Opera Piccola’s Mark Richter on the Chartreuse Couch

My Own Private Alamo. Original collage by Gene Elder

My greatest hope is that the gay community will embrace coming to the opera as a gay-friendly choice for their entertainment.

Gene: So, Mark. Let’s talk opera. I know you have a lot to say on that topic and you have a performance soon at the Carver Community Center. A good location by the way. I like that theater. So you start where you want. We are going to work our way to the Harvey Milk opera before we finish.

Mark: It is great to finally be on the chartreuse coach. As you know, my life is all about emotion, or more specifically helping to provide audiences with a tool to tap into their sometimes guarded feelings. Opera is about all of us. It can be as grandly referred to as a pillar of cultural distinction in a major city, while at the same time an intimate reflection of today’s society. Opera Piccola, now entering its fourth season, is all about providing the patron with a new type of opera experience, filled with laughter, heartache, love, and loss. We have shed most of the negative perceptions about opera. Opera Piccola produces opera in English for very affordable ticket prices. It also has made the art form accessible to those who think opera is stuffy or highbrow by offering imaginative and innovative stagings for each production. The 2015-16 season is going to be the best ever, with a double bill of opera taken from TV, a Star Trek version of Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio and another double bill of baroque masterpieces, written centuries apart. Our home is the gorgeous Empire Theatre, but we will begin our next season at another venue favorite in San Antonio, the Carver Cultural Center, for the first set of operas in September.

Gene: And that is the first opera offering I want to talk about: this September. What is it called?

Mark: Well, the first offering is really a double offering of American opera, Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit! and Douglas Moore’s Gallantry. Both are written to be performed as television shows, with a narrator promoting the show’s advertisers during each intermission. We want to create a type of live studio audience setting, where everyone will feel engaged. Bon Appétit! is based on the legendary chef Julia Child and her very popular cooking show. Performed by Laura Mercado-Wright, the flamboyant master chef teaches the makings of a classic French chocolate cake, which will be served during intermission to all those attending.

Gallantry is a hospital drama which hinges on the tortured love triangle of oblivious appendectomy patient Donald, voluptuous Nurse Lola, and the scheming Dr. Gregg. Replete with commercial parodies and even actor smoke breaks, the whole production sends the audience a knowing wink from the very first scene. Both comedies are sung in English and accompanied with a full orchestra, in fact the largest orchestra of any of Piccola’s operas so far. The Carver Cultural Center will be a great place for these intimate two pieces of comic opera.  

Gene: And the dates and prices and where to get tickets? That would help.

Mark:The operas are September 12 at 8 p.m. and September 13 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, $25, $35, and $50. To purchase tickets go to www.operapiccolasa.com.

Gene: That does sound inviting and the kind of opera that would get young audiences to become opera enthusiasts. I greatly enjoyed the Green Sneakers opera you presented last year. Tell us about that work.

AIDS is not a happy subject, but opera has a way of communicating a hope and love when reflecting about those we have lost to the dreaded disease.

Mark: Green Sneakers was a very special presentation for the growth of the company. This opera accentuates everything Opera Piccola strives to achieve, bringing elements of social relevancy, powerful drama, and unforgettable music. In addition, we were so proud to have had the composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, come down to see the opera and begin a friendship. People left the opera praising the opera’s courage in presenting a work that dealt with such a difficult subject. AIDS is not a happy subject, but opera has a way of communicating a hope and love when reflecting about those we have lost to the dreaded disease.

Gene: I thought it was brilliant! And it was not a long opera and it was written by Gordan and inspired by his partner, who had died from AIDS. I know you are disappointed by the lack of turnout by the gay community. The question is, what do you think it will take to get the gay community to be more appreciative of some of your opera ideas?

Mark: Attending the arts is always better when you can experience it with another, be it a friend, companion, or lover. My greatest hope is that the gay community will embrace coming to the opera as a gay-friendly choice for their entertainment. It seems to be a changing time, especially in San Antonio–a time for celebration of individualism and spirit, no matter the gender, color, and sexual orientation. I truly feel that people must feel comfortable in choosing their entertainment. Opera is at its least great entertainment, and at its most a life-changing experience.

Gene: I also got to see an opera you produced that I had read about by Leonard Bernstein, Trouble in Tahiti. I keep a file on Bernstein at the archives. It was very modern. Tell us about this one.

Mark: Trouble in Tahiti was an obvious fit for the intimate style of opera we have become known for. Set in the 1950s, many of our audience immediately connected to the staging and references to that generation. Bernstein is one of the great composers of the 20th century and his music is altogether intoxicating. The opera’s subject matter hit home with certain people, about a trouble married couple having to deal with growing apart after many years of marriage. Trouble in Tahiti is actually part of Bernstein’s larger work A Quiet Place, but most companies select Trouble because it delivers such a complete performance. Perhaps one day we can return to Bernstein.

Gene: Well that brings us to a topic I am very curious about, that being the opera Harvey Milk. It was first performed at the Houston Opera, and what do you think would happen if it could be performed here? And how much would a production cost? Give us some insight.

Large operas such as Harvey Milk better come with some kind of major underwriting, because even sold-out shows would never pay for the cost of production.

Mark: In addition to 10 principal roles, the opera has over 70 smaller singing roles. The principal cast members also sing multiple smaller roles. It is a large undertaking with a full orchestra and complex sets and costumes. Even if the production could be rented from HGO or San Francisco Opera for $35,000-$45,000, the technical costs to load-in, run, and strike could add another $70,000 for a few performances. Add cast at about $140,000, directors at $80,000, orchestra at about $120,000, venue rental at $30,000, marketing at $35,000 and administration expenses at about $50,000, you might start to see why large operas such as Harvey Milk better come with some kind of major underwriting, because even sold-out shows would never pay for the cost of production. Let’s venture to say in a Level 1 Opera House, a sold-out performance would bring $200,000-$225,000. This is still a far cry from reaching a break-even situation. This is one of the reasons it is important for operas to attract an audience that will support them consistently throughout the year.

Gene: That is really discouraging. I don’t think San Antonio is going to be a major opera player for some time. Well, so have you ever seen a UFO? And where is your favorite place to eat?

Mark: Unfortunately no with the UFO. But I am open to any extra terrestrial encounter. I am very sure life exists on other planets and possible dimensions. As for my favorite places to eat, the choices are bountiful. My paradoxical appetite takes me to a great piece of steak at Bohanan’s, while my vegetable-loving self really appreciates a great salad from EZ’s. Simple food for a simple guy.

Gene: And about other cities that have culture, art, and opera. What would be a city that San Antonio should look to for ideas and why?

Mark: I feel that we as a city should be very pleased and enthusiastic about our growth. Our expansion in business, housing, and tourism are things that other cities would kill for. But every time I hear we as an arts community are close to world-class or comparative to Houston or Dallas, it just pushes everything we are working for back a step. The arts are where they need to be right now, evolving with the pace of patronage and support. Unless we have a population base of at least 500,000 loyal arts patrons to the classical arts, we could never produce a season like other major cities, with budgets from $10 million to hundreds of millions of dollars. We should produce great art, and what San Antonio can afford, attend, and support.

Gene: Are there any artists in San Antonio that you find interesting?

Mark: It is always amazing to me how much good talent we have in our city. Certainly if you are a great talent, your headquarters might be somewhere outside of Texas. But there are local opera talents that are making big waves in the opera world, such as tenor David Portillo, returning in February for a concert with the Tuesday Musical Club Series, or soprano Jennifer Root, a member of the Young Artist Program at Glimmerglass Opera. With literally hundreds of area vocal majors very anxious to get much needed stage experience, Opera Piccola’s artistic staff loves selecting from this wonderful pool of talent. One of the best talents our city possesses is Opera Piccola’s Music Director and Conductor, Kristin Roach. She is one of the finest musicians I have ever known and her professionalism and excellent reputation is sought after across the country. We are lucky to have her staying in San Antonio.

Gene: That is really good to hear. Well, needless to say, that isn’t all that makes up an opera. Set design really interests me. Tell our theater students who are all ears what they need to know about how to get their portfolio ready for that challenge.

Mark: Conveying the story and drama of an opera needs excellent stagecraft. Good set designers are worth their weight in gold. From a small concept to large grand opera, the set design must fit many aspects of the production, and its budget. Set designers that are in the highest demand are those that can produce original and innovative concepts that will not break the bank. With small opera, this is great news, with grand opera, well … people are paying to see GRAND OPERA. Great set designers work in harmony with the stage director and the company lighting designer. Opera Piccola happens to have one of the best lighting designers in the state, Mr. Bill Peeler. My advice for all those young set-designing geniuses of San Antonio: Start small with imagination and building principles, provide designs for anyone who will use them, and build an honest and workable relationship with the many artistic staffs you will encounter. Word of mouth in this business reigns supreme in finding work. My hats off to the legendary designer Steve Gilliam, who continues to design at the highest level of professionalism, and is nationally renowned. He is also, a San Antonio native and former Trinity University professor. Talent abounds.

Gene: Yes it does, and Tony Villejo is also someone with ideas and skill with large projects. This leads right over to the Robert B. Tobin theater collection that he left to the McNay. I want to hear how much you love that. I love it. I can’t get enough of those exhibits.

I was supposed to meet a gentleman there to look around. This gentleman

turned out to be Mr. Tobin himself. 

Mark: It is so impressive and the wonderful McNay is extremely fortunate to be the guardians of this lifetime collection. A short story. Mr. Tobin passed away in 2000, just when Lyric Opera was really growing fast, but a few years before that I was looking for some set pieces for a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors at the San Pedro Playhouse. I was informed that there was a whole warehouse of opera costumes and set pieces owned by Robert Tobin, on Camp Street. After a phone call and request, I was supposed to meet a gentleman there to look around. This gentleman turned out to be Mr. Tobin himself. It was an incredible hour, as he told stories about each set piece and let me look through costumes, some still having the opera star’s name on the tag. I remember thinking, this was worn by Franco Corelli and Nicolai Gedda. He showed me what he thought might work for Menotti’s small chamber opera. It was part of the third act of Don Giovanni from The Met. He was glad to let our fledgling company use it. That was the kind of man he was. I always wished I could have gotten to know him after that incredible hour in the warehouse, but alas, he passed very soon after.

Gene: I recently read in Opera News January 2014 that Annie Proulx was asked to write the libretto for the opera Brokeback Mountain. Charles Wuorinen envisioned the opera. It was suppose to premiere with New York City Opera in 2013, but seems to have opened in Madrid instead. Enlighten us with what you know about that opera. 

Mark: The opera Brokeback Mountain was commissioned by Gerard Mortier in 2008, just as he was taking the reigns of the New York City Opera. Shortly thereafter, Mortier resigned and took his commissioned work to his new post at the famed Teatro Real of Madrid. This is where the world premiere took place in 2014 to fairly good reviews. It later received its German premiere in Aachen. I do remember the critic from The New York Times calling it a great achievement but very difficult to love. The music is large in scope and mostly very modernist.

Gene: Ok, your turn. I always let my guest ask me the last question.

Mark: Gene, you possess an activist talent and heart. As a lover of opera, what are you prepared to do to inspire others into becoming opera fans in our city?

Gene: OH, GOD! You ask a really important question, and a hard one, because no one listens to me or cares what art I advocate. I have no influence over anyone’s patronage or interest. Especially other artists. I decided to start going to the opera to learn about another art form that I also cared little about. What I am prepared to do is do just what we are doing here: interview you on the Chartreuse and have our talk encourage those who want to grow artistically and spiritually to attend an opera performance. And your offering in September is a good place to start. Thank you for coming to my humble couch.



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