Portland Opera’s Postcard from Morocco: Do we need more of less?

Portland Opera's Postcard from Morocco. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera’s Postcard from Morocco. Photo: Cory Weaver.

In introducing Portland Opera’s Portland premiere of Postcard from Morocco at its opening night Friday, artistic director Christopher Mattaliano called it “the most produced American opera of the past 40 years.”

On the surface, it’s easy to see why. First, producing Dominick Argento’s 1971 chamber opera entails a lot less risk and expense than a typical 19th century grand opera. The seven-member ensemble cast, instrumental octet, spare props (costumes, suitcases, a portable painter’s easel, etc) and single, simple set (projections are used to present other scenarios) obviate the need to spend big bucks on a big name star, massive chorus, full orchestra, expensive props and sets. Not requiring extensive theatrical facilities, Postcard can be produced in a wide variety of spaces—a typically American pragmatism.

It’s also a quintessentially American opera. Postcard’s story (really a scenario and an assemblage of lines of dialogue contrived by original director John Donahue and arranged by Argento) involves a very American theme: transience. The action transpires in the departure lounge of a train or cruise ship station, its characters on the way to somewhere else. Another Americanism: they’re defined not by their names, families, or titles but instead by their stuff — Lady with a Hand Mirror, Man with a Shoe Sample Kit, etc. Much of the interest lies in finding out what’s inside the suitcases they carry. Even Argento’s colorful score is an all-American melting pot, an eclectic potpourri — oops, better make that stew — of styles, from Wagner quotes to jazz to operetta. And at a time when much European classical music embraced atonality, Argento’s colorful score is mostly tonal, sometimes even — for shame! — pretty. Four years later, he’d win the Pulitzer Prize for music, and later a Grammy.

But while these factors no doubt contribute to Postcard’s ubiquity on American stages, its success is nevertheless sort of surprising, because it lacks most of the elements we associate with classic operas — showstopping arias; a heart-tugging, clearly triumphant or tragic climax; star turns — beloved of operaholics, which probably explains the bemused smiles, thoughtful miens, and restrained applause last weekend’s opening performance earned. Its single, drab setting poses a dramatic problem: how to keep audiences interested in a bunch of puzzling people stranded in a station? Plays have pulled that trick off, but operas?

Not only does Postcard omit a love story or obvious conflict like a war, but there’s no conventional narrative at all, rather a series of monologues by each character that, while supplying superficial details about their lives, dreams, and memories, ultimately reveal little, except that everyone has something to hide … but we never quite learn what it is. The archetypal characters leave us little to identify with, having more in common with Beckett and Pirandello than Bizet and Puccini. Earlier operas and plays had eschewed conventional plot, character and structure, but how many have secured so many stagings?

In fact, the key to Postcard’s success may actually be its lack of literality, its omission of obviousness. The lacunae imposed by this smaller-scale production allow an able creative team to fill them with clever inventions, and invite the audience to use its imagination to supply the missing links. That places a big burden on the production, and fortunately, this one carries it off smartly. Katie Taylor will have ArtsWatch’s real review shortly, but for me, this Postcard really delivers. And that raises some questions about the company’s direction, which we’ll get to shortly.

Co-produced with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, this spiffy new Postcard makes some key changes to the original, which was set in 1914. Judging by Sue Bonde’s groovy costumes, suitcases and hairstyles, PO moves it to around the time of the opera’s early-’70s creation. Director Kevin Newbury strips the story down even further by jettisoning the original stage directions and extraneous roles, and cleverly sustains visual interest by keeping the players in motion (including having them shift and rearrange the sparse set by moving the banks of plastic chairs), adeptly using lighting (courtesy of designer Connie Yun) to give each character her own unique frame and perspective, and having the singers expressively act out their monologues rather than merely singing them.

Portland Opera’s energetic young resident artists excel at both. Alexander Elliott and Caitlin Mathes (both evidently destined for some measure of stardom) especially shone, but really, the entire well-cast ensemble deserves kudos, as does the instrumental octet led by William Vendice.

By the time it ended, I felt as though I’d awakened from an odd but enjoyable dream where nothing quite made sense, yet it all somehow added up. Not to give anything away, but even more than other touches throughout this production, the final scene definitely reaches into the Twilight Zone (I can think of at least three of the original TZ episodes that used similar themes) even down to the wry (possibly cheesy, but I didn’t mind) shaggy dog humor of its final image. In spite of its oblique storyline, Postcard from Morocco is a pleasantly puzzling crowd-pleaser that doesn’t really need to make perfect sense.

Richard Troxell as Older Galileo, at the center of the opera's universe. ©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera’s Galileo Galilei. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Less is More

In fact, just about every year I’ve been attending PO, I’ve enjoyed the Newmark/resident artist shows — Galileo Galilei, The Child and the Spells and The Spanish Hour, La Calisto — more than almost any of the main stage productions with starrier casts at the much more capacious Keller Auditorium. In part this is no doubt due to the unusually adventurous (often contemporary) yet accessible programming, in part to the energy of a young cast whose members are trying to make a name for themselves rather than yet again going through the motions of a role they’ve acted dozens of times before, in part because of clever, often minimalist staging (limitations stimulate creativity and imagination rather than the literalness of many big productions) — and in large part due to the relative intimacy of the Newmark, which while burdened with a mediocre-at-best musical acoustic (but then, you could say that about most Portland music venues, with a few exceptions like Lincoln Hall) and limited theater facilities nevertheless easily outstrips the capacious Keller, which Mattaliano rightly calls “a barn.”

This got me wondering… why doesn’t PO produce more operas in the Newmark? In an interview a couple of years ago, Mattaliano attributed the company’s admittedly conservative programming (endless reruns of the same old top ten operas, albeit occasionally in new productions — old wine in new bottles) to the risk of failing to fill the auditorium’s 3,000 seats. When a single poor-selling expensive show can sink a company (especially during a recession), the safe bet is to hang on to the core audience that buys season tickets (rather than stake its strategy on unpredictable walk ups) and, the company evidently surmises, demands its repeatedly warmed over comfort fare. Rather than risk too many regulars staying home to avoid unfamiliar, possibly dangerously dissonant departures (a canard, as Argento demonstrates, but no doubt prevalent), PO gives its core audience what it thinks they want.

But isn’t this arranging equine posterior to cart? PO programs conservatively in order to fill the Keller. But shouldn’t the goal be to make fresh, interesting, moving operas — rather than to pack a particular (and pathetically unsuitable) venue? Shouldn’t the venue facilitate the artistic vision and not vice versa? Especially when every opera company needs to cultivate a younger audience, and this one already has wisely (and fortunately) engaged one of America’s foremost conductors of contemporary opera and orchestral music, George Manahan, as its music director?

The Newmark is big enough for the chamber-orchestra sized forces used in operas by Mozart and others of his period and earlier (PO has successfully teamed with Portland Baroque Orchestra there), and for many contemporary and 20th century works. As Opera Theater Oregon has proved, it’s sometimes possible to fruitfully reduce the scale of bigger operas. Perhaps PO could even co-produce smaller new productions with adventurous companies like Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles’s The Industry.

Time after time, Mattaliano has scored solid artistic triumphs with his company’s Newmark productions. And he’s assured me that if he had his druthers, he’d love to produce more unusual, contemporary, and 20th century fare, including resuming his beloved Britten series. Of course, artistic vitality is only part of the equation, so there must be some economic reality that dictates otherwise, and we hope to explore this further with the company in a future story as it approaches the half century mark. But for now, let’s just imagine….

Could staging fewer Keller warhorses in favor of more Newmark novelties simultaneously reduce the company’s financial risks (and consequent lowest common denominator programming) and help it attract more diverse audiences? Even if they lost some of the Boheme-aholics, how much longer can the company survive by constantly repeating the same old greatest hits in the unappealing, expensive Keller? And more to the point: why would it want to?

Granted, the Newmark’s smaller capacity would require more performances to sell the same number of seats, but presumably it costs less to engage the resident artists (who have been one of the company’s real successes during this recent recession wracked stretch), fewer musicians, and sparer sets and props. Maybe the lower expenses would even allow the company to charge lower ticket prices — the single best way to boost audiences.

Some cite the recent demise of New York City Opera as a warning of what might happen to companies that venture into less-traditional fare, but that company’s failure has been squarely attributed to gross mismanagement, not innovative, listener-friendly programming. (The company’s productions didn’t always hold up both ends of that equation.)

What would happen if instead of being merely a once-a-year fringe success, those lively, venturesome, intimate productions became the mainstream, and the company reached out to new and younger audiences and performers who relish the opportunity try something different? Which raises other questions: Has the company actually asked its existing audience whether they’d be open to more Newmark shows? Or tried to find out what the audience it would like to have — but doesn’t yet — wants? (Maybe our readers can help them gauge demand right here.)

In other words, what if more Portland Opera productions really looked like Portland today: lean and progressive rather than bloated and conservative, original rather than insecurely emulating the backward-looking toffs in larger metropoli (but never able to afford their level of quality anyway) … a little quirky maybe, but fresh, original and exciting — adjectives that seldom apply to the company’s Keller music today? Would that model be at least as sustainable as the current one?

We invite PO’s responses to these questions, and your contributions to this conversation below, and we hope to pursue this notion in future stories. In the meantime, go see Postcard from Morocco this Thursday or Sunday, and let us (and thereby Portland Opera) know via comments if it’s the kind of intimate contemporary opera you’d like to see and hear more of.

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One Response.

  1. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, for your timely observations which raise urgent questions not only about Portland Opera but about the questionable managerial decisions that plagued San Diego and others in recent weeks.

    Opera was intimate, contemporary, and/or socially relevant for much of its 400 year history, and many of us would like to continue that valuable tradition of bringing meaningful art to the public in a form that’s accessible on several levels.

    In that spirit, we’re proud to be bringing our new opera, The Canticle of the Black Madonna, to the Newmark this September.

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