Jerry Mouawad: Re-envisioning Opera

Imago Theatre stage director brings his offbeat imagination to Eugene Opera's 'Lucy' and his own 'Satie's Journey'

“Opera is a new world for me,” says Portland theater director Jerry Mouawad. He’s figuring it out fast. After soaring to local, then international acclaim with the mime-inspired, movement-only work he’s staged, often with his partner Carol Triffle, at Portland’s Imago Theatre, some years back, he created a few movement pieces called “operas beyond words.” Then, a decade or so ago, Portland Opera’s then-general director Christopher Mattaliano invited Mouawad to try the kind of opera that does have words, and music, and the rest.

Jerry Mouawad. Photo: K.B. Dixon

The results have been strikingly successful, including a dazzling double bill of David Lang chamber operas in 2017 and 2019’s stark, chilling setting of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. Those productions didn’t look much like any other opera you’re likely to have seen in Oregon. Mouawad’s stagings grow out of movement and milieu more than music and lyrics.

Now, Mouawad is bringing his own, singular,  stripped-down take on opera to Eugene Opera in this weekend’s staging of the 2014 monodrama, Lucy, and — for the first time — making his own original mini-opera, Satie’s Journey, which premieres in a concert version next month at Imago.  A stage director for an opera,” Mouawad muses, “comes with different visions.” 

The Lucy Show

A different vision is what Eugene Opera artistic director Andrew Bisantz and executive director Erika Rauer were looking for when they approached Mouawad in 2019 to direct Lucy, which runs Friday and Sunday at Springfield’s Wildish Theatre. The monodrama (one character show) had earned positive reviews in its 2014 premiere at Milwaukee Opera Theater. Partly inspired by an early Radiolab episode, it dramatizes the fascinating true and ultimately tragic story of the famous chimpanzee, who was adopted by psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife Jane in 1964 and raised in Norman, Oklahoma as if she were their human child. 

The show veers between expositional diary entries that tell the audience what’s going on at each stage of the experiment, and songs that show Temerlin’s emotional reaction and reflections. Lucy is portrayed as much more than an experimental object or even pet. Despite the title, it’s really about how a lonely scientist develops an emotional, paternal connection with his supposed subject, and is torn between his love for her and the realities of the differences between our species. It’s reminiscent of Mouawad’s previous Imago project, The Strange Case of Nick M, also about a scientific experiment gone awry. Composer John Glover’s engaging music and Kelley Rourke’s often funny, poignant libretto cover a surprisingly wide emotional range and tell an ultimately moving story about the ethics and emotions surrounding how people and animals connect.

Andrew Wilkowske as Dr. Temerlin in Eugene Opera’s Lucy at Wildish Theater. Photo: Kelli Matthews.

While the original production featured only the stirring baritone Andrew Wilkowske (who’ll reprise the role in Oregon) as Temerlin, it posed a potential challenge of holding the audience’s attention for an hour with only a single person reminiscing onstage.

“Andrew and Erika gave me free rein to stage it the way I want,” Mouawad says. “I told them I think I have a concept that will make him even lonelier.”

He imprisoned Temerlin in a small square onstage, symbolizing how he’s trapped in his own experiment. That kind of design thinking is a hallmark of Mouawad’s work, operatic and otherwise. “I sometimes conceptualize and design the environment myself,  which I did in In the Penal Colony and this one,” he explains. “Once I have the space defined, it’s like a painter defining the size of the canvas before laying on a brush. Having that architectural scenic design in place lets me run free.”

Not entirely, though. In opera, unlike theater, some elements, like the tempo of the songs, are fixed beyond a director’s modifications. “That is a big limitation,” he admits, “and it seems to feel like a confinement but it isn’t. Rhythm is a giant aspect of theater, but when that’s taken away from you, you need to resort to other things. I’ve staged big spectacles, intimate dramas, all the work with [Imago’s popular movement shows] ZooZoo and Frogz — it’s all given me an understanding of the architecture of space, and psychological acting. I have so much in my toolbox.”

Excerpt from earlier production of Lucy.

Mouawad also asked the opera’s creators if he could add a narrator character, who’d appear on stage as a lab assistant, voicing the brief interpolated lab reports (previously only heard on a tape recorder) that punctuate each song. He allowed Temerlin to embody shifting perspectives, including Lucy’s, while the narrator/assistant almost seems to be running the experiment, with Temerlin as subject as well as scientist. 

Wilkowske, who’d been with the original production from the get-go, provided unofficial dramaturgy so Mouawad could be sure his changes reflected the essence of the creators’ original vision.

Imaginary Journey

There’s eccentric, and then there’s French composer Erik Satie, who practically defined the concept of bohemian artiste. Even today’s humble Brooklyn boho walkups would seem luxurious compared to his tiny, cluttered garret apartment. The one time he had disposable income, he used a small inheritance to buy seven identical grey suits (shades of Ralph Nader’s legendary footwear, or Steve Jobs’s turtleneck) so he’d never have to think about what to wear. The titles of some songs alone (Pieces in the Form of a Pear, Unpleasant Glimpses, Flabby Preludes for a Dog, Dried-up Embryos, Bureaucratic Sonatina) are as piquant as the music, which also had a serious side. 

For all his quirks, Satie was venerated as friend and artist by Debussy and Ravel, and admired by the next generation of French composers. His music influenced them, and even later artists like John Cage and Brian Eno, whose ambient music owes a lot to Satie’s “Furniture Music.” When some of it was performed as background sound to an art exhibit, Satie exasperatedly urged attendees to stop listening to the music. Though Satie died in 1924, every generation seems to rediscover his inspired simplicity, his still-too-rare sense of humor, and his crosswise attitude toward institutions. 

Satie in 1920 by Henri Manuel. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Even if you don’t know Satie’s name, you almost certainly know his music, like the inescapable Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes. A few years ago, Jerry Mouawad realized that that music, and the crazy stories he’d heard about Satie for years, both belonged to the same artist. “He was a part of my life without my even realizing he was there,” Mouawad remembers. After doing some research, he resolved to write a play about this composer who allegedly tucked his umbrellas underneath his coat to keep them dry. 

Even though he’s quick to admit he’s no Erik expert, Mouawad might have sensed some similarities. True, he’d never, for instance, created his own mock religion, from which he could excommunicate critics, rivals and anyone else he fancied, like Satie did. But like the French composer, Mouawad created art that often seemed at obtuse angles from the mainstream. And both artists displayed a restless creativity that evolved throughout their careers. The largely self-taught Satie, in fact, went to music school at age 40 (he was older than some of his teachers) when he realized he needed technical skills to realize the sounds he wanted to create. His music went from being performed in cabarets to concert halls. 

Similarly, Mouawad has traversed the distance between fringey, movement based theater to creating operas for established companies. He wanted Satie’s Journey to be the next.

But he couldn’t get much traction on the story. Though fascinated by Satie’s possible connection to what we’d today call neurodiversity, “I couldn’t find an angle in,” he remembers.

He decided to set Satie aside and work instead on a more personal story, drawn from his own Lebanese American heritage. Around the time immigration was becoming a heated political issue in America, and Lebanon was descending into the latest chapter in a long tale of corruption, refugee inundation and foreign meddling, he began co-writing a libretto based on his grandparents’ 1917 journey to the U.S. from the mountains of Lebanon, part of a diaspora that brought many here from that region. 

But that project, too, stalled. It’s the risk any intuitive artist takes when trying something new. Mouawad, of course, always had his regular, immensely popular Imago work with his equally off-center artistic partner, Carole Triffle, to fall back on. But both abandoned stories still tugged at him.

Finally, last year, the creative breakthrough: why not combine the two ideas? He decided to use the figure of Satie “not as a real character, but as a jumping off point,” sending a fictional version of the composer to a fictional Edenic Beirut (“a city you cannot visit unless you have a special gift: the gift of a thousand umbrellas”) free of the wars that have riven and roiled that alluring but troubled metropolis for decades. Then he created an opposite world, Gibraltar, with Satie’s journeys (rendered in Mouawad’s poetic, Calvino-esque libretto) betwixt the two imaginary cities representing humans’ tendency to veer between living happily in the moment, and miserably fixating on the complications of the past and worries about the future. To Mouawad, it seems, the single-minded obsessiveness that fuels so much artistic achievement also has a dark side.

Marisa Wildeman, composer of Satie’s Journey.
Photo by M. Wildeman

For music, Mouawad turned to another unconventional source: a recent Portland State music school graduate who’d never scored an opera. Recommended by one of her instructors, well-known singer Hannah Penn, Marisa Wildeman had written, among other compositions, a song cycle and a piece accompanying a narrator that drew on medieval Spanish music. When she and Mouawad alighted on the Satie-Lebanon collision, “it made for a genuinely fun challenge for me musically,” she remembers. “It was all over the place stylistically, so the challenge was to bring all these things together.” As with any musical project involving new music and the historical legacy of a great composer, “it was a little daunting.”

She, too, embarked on research into Satie’s colorful career. What really stood out was his sense of  tongue-in-cheek satire, “considered almost sacrilegious in France at the time,” she explains. Since Mouawad didn’t give the character actual spoken lines, Wildeman included little musical quotes (“Easter eggs”) from his works, embracing the playfulness she sensed in his works. “The concept is that this is his dream, so of course the music would be drifting in and out.” 

Wildeman braided Satie’s sounds with tunes inspired by Middle Eastern music, including the songs of Lebanon’s greatest living singer, Fairuz, traditional Turkish music (many of the Lebanese refugees of the time were fleeing brutal Ottoman occupation), film music, and more. Neither a mashup nor a traditional score, the three movements take listeners through the story by evoking both the main character’s evolving mental state and the imagined settings.

In this concert performance — no full staging is currently planned — Wildeman’s score is performed by an experienced band: Austin-based mezzo-soprano Julie Silva, bass baritone Austin Allen, tenor Alexander Tull, flutist Camila Oliveira, English hornist Victoria Racz, ARCO-PDX violist Chris Fotinakis, pianist Rob Fishel, and emeritus Fear No Music percussionist Joel Bluestone, all conducted by Wildeman’s fellow PSU grad and singer-about-town Ben España.

Operatic Evolution

Mouawad may consider himself an opera newbie, but his off-center approach is finding itself welcome in an operatic world freeing itself of historical constraints. Glass himself noted that he used the word “opera” for some of his own works precisely because its literal meaning (“work”) is so indeterminate. (It didn’t hurt that it also got him huge grants, especially in Europe, and access to opera houses.) Artists like Glass’s frequent collaborator Robert Wilson have liberated opera from conventional narrative. Opera, Glass concluded, was anything that involved music, theater, and happened in an opera house. 

Maybe not even that. Recently, directors like The Industry’s Yuval Sharon have shown that opera could happen in a train station, in cars, even outside Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. That expansive definition suits Mouawad, whose Imago Theatre had long embraced stagings not always recognizable as traditional drama. The nature of opera itself “seems to be undergoing a reexamination in the opera community,” he says. “For me, in the serious or dramatic ones, opera is showing the human condition at a heightened state. I’m looking for a highly dramatic, non-sentimental examination of what humans do.”

Opera’s musical elements allow Mouawad to up the dramatic intensity, and open new vistas for his irrepressible imagination. “I’m realizing opera is so much more” than theater, he says. “It’s exponentially more stuff. Every time I do an opera, it’s so many different elements going on at once.” Like Satie himself throughout his own artistic journey, “I’m still learning.”

Eugene Opera presents  Lucy  at Springfield’s Wildish Community Theater on September 26 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets.

Imago Theatre presents Satie’s Journey on October 9 at 7:30 pm. Tickets

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Phoenix rising: The Theatre Company

Covid clipped the new company's wings just as it was taking flight. Now it's back, with an ambitious series of six filmed solo shows.

On a bright midwinter afternoon in 2020, Jen Rowe and Brandon Woolley sat in a Pearl District cafe discussing the impending launch of their new theater company, called simply The Theatre Company. Armed with a combination of youthful energy and impressive experience, they spoke with a measured confidence, outlining their plans for a fluidly creative approach to producing, a way to take advantage of the challenges and opportunities of the moment.

“I feel like the town is full of a lot of transition,” Rowe said.

Oh, how little she realized.

A couple of weeks later, as they headed into technical rehearsals for a debut production, The Moors by Jen Silverman, to be held at Southeast Portland’s Taborspace, news spread of worldwide contagion. “Covid-19” was the new term on everyone’s lips.

Jen Rowe, artistic director and producer for The Theatre Company, with J.R. Wickman in the 2014 premiere of Andrew Wardenaar’s “Sweatermakers” at Playwright West.

“We were in tech, the week before opening,” Rowe recalls, nearly a year and a half later. “No other theaters had shut down at that point. On the second night, we found out that the NBA (National Basketball Association) was shutting down — which was kind of the signal that others followed. That was Friday the 13th in March.”


It’s showtime again. Got space?

ArtsWatch Weekly: A building boom for the arts (and farewell to outdoor shows), cryptocurrency & art, Black operas, Latin film fest, aiding Yulia

WE ARE FAR FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF COVID. With new viral strains and anti-vaccination heels dug deep in the mud, it looks to be a global reality for many months to come. And yet we’re also in a reawakening phase. While performance spaces have emptied out or shifted or cautiously reopened with restrictions, some projects have moved boldly forward, anticipating the day when cultural life is free and fully open again. 

In Rising in Beaverton: West Gate, Brian Libby has reported on the rapid progress of the new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, a performance and visual hub in Beaverton that’s on schedule to open in March 2022 and bring a new cultural focus to the large population of Washington County.

And this week, Gary Ferrington reports in Realizing the Impossible Dream: Eugene’s Midtown Arts Center on that city’s recently opened arts hub, a seven-story project that combines ballet studio, school and office space with forty condominiums that help make the development possible. The combination of homes and art spaces appears to be working well: The center provides ample studios for Eugene Ballet, space for its affiliated Eugene Ballet Academy, and administrative office space for seven other leading cultural groups, among them the Lane Arts Council, Eugene Opera, and Eugene Concert Choir.


Summertime, and the living was sort of easy: Performance fans at The Lot at Zidell Yards, alongside Portland’s South Waterfront, were distanced and sectioned off into their own picket-fence areas to relax with the music. The Lot’s season, which has attracted more than 22,000 attendees, comes to a close on Sept. 30. Photo: The Lot at Zidell Yards

WHERE AND HOW DO WE SEE THE SHOWS WE WANT TO SEE? As summer fades away in the rear-view mirror, some makeshift or seasonal performing spaces disappear with it. The Lot at Zidell Yards, on Portland’s southwest waterfront, heads into its final week of the season, ending a five-month string of seventy spring and summer outdoor attractions with five more shows, starting with the Waterfront Blues Festival’s presentation of Seattle’s The Dip on Thursday, Sept. 23, and concluding with a blowout concert next Thursday, Sept. 30, featuring the soul band Ural Thomas and the Pain, the trio Joseph, and vocalist Stephanie Anne Johnson fronting The Hidogs. 


‘Sanctuaries’: An opera to inspire action

The new work delves into the issues of gentrification and its cost to Black communities – and forces us to confront hard realities

Who does a city serve? What is a city without a people? These are the questions the new opera Sanctuaries raised on its opening weekend. After the performance, my partner and I were stunned. If one of art’s essential fronts is to make us feel, to make us understand others on a deep, indescribable level, then Sanctuaries succeeds. You could say that it is more about the psychological effects of gentrification rather than its materiality. In this way, much like the best political music, it makes real and palpable a political issue that can seem abstract and distant to those who don’t have to endure its consequences.

Sanctuaries – produced by Third Angle New Music, with score by Darrell Grant, libretto by Anis Mojgani, and stage direction by Alexander Gedeon – is not an opera that will preach to you with statistics, nor will it present you an easy-to-follow linear narrative. Instead, it moves in episodes structured by emotions. The performances, outdoors at Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which sits on land that once was part of a thriving Black community, were tender and emphatic, especially Ithica Tell‘s as the Carpenter who delivers a fiery monologue before the appearance of the apparition called White, channeling hundreds of years of rage and indignation.


Realizing the Impossible Dream: Eugene’s Midtown Arts Center

The seven-story project combines condominiums and a home for Eugene Ballet, plus office space for seven other arts groups

Evening at the Midtown Arts Center and multi-family residence. Photo: Eugene Ballet

Curious neighbors watched as bulldozers quickly leveled two aging buildings and a paved parking lot following the groundbreaking ceremony on May 10, 2018 for a multi-million dollar, seven story,128,000 square foot mixed use building designed to house Eugene’s Midtown Arts Center and a 40-unit luxury condo complex known as The Midtown. Finished this past February, the Center opened its doors to welcome home the Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene Ballet Academy, and the administrative office spaces for seven other non-profit arts organizations: Chamber Music Amici, Lane Arts Council, Orchestra NEXT, Eugene Opera, Eugene Concert Choir, #instaballet, and Pacific International Choral Festivals.

Building better together

For Eugene Ballet, founded by Riley Grannan and Toni Pimble in 1978, moving into the new building was the fulfilment of a long envisioned goal to have a facility designed from the ground up to support the preparation of dancers and their creative efforts. “Whether they are a student in the Academy or a principal dancer with the Eugene Ballet, these artists now have a facility that can support taking their skills and passion to a level previously unimaginable,” Josh Neckels, EBC Executive Director, told ArtsWatch.

Center construction began each day at dawn. Photo: Gary Ferrington

The construction of an arts venue in the middle of any city isn’t easily financed, given land prices and other costs. Eugene Ballet, formerly housed in a remodeled store on busy Willamette Street, opted for a novel approach by joining with Eugene developer Alex Haugland in constructing its much needed facilities within the context of a privately managed multi-family residential project.

Funding for the building, designed by Dustrud Architecture and built by Essex General Construction, was made possible in part from private funding, philanthropic contributions, community fundraising, and grants. “I couldn’t imagine a more dedicated team of people collaborating to make the Midtown Arts Center a possibility.” said Neckels. He added that the Center serves as a prime example “… of what is possible when you have the right commercial and non-profit collaborators working towards a mutually beneficial goal.” 

Expanding Educational Opportunities 

For years the Eugene Ballet Academy has held classes in what was a less than adequate facility. It worked, but space was limited, lighting was not the best, and there was no room for growth. The Academy is now able to dedicate four of the center’s seven performance spaces to its many programs and will no longer have to share space with company dancers 24/7 if needed. 

Academy Director Sara Lombardi  told ArtsWatch that students are finding the new second floor studios to be large, bright, and with plenty of room to safely spread out and practice during the pandemic. 

Amenities include much needed storage space for props, costumes and personal lockers, a quiet study area with library, a student break-out lounge with microwave, refrigerator and sink, and dressing and make-up areas. There is also a long, glassed-in lobby area from which parents can watch their kids in class. 

The academy offers an array of  programs for children and adults. Photo: Eugene Ballet

Lombardi pointed out that student safety has been a priority. The facility is equipped with the newest HVAC technology, which, for her, has been absolutely one of the greatest benefits and blessings during these challenging times, given the pandemic and poor air quality from the increase in area wildfires.  And, unlike in the former facility, “public access is controlled with electronic doors that are internally programmed. We have cameras installed throughout the facility which allows additional security.” 

Aside from the many amenities that allow for increased safety, security, instruction, and capacity, are the environmental aesthetics. Lombardi noted that the Academy spaces are especially inspirational with quotes on the walls about courage, perseverance, inspiration, and hope. A large mural and lobby banner share messages of equity, inclusion, and diversity. In addition, fallen trees from the original lot were used to create beautiful handcrafted art pieces that line the ceilings of the lobby entrances and art work throughout the building enhances one’s visual experience.  “I didn’t realize the impact the new space would have emotionally. What I see and feel as I work and breathe in our new home is a revitalized energy, with inspiration and hope.” Lombardi said. 

The arts center’s student study and reading lounge. Photo: Eugene Ballet 

Asked to envision the future, Lombardi suggests the Academy will be able to expand programming for the youngest aged children, offer adult fitness classes, increase offerings in other dance styles, engage in collaborative work with other dance and art groups and most especially target groups and individuals that have less access to the arts.  

No more ducking under wood beams

For Eugene Ballet Principal Dancer Reed Souther, rehearsing, filming, and performing in the company’s third floor studios is nothing short of a dream come true. “Gone are the days of accidentally stabbing the ceiling when rehearsing sword work. Overhead lifts no longer run the risk of banging someone’s head on a beam.” There was just very little margin for error in the former Willamette street studios.

With the new seamless dance floors, 20-foot high ceilings, and performance spaces the equivalent to the depth and width of the Hult Center’s Silva and Soreng theaters where Eugene Ballet performs, dancers sense that they can shed spatial constraints. Reed said that with the physical limitations removed, he is feeling a shift in his mindset. “Knowing you have space can make foundational changes in a dancer’s approach to movement.”

Studios 6 and 7 duplicate the Hult Center’s performance space, where the ballet company performs. Photo: Eugene Ballet

The ceiling beams in the old space were a nuisance not only for the dancers but also for choreographers. Eugene Ballet’s Residential choreographer Suzanne Hagg recalled having to make conscious choreographic choices to avoid large jumps or lifts where beams were located. 

The ability to create new works in an obstacle free studio has already been of benefit to Haag as she begins to choreograph “bigger, bolder group sections.”  She now steps back allowing her “to see shapes and patterns closer to how the audience will see them.” She recalled that when choreographing in the older venue, “it was always a bit of a surprise when you got to the theatre and viewed your work from a distance.”  That awkward spatial transition between studio and stage has now been resolved. 

Choreographer Suzanne Hagg with dancers Joshua Downard and Sarah Kosterman. Photo: Eugene Ballet

In addition to having more space in which to work, the installation of the latest audio and video technology in both the Eugene Ballet and Academy suites is enhancing rehearsal and choreographic work.

The studio sound systems use rows of ceiling hung speakers that fill the acoustic space with a sound quality that Reed said is much more like what dancers would experience in performance. The studios are also acoustically designed for live music and can accommodate the ballet’s resident Orchestra Next if needed.

Each studio is equipped with a computer and a large flat screen monitor. For dancers like Reed, who always loved huddling around Artistic Director Toni Pimbal’s iPad when learning archived choreography, the wall mounted video display is much more efficient.

Haag added that the technology has helped her to choreograph remotely. This winter, due to the pandemic, she was unable to attend a Choreographic Residency at Texas Christian University’s School of Classical and Contemporary Dance. But, given the availability of Zoom video capabilities, she was able to safely work with students and teach master classes live from Eugene. 

Both Reed and Haag noted that the much needed and appreciated auxiliary features supporting dancers and choreographers have made the venue a much more attractive place in which to spend long hours each day. These include personal lockers, a much needed laundry, bathrooms and changing areas, a dancer’s lounge with kitchen facilities, and an ice machine (in the event of injury or as a preventative measure). 

There is also an in-house costume shop that enables dancers to do fittings between rehearsals without their having to leave the rehearsal space. This saves time and increases efficiency. There are also prop and musical instrument storage rooms.

Dancer Sarah Kosterman enjoys freedom from spatial constraints. Photo: Eugene Ballet

A Center For Inspiration 

The Midtown Arts Center, a world class venue for dance, awaits those who can envision its potential, such as this summer’s Midtown Matinee series or #instaballet audience-choreographed dance performances.

It also provides the opportunity for building collaboration among arts organizations and artists, including visiting choreographers and dancers from the west coast and beyond who see it as a place to be creatively inspired. Principal Dancer Danielle Tolmie observed that being in the Center, surrounded by talented people seeking excellence in their own artistic pursuits, is intoxicating and inspiring for all. 

Sarah Lombardi summed it up nicely when she sees the Center as a gift for the community and an economic, cultural and educational boost for the entire city.  “We are blessed!”

The Eugene Ballet begins rehearsal at the Midtown Arts Center on October 11 for Cinderella, its first production of the 2021-22 season. The staged production, with music by Prokofiev performed live by Orchestra Next, will take place November 5-7 in the Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts

A Midtown Arts Center Open House will be held on a date yet to be scheduled in February 2022.

FilmWatch Weekly: Latin American Film Fest, Horror by Women, ‘Azor,’ and ‘The Card Counter’

Next up at the Latin film fest: the charming "Los Lobos" (no, not the band); an Argentine financial apocalypse; CineMagic shifts gears; Schrader's new deal

Maximiliano and Leonardo Najar Marquez in “Los Lobos,” at the Portland Latin American Film Festival.

September 15 marked the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, so there’s no better time for the return of the Portland Latin American Film Festival, which will be holding its first in-person screenings since the start of the pandemic. The festival kicks off on Wednesday, Sept. 22, with a 20th anniversary showing of Y Tu Mama Tambien, the sexy, heartfelt Mexican road movie that introduced the world to the talents of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and set director Alfonso Cuaron on the path that would eventually make him a four-time Oscar winner.

After recognizing that crowd-pleasing landmark of Latin America cinema, PDXLAFF will resume doing what it does best: presenting, in a series of occasional, monthly-ish screenings of new films from Mexico, Central America, and South America that otherwise could easily go unnoticed. First up, on Sunday, Sept. 26, is Los Lobos, which first of all has nothing to do with the Tex-Mex-influenced rock band that hit #1 in 1987 with its cover of Richie Valens’ “La Bamba.”

Rather, it’s a heart-wrenching drama about a single mother and her two young sons, who have arrived in Albuquerque after immigrating from Mexico. Stuck in the ratty, one-bedroom apartment that is all their mother can afford, the boys entertain themselves by making crayon drawings of a pair of superhero wolves, which are then charmingly animated. They also continually pester their mom about her promise to take them to Disneyland, a promise she uses to induce them to stay in the apartment and practice their English. Eventually, their seclusion is tempered by encounters with a group of neighbor kids and with their crusty but kind Asian-American landlords. The performances are uniformly fine, especially those of the juvenile leads, real-life brothers Maximiliano and Leonardo Najar Marquez; and director Samuel Kishi Leopo, inspired by his own childhood, imbues the story with a quiet, lyrical realism and a deep, well-earned humanism.


Staging ‘Blue’: Contemporary opera at Michigan Opera Theatre

New work by Tazewell Thompson and Jeanine Tesori reflects Black experience in America

DETROIT–When a new opera is performed in an amphitheater, big ideas are in store. Such a space signals a spectacle. It reaches out to ordinary people — a lot of them. That’s what the Romans intended in 29 B.C. when they built their first amphitheater.

That is partly what Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre creatives had in mind by staging Blue—named the  Best New Opera of 2020 by the Music Critics Association of North America—on Sept. 11 and 12 in Detroit’s 6,000-seat Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre. Granted, half the seats were not sold to account for adequate pandemic social distancing, and plenty were empty, but the theater bustled with new opera-goers, longtime opera-goers, food, drinks, chatter and a very vibrant show.

Michigan Opera Theatre's production of 'Blue' at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.
Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of ‘Blue’ at Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.