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.
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.
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.
Tango as Metaphor
Tango of the White Gardenia is a contemporary coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a tango competition in a small fictional town on the coast of Northern California. The young protagonist, Sandra, “learns vital life lessons about her own worth, how to stand up to a bully, and how to embody the true spirit of tango, which values relationships over the fleeting razzle-dazzle of winning a competition,” Gans-Morse told ArtsWatch.
Redwood Tango Ensemble performs two excerpts from Tango of the White Gardenia. Video: Tango SinFin.
The story uses two kinds of tango as a metaphor for two different philosophies of life: “‘salon tango,’ a social dance of heartfelt connection and harmony between the two partners,” Gans-Morse explains, “versus ‘show tango,’ which is intensely competitive, extrovert, and athletic.” He observes that young people have always faced the challenges of bullies, cruel and demanding romantic partners, and the pressure to be liked and popular, but these dynamics are even more prominent in today’s performance-oriented world of social media. “So tango is a perfect metaphor to explore these questions of love, performative identity, and finding one’s path through life,” Gans-Morse says, “a perfect canvas for the expression of intense passion, deep connections, strident conflicts, and powerful reconciliation.”
Tango of the White Gardenia is fundamentally a chamber opera with many tango elements, not a tango with opera elements,” as in Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, he notes. Each character is portrayed by both an actor-singer and a dancing double from Eugene’s Ballet Fantastique. Cascadia
Chamber Opera’s fully staged two-hour production, directed by University of Oregon music professor Karen Esquivel de Castro, includes six vocalists, six dancers, and a quartet featuring piano, accordion, double bass and violin, conducted by CCO Music Director Vincent Centeno and Gustavo Castro, with costumes by Eugene’s Jonna Hayden.
The creative team and CCO agreed that Tango of the White Gardenia “would be a lighter piece that would be fun and funny and appeal to a wider age range,” DellaRovere says. The opera’s humor nods to commedia dell’arte. Creating it, she says, posed an “enjoyable challenge for us to maintain our commitment to imbuing each of our works with an expression of the healing power of love in addressing urgent, contemporary social challenges.”
New Vision on the Coast
The Lincoln City Cultural Center premiere illustrates a growing trend in the arts to collaborate and reach out to audiences beyond major urban areas. LCCC Board President Gregory Berton told ArtsWatch that the center has been including classical music as a part of its ongoing community programming, including an annual opera production with Cascadia Chamber Opera, performances of the Central Coast Chorale and the Siletz Bay Music Festival, and appearances by various string quartets, classical guitarists and others.
The center has been actively involved in fundraising activities and is also pursuing an educational program in conjunction with the premiere. Presentations by Gans-Morse, Della Rovere, Jones-Centeno, and Vincent Centeno have shared with patrons the genesis of the opera project and the creative process between composer and librettist. Members of the ensemble have also performed in fundraising events.
Musicians and singers perform in a Lincoln City Cultural Center fundraiser event. Video: Rudy Salci.
In October members of the opera’s banda will visit Lincoln City schools as part of an Oregon Community Foundation-supported Studio to Schools program and will engage students in experiential learning about opera, the instruments, tango and other musical subjects.
A collaborative art and music event, Sound of Nature, Sound of Art this fall will introduce various kinds of tango music performed live on stage while featured guest artists create works reflecting the visual imagery they conjure up in responding to the music. In addition, Berton explains, audience members will be asked to complete a small art work as they listen to the music. Those pieces will then be woven into a larger work that will be displayed as a community-created art piece.
The decision to collaborate with Cascadia Chamber Opera and premiere the original made-in-Oregon opera reflects a new vision for the arts on the central Oregon Coast. “For the first time, we have become true patrons of the arts in that we are actually producing a new work that is in itself a significant contribution to the opera repertoire,” Berton says. “We felt that the opportunity to be a partner in this production would engage our arts family and put us on the map artistically as a forward-thinking and artistically engaged community. My biggest thrill is that each time we announce at our concerts that this world premiere is taking place at the LCCC, a collective gasp and murmur immediately circulate throughout the hall!”
Cascadia Concert Opera’s production of Tango of the White Gardenia premieres Saturday and Sunday at Lincoln City Cultural Center. The CCO production then tours to Florence Events Center September 14, Bend’s Pinckney Center for the Performing Arts September 23, Astoria’s Performing Arts Center September 29, and the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall October 1 in the ensemble’s home base, Eugene. Tickets and price information at venue sites.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.