Cascadia Chamber Opera

‘Tango of the White Gardenia’: breaking the code

New made-in-Oregon chamber opera addresses bullying, identity and the spiritual healing power of art 

by ANGELA ALLEN

For know-it-all critics and discerning music-goers, “community opera” can be code for bad music, lousy singers and shabby production.

Not this time.

Tango of the White Gardenia, a collaboration of Cascadia Chamber Opera (previously Cascadia Concert Opera) and Lincoln City Cultural Center, was a triumph, if on a far smaller scale than Portland Opera, or even Portland State University student productions. Composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s Argentine-influenced music and the touching tango-centered libretto by artistic and life partner Tiziana DellaRovere addressed bullying, identity and the spiritual healing power of art — in this case tango.

Sung in English and helped by projected supra titles, the two-hour opera premiered Sept. 8 at the 220-seat Lincoln City Cultural Center, whose production featured four-musicians-plus conductor, six well-cast singers, and six limber dancers from the imaginative Eugene-based Ballet Fantastique. It now tours to Florence this Friday, then Bend, Astoria and Eugene for further performances with some changes in cast and production crews. (See Oregon ArtsWatch’s preview by Gary Ferrington.)

A scene from ‘Tango of the White Gardenia.’

Tango of the White Gardenia follows two young tango-driven couples through a dance competition, shadowed by dancers/alter egos. As the story unfolds, the characters come to terms with who they are and why they do things that they do. The main character, Sandra, sung expressively by Portland lyric soprano Kati Burgess, eventually understands that being herself is better than trying to be someone else (“the treasure is within you”) — the “somebody else” being Jo-Jo, her bullying counterpart sung humorously and intentionally crassly at times by bad-girl self-declared “fallen angel” soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas. Jo-Jo’s music is somewhat discordant, just as she is.

The chamber opera portrays the struggle to become oneself as arduous, emotionally and physically. There is even a second-act wrestling match between the two young women, and throughout the piece, both sopranos sing and act well.

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‘Tango of the White Gardenia’: dance lessons

New Oregon opera about bullying and self-esteem premieres in Lincoln City, part of a coastal classical music surge

Although well known for its coastal attractions and the location of one of the world’s shortest rivers, Lincoln City has never been thought of as a destination for opera — let alone a world premiere. That changes this weekend when Cascadia Chamber Opera performs Southern Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse and librettist Tiziana DellaRovere’s two-act opera, Tango of the White Gardenia, at the vibrant Lincoln City Cultural Center on September 8-9, followed by a tour to other Oregon cities.

‘White Gardenia’ cast members perform at LCCC fundraising event. Photo: Rudy Salci.

Previously known as Cascadia Concert Opera, the recently renamed Cascadia Chamber Opera performs full-length and/or abridged operas sung in English by local and regional artists, often staged in “underserved communities using non-traditional and community-friendly venues” like schools, galleries, churches, homes and other spaces, sometimes at “little or no cost to the general public,” according to the Oregon Cultural Trust.

Gans-Morse and CCO’s co-founders Artistic Director Bereniece Jones-Centeno and Music Director Vincent Centeno have all been friends since since they were graduate students at the University of Oregon. Their shared interest in making opera accessible, affordable, approachable, relevant, and fun for audiences — particularly those whose circumstances might otherwise prevent them from enjoying opera — was an important reason that CCO, with help from an Oregon Arts Commission Career Grant, commissioned Gans-Morse and DellaRovere to compose a new opera to celebrate the non-profit organization’s 10th anniversary season.

Long time friends bring a new opera to underserved Oregon communities. From left: Centeno, Jones-Centeno, DellaRovere, Gans-Morse. Photo: Deane Ingram.

Gans-Morse and DellaRovere and their Anima Mundi Productions are best known for their first opera, Canticle of the Black Madonna, staged at Portland’s Newmark Theatre in 2014, which Oregon ArtsWatch called “one of the most exciting developments of the arts season.” This year, the Rogue Valley Symphony celebrated its 50th anniversary by commissioning the husband and wife team to compose a program symphony, How Can You Own The Sky? Both works reflect their interest in representing marginalized populations and addressing societal wounds through the creation of new works.

This time, the social challenges DellaRovere wanted to address revolved around bullying, self-esteem, and body image. And she wanted to base the opera on Argentine tango.

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