Bohemians in Alameda!
A friend once complained to me that Berlin had four opera houses, as if that were unconscionable. An outrageous waste! It never occurred to me that there could be too much singing anywhere, even in Berlin. Too much art? Please.
So it was with surprise but pleasure that I learned of another small opera company in the Bay Area, Island City Opera. Located in Alameda, Island City Opera qualifies as a small community opera, but its locale means that exceptional singers inhabit the stage. Though it may lack in production glamor, the inevitable handicap of every company working on a shoestring budget, the company has access to the Bay Area’s truly fine singers and musicians.
It also has excellent leadership. The company began its season in January with Rigoletto, directed by soprano Olivia Stapp, who is on its board. Other names from opera in the Bay Area and farther afield loom large.
Last week the second production of the season La Bohéme opened, directed by Ellen St. Thomas, who is notable for soprano roles in the Bay Area for San Francisco Lyric Opera and West Bay Opera, among others.
Musical direction and conducting are being shared by Jonathan Khuner, who locally is identified with the Berkeley’s West Edge Opera, and who also works as Assistant Conductor and prompter for San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago (I have yet to figure out how he does that … sorcery, perhaps), and Robert Ashens, who has conducted for West Coast Opera and other Bay Area companies as well as coached top-level singers internationally.
La Bohéme, which remains one of the most popular operas on the stage today, proved ideal for the company’s commitment to intimate theater in the opera genre. Its lovely music offers a touching love story, as the two sets of lovers – Rodolfo and Mimi, Marcello and Musetta – struggle to survive under the burden of extreme poverty and illness.
The female leads, Mimi and Musetta, are endowed with enviable arias, Mimi’s laced with romantic idealism and exquisite pathos and Musetta’s the epitome of seduction and flirtation. Soprano Erina Newkirk made an endearing Mimi, combining a rich soprano with a delicate characterization. Musetta was sung by Julia Hunt Nielsen in a vivacious soprano. While Mimi requires a refined and ethereal quality, Musetta is just fun fun fun.
It was the men that rocked the stage though. With Alex Boyer leading in the tenor part of Rodolfo. Boyer has an exceptional voice, big and resonant, bright and warm, and is an excellent actor. A participant of the Merola and Santa Fe Opera programs, he is a winner of the Mario Lanza scholarship award. Marcello, Rodolfo’s flatmate and Musetta’s main squeeze, was sung by Igor Vieira. A fine baritone, he was world finalist of the 1995 Luciano Pavarotti Voice Competition.
The guys’ buddies were equally as engaging. Baritone Kiril Havezov sang the food-and-wine bearing Schaunard and bass-baritone Don Hoffman sang Colline. Each had their short conversational arias that provided humor and energy throughout the story of Mimi’s short and desolate existence. Colline’s farewell to his coat epitomizes that ironic and poignant understanding of life that lies below the opera’s unrelenting story.
Wayne Wong sings the comic roles of the Landlord and Musetta’s elderly suitor with impudent glee.
The orchestra, which played a reduced version for 20+ players, acquitted itself well under the all-seeing eye of Maestro Robert Ashens.
This was a wonderful and pleasing performance. Well worth the price of admission. And even more, an opera project worth keeping an eye on.
– Jaime Robles
Island City Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème continues through March 13. Soprano Eileen Meredith sings Mimi for the remaining productions. For tickets and information, visit islandcityopera.org.
Photo: Igor Vieira and Julia Hunt Nielsen. Photo by Craig Merrill.