Fort Worth Opera Festival
IF YOU’RE A SIXTY-YEAR-OLD opera company, how do you (a) reinvigorate your aging self, (b) draw in new (and younger) audiences, and (c) steal a moment in the international spotlight while you’re at it? Simple: You get off the old posterior and shake things up. The Fort Worth Opera is doing just that this year by scrapping its October-to-March schedule and condensing its season into a month-long festival, which makes its anxiously awaited debut on May 19.
It’s an unprecedented move, especially for the oldest continually performing opera company in the state. Though the FWO has always been a reliable stop for rising stars, it has never quite broken away from its humble beginnings (in 1946 three women met for coffee and decided to start the company) to become as well funded as the Houston Grand Opera or as highly regarded as the Dallas Opera. But now, with dynamic general director Darren K. Woods (a Luling native) leading the charge, the Cowtown company is poised to elevate itself within the industry’s collective consciousness.
The inaugural lineup features a one-night concert of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle and a trio of alternating productions: a couple of crowd-pleasers—Verdi’s Falstaff and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly—and one very eagerly awaited world premiere, Frau Margot, which, as intended, is drawing just as much buzz as the season’s new format itself. The commissioned piece is inspired by real-life events and features an irresistible cast of characters (a widowed diva, a deceased composer, a duplicitous agent, and a mistress hiding in plain sight), as well as a libretto penned by legendary theatrical director Frank Corsaro.
But it’s the composition itself, by the prolific Thomas Pasatieri, that has everyone’s ears perked. It’s been twenty long years since he presented his last opera: After great successes in the sixties and seventies—including the Houston Grand Opera world premiere of his best-known work, The Seagull, in 1974—Pasatieri became disenchanted with the industry, turning instead to Hollywood and orchestrating some of the more recognizable film scores in recent memory (The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Finding Nemo). “Pasatieri’s style is complex and cinematic in its scope, with beautiful orchestrations and long arias and duets,” says Woods about the melodic Frau Margot. To hear soprano Lauren Flanigan, who has been dubbed the “Meryl Streep of opera divas,” in the title role will be to experience this musical language on an even higher plane.
It’s no wonder, then, that when a twenty-minute excerpt of Frau Margot was performed by the New York City Opera last May as part of its VOX Showcase, curious theatergoers packed the house, sending up thunderous applause at the end. And while the reviews have yet to be written, the FWO is already converting great risk into great reward with its groundbreaking festival. Piles of scripts and excerpts have been landing on Woods’s desk from composers eager to work with the company. And the city is gearing up for the wave of out-of-towners who will no doubt be making the trip, excited to catch two or three performances in a weekend and watch as the curtain rises on the FWO’s brave new era. May 19—Jun 10. Bass Performance Hall, 4th & Calhoun; 877-396-7372; fwopera.org JORDAN BREAL
The Filter: Events
John Lithgow is a triple threat: An actor, a singer, and a ballet dancer—who knew? In 2003 the Tony Award winner, who has also penned seven best-selling children’s books, collaborated with world-renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to create Carnival of the Animals , a ballet for the youngest among us. This month the Houston Ballet will be staging the whimsical tale with Lithgow himself narrating the first two performances and even dancing a small role. (The company’s spring repertory will also include Clear, director Stanton Welch’s artistic response to September 11 , and Svadebka, a piece by Jirí Kylián that is set to a score by Igor Stravinsky.) The funnyman, who will be making his first trip to Houston—and who took ballet lessons in preparation for this star turn—gives us a candid preview.
How did you come to collaborate on this ballet? Christopher Wheeldon and I worked together on the Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success , which he choreographed, so we were good friends—and he certainly knew all about my rhyming stories for children. Chris was scheduled to do a ballet for the New York City Ballet and knew it would be set to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals , but he wanted me to help him devise a story. We came up with this idea of a little boy, Oliver, who’s locked in the American Museum of Natural History overnight and dreams that all of his friends are animals.
Which came first, the narration or the choreography? I wrote the narration first. Chris was all over the world with different ballet companies; I would mail him a new stanza every few days, and we would invent the characters. He’s a spontaneous choreographer. He created the ballet over about a five-week period, and by that time, the narration was long since finished.
Did you always intend to be one of the performers? Once I’d completed the narration—I always intended to be the narrator—Chris invited me to play Mabel Buntz, the school nurse who is an elephant. Of course I jumped at that.
Will you be reprising that role here as well? Oh, yes. Let’s see if I can remember the stanza: “Mabel Buntz, the school nurse, lumbered into the hall,/ The scourge of each virus and germ./Though Nurse Buntz was decidedly wider than tall,/Her size didn’t hamper her movements at all/When she daintily waltzed at the Elephant Ball,/A flirtatious and pert pachyderm.” That’s me.
Any other favorite characters? I love the piano teacher, who’s the baboon. And the shy librarian, who’s the kangaroo. And the movie-star tropical fish. There’s a beautiful section where Oliver’s mother and father are desperate with worry because they can’t find him. I just love the scene.