California Opera returns after a pandemic break with an intimate production of ‘Norma.’
Whether it’s a grand opera hall or a tiny venue, Edna Garabedian brings the same determination to every production she’s involved in. It’s always been that way, from her professional career on the stages of Europe decades ago to the smallest community endeavor she’s staged in Fresno. As artistic director of California Opera, Garabedian is as fierce a proponent as you’ll find for doing your absolute best with whatever resources you’re fortunate to enjoy.
Which is how you find a Metropolitan Opera tenor, Todd Wilander, in a starring role in Bellini’s opera “Norma” at the California Arts Academy on Blackstone Avenue. The CAA is not a venue you’d regularly find someone who has made his Met debut, but Garabedian is full of surprises like that. Her sheer force of personality makes important things happen.
Win tickets to ‘Norma’: Deadline to enter is 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15
Here’s what you’ll experience as an audience member for the one general performance of “Norma”: the chance to be enthralled by both veteran professional and talented, up-and-coming singers in an intimate venue that only allows for 100 seats. The production (2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17) follows the 2021 Annual Summer Opera Arts and Education Festival, which reenergized Fresno’s opera scene after taking a year off for the pandemic.
I talked with Garabedian about the production and her indefatigable — a word I used many years ago to describe her and one that still very much applies today — efforts to promote all things opera.
Q: This production of “Norma” is possible because of a legacy left behind by Jamie Bonetto’s parents, who recently passed away. Tell us about this.
A: This performance of “Norma” is all about legacies. Jamie’s parents, Thomas and “Trudy” Sonnichsen, were early underwriters of these programs, garnering major support from corporations like the Exxon Mobil Foundation. Like so many people we love, we honor their memories through our works. Because Trudy’s favorite opera was “Norma,” Jamie performs the title role as a dedication to her parents. I had the pleasure of knowing Jamie’s parents and their hopes and dreams for building the California Opera. To us, building an opera is synonymous with building family. It is the heart of the organization.
Q: Set in the time of the Roman occupation of Gaul, “Norma” is a love triangle that involves two druid priestesses. What can you tell us about Druidism? Norma, the high priestess, has broken her vows of celibacy, correct?
A: Druids are known as people who love nature, love creation of the world, love mankind, and love peace, harmony, and are noncombative. There has been debate about the religious or spiritual history of the druids, but above and beyond all, their strengths were in appreciation of a brook of water, the singing of a little bird, the air, and the space in which we live and breathe. One of the issues in the opera Norma is the war. When Norma finally calls the battle of war, it is really unlike the druid to want this for their nation and people. The colors chosen for the druid costuming are the hues of nature, like the blues and lavenders of the sky. This is in sharp contrast to the Roman reds. The juxtaposition of the underlying philosophical differences between the Romans and the druids is a large part of the interest and intrigue.
Q: Jamie Bonetto is considered a light coloratura soprano. What does this mean, and why does it make her well suited to the role of Norma?
A: Jamie’s voice has extreme ability for coloratura, which gives her an edge over the heavy dramatic coloratura that we often hear and see in recordings today. The agility and flexibility is that of the golden era voice. In this role of Norma, there is a love for Pollione, which is also a secret, which requires a subtle distancing. As a complicated heroine, Jamie’s portrayal of Norma can leave the audience somewhat perplexed, which culminates in a longer-lasting contemplation of the meaning of the role.
Q: You’re excited that Todd Wilander, a Metropolitan Opera tenor, is joining California Opera for this production. What do you think he brings to the role of Pollione, the Roman consul? How did you nab such a “big name” for this production?
A: Todd exudes world stage experience that he enthusiastically wants to share with both audiences and artists. Being as experienced as he is with the role brings excellence. Having performed this role many times, most recently in Hong Kong and then prior in Washington state, he honed his expertise with the role that led to excellence, above and beyond, with superb reviews. Many bel canto style tenor roles can only be effectively performed by few tenors worldwide who develop the in-depth understanding and applied skills that bring forth a truly authentic performance. After a search worldwide, his name came up several times. When discussing the possibilities with Gabriel Manro, we realized they were already connected through their work in L.A., San Francisco, and New York. It was obvious that Todd would be a beautiful complement to Gabriel in the cast.
Q: For the first time, California Opera will be holding a production at the California Arts Academy. Tell us about this partnership and the dancers that are part of the production.
A: We have a very beautiful relationship with this marriage of opera to dance. It is the bonding between dancers, singers, actors, visual artists, and instrumental musicians that makes opera a complete art form. Dance is an inseparable integral part of every California Opera performance. The exquisite impact of that collaboration is because of the outstanding choreography of Margaret Hord and the beautiful technique that these youthful, refined dancers bring to the stage in every production.
Q: Two names in the opera who are familiar to California Opera fans are doing big things in their career: Alexandra Jerenic and Gabriel Manro. Can you give us an update on both?
A: Both Gabriel and Alix are the most gracious artists to dedicatedly entertain audiences here in the Valley while being sought in international directions. Gabriel sings with the L.A. Opera full-time now. Performing and recording in Europe, Gabriel is engaging in exciting world-premiere stage productions such as Osmund in the Siegfried Wagner’s Rainulf and Adelasia during the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Alix is represented by MIA Artists Management in New York, which is quite an achievement in the opera world. Her roots in Europe are growing strong leading to upcoming recordings and international contracts.
Q: Two more names that you believe are up-and-coming: Robert Bousquet and Bradley Perry. Why are you so bullish on them? Any others to mention?
A: Robert and Brad both are distinctive in their tenor categories. Brad is a Jugendlich tenor of the future, and at the moment a large lyric tenor. Robert Bousquet is one of the most pure, lyric tenors of the future. Looking ahead at the market and what is needed on the opera stage, we have two of the most extremely talented tenors, as master musicians, which is also unique. As a USC music scholar with a very successful history in symphonic concertizing and oratorio, Robert is connecting that background with the dramatic stage.
Bridging the opera community with the educational community is vitally important for success in both arenas. Hanna Staley (Clotilde in “Norma” is now an opera and music performance major at Fresno Pacific University, having spring-boarded to the next steps in her career from Fresno City College. We have a rich body of music educators in the community who together make tremendous contributions to the world and progress of performing artists.
Q: How did Covid impact California Opera? I know that you usually hold your summer institute at the same time as your major production, but this year, those two events are being held a few months apart. Why?
A: The first realizations of artists of the impact of COVID was devastating. Contracts were canceled and therefore, the artists’ kingdoms of work just crumbled. It has been a two-year impact on the arts greatly affecting our musicians, singers, and performers, which is depleting their own confidence and ability to believe there is a future of employment in the arts. Although, virtual training, rehearsing, and performing has worked out better than we could have ever imagined. The idea that there has been a pandemic, which is not likely to be the last, has opened minds to the ideas about how to do things better, safer, smarter, and more creatively. This is what in part led to this unique production in a more intimate venue with a different approach to the opera in general. We, across the spectrum of the performing arts community, are all revealing ways to prevail – learning what works, what feels safe, how to work together in close settings, and how to plan in extraordinary ways to energize the arts for the future.
Q: California Opera lost some dear friends to Covid, including Steve Wall. Tell us about him and others you’d like to remember with this production.
A: Steve Wall was with us from the very beginning and was working on this “Norma” production in early 2020. He sang, stage directed, designed lighting, sets, and was our technical computer specialist, taking us from the days before windows into the fast-moving world of social media technology. Steve’s enthusiasm for every aspect of the opera is irreplaceable and profoundly missed. A remarkable artist in every way, especially impressive was his work with photography and the visual arts. He actually started with me when he was 25 as a young man taking singing lessons and personally was a very close friend – genuine and kind, sincere and invested, he made us laugh and was so committed to this organization. We owe him this opportunity to acknowledge and honor his own legacy to the community.
During the performance, we will also be acknowledging other profound losses from our opera family, which have been too many. Bill May performed in the opera chorus for many years, including rehearsing for this “Norma” production. Recognizing Patricia Gebs, in particular, is especially important, as she sang for nearly the entirety of her life and began with us in our opera chorus. Being from London, she brought an international flair to all of our performing arts organizations, especially dedicated to the Fresno Opera League, then the California Opera Guild. Pat and Jamie developed a special relationship and over the years became dear, dear, friends. We are soaring today on those wings of our many opera angels.
Q: You’re always thinking internationally, and one of your new projects involves Taiwan. What is it?
A: Building opera programs worldwide is a core value of the company and myself personally, because opera is a worldwide endeavor. I was one of the first to bring opera to Hongzhou, China, and immediately following that look what happened. Opera has flourished in China and their singers are crossing over to the MET now. At the time of the birth of the opera, that was in my business plan for Fresno — to build an international center for opera training. We have agriculture, athletics, and the arts, which is an attractive triad. Education and knowledge about what is currently accepted for management of the Western opera vocal technique is part of what these projects in countries like Taiwan are all about.
Opera technique is a unique technique unto itself, which is only a part of a full scope of vocal and artistic development in both Western and Eastern music. Composers of the Eastern and Western worlds are being recognized equally and oftentimes blending together. Looking at all the beautiful works being created throughout the world, there are very wonderful developments of artists and exchanges. I’m happy to be working to support and expand those gateways.
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Q: What’s next?
A: Touring has been an enduring goal, but the concept is more about collaboration – working with other groups and companies and communities to bring forward rewarding performances. Despite the pandemic threatening so much progress in the arts, we are planning promising upcoming performances. There are our own community favorites — “Hansel and Gretel,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Pagliacci,” the “Il trittico” – but we are excited about debuting works we have not performed like “Tosca.”
Puccini is the greatest of composers to offer educational skills for singers. Taking some of these works into new, original, and creative settings is something we feel could be so well received. There are great works from our own 20th and 21st century composers. The recent passing of Carlisle Floyd, and then before him Menotti was felt greatly in the opera world. There are wonderful ways to celebrate their works. Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” has a lot of roles — leads and supporting roles — across vocal Fachs (vocal categories) and characters, which makes for a great training opportunity for many young and emerging artists from all around the world. These are all really exciting ideas that we think would be fun for both artists and audiences.
Q: It is such a treat to talk with you, Edna. You have an amazing ability to uplift those around you. I always walk away from an encounter with you brimming over with a sense of endless artistic possibilities. If you ran the world, I think we’d spend a lot less time griping and a lot more time singing. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
A: To all the new people who have come to our community and the new members of our arts world, we welcome you. We have waited so long for this pandemic to end, but see a lot of new public who are coming out, being very brave. The artists are very brave, bringing something very inspirational and uplifting to offer hope and healing to our community.
While I feel deeply for the loss of the Fresno Grand Opera, as it was my hopes and desires to have founded an organization that would live to see the joy of success, California Opera has shown a consistency of 22 years that speaks for itself. Our ability to keep moving forward through the most difficult of times, to pursue, to persevere, to believe in the power of the arts in our community is the testimony to the way we work.
There is a future for opera in Fresno because there is a heart for opera in this community. Opera in Fresno is also about preserving a legacy — a legacy of fine artists like Nicola Iacovetti, who invested his life into opera for this community. A legacy forged by the enthusiasm and support of the Fresno Opera League. These were gifts that represent a wonderful foundation for a long-lasting legacy of opera in Fresno which will not be overlooked or forgotten.