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‘Tango of the White Gardenia’: breaking the code

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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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Contralto Karen Esquivel de Castro, a University of Oregon faculty member who also stage-directed this production, sings the third female role of Sofia, the long-dead lover and teacher of Anthony, who is performed by veteran tenor David Gustafson. As the tango instructor teaching his competitive students, he sings tenderly and authoritatively with a bit too much projection in the Lincoln City Cultural Center (a bigger stage, like San Francisco Opera’s where he often performs, is more his bailiwick). Anthony carries the show as the milonguero whose life focuses on tango and its elegant culture. Together, Sofia and Anthony embody the “spirit of tango,” and their duets weave two voices of similar ranges into one message.

The young women’s male “dancing” partners, who sing rather than dance because the Ballet Fantastique dancers do the dancing – are baritone Zachary Lenox, who plays his big-shot narcissistic role to the hilt, and newcomer Steven Evans-Renteria, a young tenor from Stanfield, Oregon who grew up loving opera. His voice was as divinely sweet as Lenox’s was confident and resonant.

Composer Gans-Morse immersed himself in Argentine music for the past two years while participating in the summer tango series for performers and composers at Reed College. But he doesn’t hesitate to throw in jazz and blues at times. Vincent Jones-Centeno conducted “the Banda” of Nathalie Fortin on piano, violinist Yvonne Hsueh, double-bassist Sean Peterson (who changed his red sneakers to dress black shoes at intermission) and Sergei Teleshev on the indispensable accordion. The banda was obscured somewhat by a black scrim, and at other times was fully visible to the audience. The scrim created mystery, and certainly the tango owns mystery. And even with the scrim, the music was never in the background.

There were some tuneful duets, a lovely lively quintet (“Let’s Dance in the Spirit of Tango, in the soul of the embrace”) toward the end, and a ton of arias, but I would have liked more trios, quartets, sextets. And of course in a perfect world, wouldn’t it be nice if the singers could dance the tango? Maybe on Broadway! Ha! The way the dancers shadowed the singers, however, was a clever mechanism, and it worked. Singers could sing; dancers could dance. And Jonna Hayden’s contemporary costumes made the pairing of singer to dancer easier.

‘Tango of the White Gardenia’ premiered at Lincoln City Cultural Center.

Granted, this production lacked the scenery and lighting quality you’d find on bigger stages, and there were corny details here and there. Early on, Anthony flashes back to his tango relationship with Sofia and there’s a projection of Anthony’s tablet reminiscence on the supra titles screen. And the trophy presentation at a fancy tango competition is made by a girl in leggings. Sometimes supra-titles vanished. Perhaps the translation was difficult, or was it a mechanical problem? The 20 minutes of thank-yous, many to a long list of volunteers, before the show was a bit much, but then again, a quality collaboration like this, in a small coastal town, is “A BIG DEAL” as CCO’s artistic director Bereniece Jones-Centeno said in her pre-show remarks.

But these are small details. And the reduced expenses kept the tickets low-cost (Lincoln City’s were $35, though each venue will settle on its own prices) for an opera. Yet the show is rich. Tango is a bargain, whether or not you live in a small town. It’s community opera at its best.

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Composer Ethan Gans-Morse with librettist Tiziana Della Rovere. Photo: Anima Mundi Productions.

Another Love Story

Gans-Morse and DellaRovere met at a milonga (tango event) 12 years ago and now are married and artistic collaborators at their Anima Mundi Productions. Their The Canticle of the Black Madonna, staged at Portland’s Newmark Theater in 2014, and a symphonic poem about Native American wisdom, How Can you Own the Sky?, commissioned this year by the Rogue Valley Symphony, have earned praise as exciting and socially conscious new music.

For Tango, DellaRovere, a poet, psychologist, painter and almost a lawyer – she left Milan, Italy before finishing that degree — wrote a libretto that appeals to non-traditional opera-goers, such as young people, teen-agers, marginalized populations and outcasts. It is accessible, funny at times, full of contemporary messages and healing, and as one young woman mentioned to DellaRovere after the show, “possibly life-changing.”

Though their new chamber opera will travel to places that usually don’t see much live opera, I hope it also eventually goes to middle and high schools to reach young people. Its messages are loud and clear and humane, and the art is fine enough to carry them. We need compassion, not competition when it comes to relationships. Not only can Tango of the White Gardenia turn people onto the sometimes-alienating ancient art form of opera, it also suggests that we can become better people. It speaks to a spiritual element as well as a moral one. “The spirit of tango” is often mentioned in the libretto, and its meaning is closer to connection than competition.

Cascadia Chamber Opera’s production of Tango of the White Gardenia tours on Sept. 14 to Florence Events Center; Sept. 23 to Bend’s Pinckney Center for the Performing Arts; Sept. 29 to Astoria’s Performing Arts Center; and Oct. 1 at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall in the ensemble’s Eugene home. Tickets and price information at venue sites.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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