Handel Opera Project stages Semele for the Berkeley Fringe Festival
Of the many ensembles that offer affordable and intimate opera productions in the Bay Area, the one that may fall under the radar is the Handel’s opera project. Based in Berkeley, the group has been producing annual semi-stage baroque operas for about a decade (with a break during COVID, of course). This year’s production, Handel’s Mixeswill be part of the Berkeley Festival and Exposition Fringe.
Last week, I spoke with Handel Opera Project founder and conductor William Ludtke about the band and the show.
Can you tell us about the Handel Opera Project?
As an organist at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, I have worked with singers for years. At the beginning of my career, I had done a lot of opera, but not baroque. About ten years ago, a small group of us decided to do [Handel’s] Julius Caesar, and the whole thing just grew from there. Not only is it a lot of fun, but it’s also a way for me to give young singers the opportunity to do some really good work – which gives them roles to put on their resume for other auditions.
Most of our productions took place in the small hall of the Christian Science Organization building. Because of the acoustics thereweI used flutes instead of the oboes that Handel used, with a small string orchestra and a harpsichord. Were doing Mixes In the church [First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley]which is a larger space, so that our audience can be socially distanced – and because it’s a beautiful building. [It was designed by the noted architect Bernard Maybeck and is a National Historic Landmark.]
And although our name includes “Handel”, we have composed operas by other composers, such as Mozart, Monteverdi and Cherubini. But we love Handel!
What attracted you Mixes — in addition to his key tunes (“Where’er you walk” and “O sleep”)?
Handel never wrote a bad melody! Mixes is from 1746, at the end of Handel’s life, and is quite different from most operas. In fact, it’s an oratorio, with several numbers that remind me Messiah (there are even hints of the “Hallelujah” chorus). The backing vocals are built into the action – and we try to honor that by having the lead singers sing them, although Handel probably has a separate backing vocals.
Also, Mixes is funny and very dramatic! It was produced during Lent, when operas were not permitted and music was believed to be sacred. But with all the comedic and erotic complications of the action, it caused an uproar at the time.
As we do with all of our productions, we’ve made some cuts to make it more accessible and dynamic — we hope it will be around two hours long. It’s a wonderful Ovid story, and we’re working hard to make Handel’s English understandable and the story and action clear.
After Mixeswhat is the next step for the Handel Opera Project?
We have two concerts planned for the rest of the year, both at First Church. In October, we will give a concert on the theme of the Great Holidays: Psaumes by Liszt, a Ténèbre by Couperin and the premiere of a work I wrote on the story of Job. There will also be a Christmas concert. For next year we might repeat a previous production of [Handel’s] Tamerlanebut that’s in the air for now.
Handel’s opera project Mixes performs at First Church of Christ, Scientist, 2619 Dwight Way, Berkeley, Saturday, June 11 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 (seniors $20). Singers include Angela Jarosz, Sara Couden, Ellen St Thomas, Shannon Arcille, Andre Green, Ruben Zelman, Don Hoffman, and wayne wong.