Keeping the tradition alive

Palo Alto-based West Bay Opera perseveres through tough times

The mood is positively electric in Lucie Stern Community Theatre's large backstage green room. Singers in plain clothes, partial- and full-costume run through last-minute exercises; across the hall, a thick cloud of hairspray hangs in the air of the small dressing room where a pair of makeup artists are adjusting wigs and feverishly applying the final touches to the actors' already paint-caked faces; fancifully dressed children and adults rush to and fro, and the orchestra begins playing.

It's the first of two "full-orchestra dress rehearsals" in the run up to the May 23 debut of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera, "The Magic Flute" -- the third and final production of the Palo Alto-based West Bay Opera's 58th season.

Watching from the back of the theater -- hearing the singers project their pure and powerful voices over the 24-piece orchestra -- it's hard to believe that the company would have trouble filling seats. Indeed, the upcoming run of shows is nearly sold out.

However, it wasn't that long ago that many believed the West Bay Opera would shutter.

After the dot-com bubble burst the company was in a "severe financial crisis," according to Joel Blank, a long-time West Bay Opera board member. Blank, who is currently serving as treasurer on the board, says WBO never fully recovered and was hit hard again by the Great Recession.

West Bay Opera hasn't been alone in its plight, Blank notes. "All the major opera companies in the country are under financial stress."

In October of 2013, the New York City Opera announced that it could no longer keep its doors open. After filing for bankruptcy, the 70-year-old company cut its final season short and threw in the towel.

The San Diego Opera barely managed to avoid the same fate. After pleading for help earlier this year, the company only recently announced that it would be able to remain open, though at a greatly reduced scale.

West Bay Opera has remained open thanks in large part to the efforts of José Luis Moscovich, Blank says. "I think José Luis led the company back from difficult times."

West Bay Opera's general director was brought on in July of 2006, about a year after the previous director, David Sloss, left for, as Blank puts it, "artistic differences." (Blank is clear that he does not blame Sloss in any way for the company's hard years.)

Since joining West Bay Opera eight years ago, Moscovich has brought both laser focus and grand, sweeping ambition to the company, Blank says.

In an interview with the Weekly shortly after he was hired, Moscovich said that he keeps track of all company costs -- no matter how small. "I know the cost of buttons," he told former A&E editor Rebecca Wallace.

At the same time he began tightening the budget, Moscovich pushed the company to spend money on big-ticket items like nationally recognized singers. He also invested in technology, such as the company's digital projector that is now used to augment sets -- saving money on the manpower and materials.

"I think he's raised the level of what we've done," says Blank, who has been involved with West Bay Opera since 1999.

Recalling his decision to push for more established, bigger-name singers, as opposed to younger, local talent, and to tackle tougher, larger-scale productions, Moscovich remembers the backlash he faced. "People thought I was out of my mind," he says with a chuckle. But his gambit payed off. "That not only kept a good portion of our audience with us, it also attracted a great deal more people to see what we do."

In addition to the budgetary concerns currently facing West Bay Opera and other companies around the country, attracting new, younger audiences is another major challenge.

Kirk Eichelberger, a bass singer who plays the role of Sarastro in the upcoming West Bay Opera production, acknowledges the problem.

"The issue is that opera in our culture has been painted this way -- as something that is for a fuddy-duddy, moneyed, upper crust crowd that the people who are young and poor have no business with," Eichelberger says.

In a sense, those who perceive opera to be old and somewhat inflexible are correct. The art form dates back to the 16th century and hews tightly to many of the traditions established by its forebears.

The players, whom a lay person might simply call "extras" -- those who come on and off stage, infrequently and have no speaking or singing roles -- are referred to as "supernumeraries" in the world of opera; while most modern theaters are equipped with sound systems capable of amplifying the human voice, an opera is not an opera unless all of the singers perform without the aid of microphones; this tradition necessitates a method of singing, which results in a tone quite unlike the nasal voices to which fans of popular music are accustomed.

However, while Eichelberger acknowledges all this, the singer sees no reason that opera should be perceived as old and stuffy. Opera, he says, just like all good art, confronts the human condition and has the power to move audiences. All it takes is one strong performance. "If we can get people to the opera, they will come back," he says.

Even if those people are boys on the edge of adolescence.

At 11 years old, Aidan Bannon might not seem like someone who would enjoy the opera. And yet, the Palo Alto boy's eyes light up when talking about his role in "The Magic Flute."

Aidan is a member of the San Francisco-based Ragazzi Boys Chorus. While many of his peers spend their after-school hours playing sports, engaging in clubs or in front of a PlayStation 4, Aidan practices hitting harmonies.

"I wouldn't really call singing a tough sport," Aidan says, before changing his mind. "Actually, it's probably harder than sports. There's so much more that you can mess up on."

Aidan is one of six Ragazzi Boys who were invited to be a part of the West Bay Opera production. From its very first production, "The Magic Flute" has always called for a small chorus of boys to play the characters known as the Three Spirits, who sing the treble lines in the opera.

As such, Stefanie Wilen, the mother of another Ragazzi boy, Jesse, notes that singing in this production is a "once in a lifetime opportunity."

The vast majority of males can only hit notes on the treble cleft prior to adolescence. And considering their age and experience level, Wilen notes that her son and his peers are "at the top of their game as trebles" right now.

Moscovich is certainly pleased to be able fill the role of the Three Spirits with the Ragazzi Boys -- and not only because it is what the original opera calls for. He hopes that having the boys in the performance will help to perpetuate the operatic tradition he loves so much.

"If you come into the theater with your kids, and ... they see other kids on stage, they can automatically imagine themselves on stage," Moscovich says. "It demystifies opera for children, because it shows that other kids are not just able to be on stage, but also can sing very well and can be in it with the grown ups."

Read Mort Levine's review of "The Magic Flute."

--- --- ---

What: Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)

When: May 23 and 31 at 8 p.m.; May 25 and June 1 at 2 p.m.

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California

Cost: $40-$75

Info: 650-843-3900 or wbopera.org

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Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Music Lover
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm

What a great story! West Bay Opera is a local treasure, we have enjoyed seeing their productions for many years and it is marvelous to get a peek behind-the-scenes as they prepare for what looks to be another triumph. One comment though: Ragazzi is not a San Francisco-based organization. Although they have an international reputation, we can proudly claim them as also Peninsula-based. (They frequently perform in Palo Alto - very much worth seeing.)

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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