You love opera. You just might not know it yet. Maybe you think opera is a stuffy affair, affordable only for well-to-do, dressed-up patrons who sit through five-hour performances held in grand opera houses, starring women wearing Viking hats. Well, you would be partially right, but times are changing. Opera by the Glass, an exciting new artists’ collective in Ventura County, is offering a new way to experience opera that’s immersive, intimate, affordable and casual. Inspired by NYC Loft Opera, which performs in unconventional places like lofts and warehouses, Opera by the Glass will make its debut at the Somis Thursday Club, a converted 19th-century schoolhouse.
The collective has chosen Vincenzo Bellini’s The Sleepwalker (La Sonnambula) as its inaugural performance. For two nights only (sort of like a pop-up opera) on Nov. 4 and Nov. 6, audiences can relax at small tables, cabaret-style, with refreshments in hand and friends at their sides, as wonder unfolds around them. Opera by the Glass’s contemporary interpretation of the classic opera will be performed in the round, with an 11-piece orchestra and chorus onstage and the singers performing down among the audience. Zeffin Quinn Hollis, production designer and stage director says, “It’s the new paradigm of opera, where people want to be part of the drama. It’s a very close experience.” The set is minimal so as not to obstruct any views, and the furthest seat is a mere 13 feet away from the action — so close to the performers that, Hollis says, the audience can “feel them singing.”
The taking of photos is permitted and the audience is invited to linger over drinks and conversation after the performance. The atmosphere is all very casual, but the quality isn’t. The members of the ensemble are professional and have come together for the love of opera and a commitment to bringing opera back to Ventura County. “We’re filling a niche in Ventura,” Hollis explains, and they’ve set out to appeal to newcomers and avid opera fans alike. Choosing The Sleepwalker, Bellini’s beloved opera, as the debut production fits the bill.
The Sleepwalker tells the tale of a young woman who sleepwalks through town and wakes up in the bed of a man who is not her fiancé. Lies and rumors abound. Tales spread of a terrible phantom on the loose. “The story is haunting and atmospheric, with a pensive pace and muted eroticism,” says Hollis. “It’s about the dark spaces underneath it all that we try to keep hidden.” The piece accentuates the “problematic relationship between the conscious and subconscious,” and the characters may not be what they seem.
The stars, Hana Chelberg, Alex Rodin Mendoza and Dianna Burdock and the rest of the ensemble chose to debut with The Sleepwalker for several reasons: 1) They all love it, 2) it suits their strengths and 3) its bel canto style is accessible, beautiful and emotional. Bel canto (Italian for “beautiful singing” or “beautiful song”) is a lyrical style of opera that is all about lovely melodies and gorgeous voices. It’s not so much about the exact words, but the emotions beneath them. Chelberg explains that bel canto lets the performer “express emotions through singing. It’s how you sing the words and how you color them that shows the meaning beneath them.” Hollis adds that bel canto operas are easy to love. “You’ll almost be able to sing along and you’ll find yourself humming [the music] afterwards.” (Just in case anyone needs help following along, there will be supertitles.)
Ventura County opera fans will be happy that they have great opera to call their own again. New fans will find an art form that’s much more relevant, affordable and creatively fresh and exciting than they might have expected. Paraphrasing a line from one of his favorite movies, Hollis says, “Opera is exactly the size of life. We have trouble living up to it.” Thanks to Opera by the Glass, it’s never been easier.
The Sleepwalker plays on Nov 4 and 6 at Somis Thursday Club, 5380 Bell St., Somis. For tickets and more information, call 901-2697 or visit www.facebook.com/operabytheglass.