oklahoma) will you do me the honor of marrying me?! She said “Yes!”

I put her in dip and kissewd her, then spun her around just as the 50-piece pit orchestra began playing “People Will Say We’re in Love” from the show. The curtain came down and the highlight of the evening happened as the cast and crew of 50 enveloped us with a massive group hug. It was exhilarating!

Donald: You know what’s sweet? You can print out this post for posterity, because who knows if hard drives will still be around 50 years from now, and your grandkids can read it. Justine, tell us about “Bluebeard’s Castle.” I read the synopsis, and it sounds pretty scary.

Justine: “Bluebeard’s Castle” is one of the most exciting operas I’ve had the pleasure of working on. I felt deeply connected to this piece, as to me it captured so many ideas that are racing through our modern zeitgeist, and I saw it as an opportunity to tell a very important story, especially from a woman’s perspective.

Bluebeard (played by Gabriel) is the embodiment of toxic masculinity, and he feeds off the spirit and energy of the women he “loves” but also destroys. Judith, his new wife, feels so special that he chose her, and wants to explore his world and be his forever. She doesn’t realize she has bought into his game and will pay the ultimate price. This opera has been staged many different ways, and I wanted to create something familiar and modern to show that this isn’t a dark fairytale from long ago — this is every bit as much a modern story as it is an ancient one. Our Bluebeard is a 60s era cult leader — a Manson-like figure, with endless mind games and charisma to get what he wants from the women he desires. He loves what they bring to his world, and his vision is incomplete without them — but their voice is absent.

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A photo from Justine Prado’s website.

Rather than ghostly wives that appear in the final moments that show Judith her eternal future, we see his imprisoned cult members appear — three sister wives who help him claim his newest victim. Judith, like many women, may participate in her own subjugation, but she is not complicit in the end results. I can’t think of a more important story to bring to the stage right now.

Donald: Gabriel, have you played Bluebeard before? What’s the biggest challenge of playing this role?

Gabriel: No, I have not played the role before. It’s actually very rarely produced, which is quite disappointing because it’s such a rare gem of 20th century opera. In the prologue, the bard asks the audience: “Where’s the stage: is it outside or within?” Indeed, the textures of the score invoke the very thoughts and feelings of the characters on stage. In addition, the score is extremely cinematic with long stretches of music with no dialogue. That may be the most difficult thing about the role: acting with no words, but just to the suspense, passion, and horror of Bartok’s riveting score.

Donald: What is the appeal for you of California Opera’s summer festival?

Gabriel: Lots of family here, both biological and music-professional family. Most of my extended family lives here in Fresno and outlying areas of the Valley, so the festival is a great time to see everyone. On the music front, Edna Garabedian, artistic director of the California Opera Association, is the matriarch of a large extended music-professional family. I have worked with her in numerous theaters and she is such a pleasure to know and collaborate with. She genuinely revere’s the artist and their art and operates from that basis. When artists are given that kind of love and respect, they’ll move mountains to be here with Edna–and so the family grows.

Justine: COA has been a joy to work for. I’ve loved seeing seasoned opera and theater professionals working closely with up and coming artists and students to create new works and classic shows. In “Tahiti,” my two leads are professional singers with a wealth of experience and roles. Three of the singers in my quartet are students, who were thrown into these new roles. Seeing them put in the time and effort, and rising to the occasion, has been inspiring. The spirit of COA is what makes it special, and as a director, the freedom I’ve been given with these two shows has been wonderful, and I can’t wait to show Fresno something new.

I’ve also enjoyed being able to work closely with my fiancé for these several weeks. If I were to compose an opera on our honeymoon, it wouldn’t be about trouble, that’s for sure.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Thanks for this preview!! Great interview!

    reply
  • Cleo Bauer

    Skimmed your comments before the Fri opera and just re-read it. Love understanding the directors point of view more. Blue beards Castle was exquisitely done—- both the singing and acting as well as the sets and lighting. Excellent! Linda Baird as Judith was perfect—her ballet like movements, her acting and her splendid singing. A perfect mix. Justine did a great job of pulling out the characters and giving them space to “show their own talents”. Bravo to all!

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