OrpheusPDX brings an old hand and a new vision to the Portland opera scene
Christopher Mattaliano could have made his way to retirement. After parting ways in 2019 from Portland Opera, which he ran as general manager for 16 years, the 66-year-old director has had teaching opportunities, freelance directing gigs with various companies opera across the United States and the chance to relax. shortly in his new home in New Orleans, where his wife, Clare Burovac, directs that city’s opera.
But after a period of unavailability imposed by the pandemic, “I ended up thinking a lot,” he recalls. “I realized that I still love producing opera. I really like getting the right combination of singers, artists and designers together and creating an atmosphere where they can do a good job. I still hadn’t finished.
This summer, Mattaliano is back in Portland leading his new business. OrpheusPDX will produce two chamber operas each season and, he hopes, create a training program for young opera’s rising stars. Its first production, Claudio Monteverdi’s first pioneering opera”The Orfeo», from August 4 to 7, and his second, the contemporary composer Philip Glass«The Fall of House Usherfrom August 25 to 28. The new company fills a needed niche in Portland’s classical music scene and offers Mattaliano a chance to create a new model for an art form that needs a fresh approach.
Mattaliano wanted to maintain ties with Portland, where his daughter lives, where he first worked in 1985, and still sits on the Albina Vision Trust board.
“I wanted to give back to this community that had been so good to me,” he said.
Mattaliano’s contacts among local and national musicians, artist management companies, funding sources, opera development institutions and his extensive knowledge of Portland’s classical music scene endowed him with collaborators, performers, staff and supporters.
But he didn’t want to retrace his steps, or compete with his old company so much as complement his offerings and those of other small-scale opera outfits. And he didn’t want to operate under the restrictions that most major American regional opera companies face. Producing in colossal venues (like the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium in Portland, which he previously called “a barn”) forces them to program the same old classics from opera’s top 10 frequently, in order to fill all those seats. and pay the bills for the star soloists, massive orchestras and elaborate productions they believe their aging subscriber base demands. It is a model that has struggled everywhere in recent years.
“I think it’s been eight years since we did ‘La Bohème’ or ‘Carmen’, it’s time to bring them back again,” he recalls. “No one loves Puccini and Verdi more than I do, but to do (these classics) well and financially successful, you have to do them in a 2,000-3,000 seat venue,” he explained. “It’s an albatross for a regional opera company.”
An experience of intimacy
In contrast, OrpheusPDX’s smaller scale favors Mattaliano’s emphasis on less familiar fare from the 17th, 18th and 20th centuries – operas that, even when with his former company, he seemed more excited to produce. (in alternate spaces but still acoustically lower) than the great vigils.
“Now I can explore operas that I still love from composers like Mozart, Handel, Philip Glass,” he said. “I feel very liberated.”
Producing in Portland State University’s sublime 475-seat Lincoln Hall allows Mattaliano to deliver more intimate and superior sonic experiences unavailable at the sprawling Keller. Mattaliano hopes to achieve the unprecedented connection and intensity of Portland Opera recital audiences with just a singer and (usually) a piano.
“In my 16 years at the Portland Opera, those recitals at the (Portland) Art Museum (Whitsell Auditorium) are the thing I’m most proud of,” he said. “Intimacy is not something that people necessarily associate with opera. But I wanted to emphasize this type of emotionally very direct, enriching and intimate experience. For the type of programming we do, Lincoln Hall is perfect. There is no bad place in the house.
Although Lincoln lacks some technical theatrical features, its orchestra pit is large enough for the 20-40-piece ensembles that performed most of Monteverdi’s early Baroque-era operas to early 19th-century standards by Gioachino Rossini and many modern operas. And they only require a fraction of the (most locally based) musicians and other expense of great opera classics. With only a few shows a year, OrpheusPDX only needs a small staff, and off-season summer productions mean top accomplished performers are more available and affordable than they otherwise would be. The summer season also avoids competition with his former company, while Mattaliano said OrpheusPDX’s access to national talent for solo roles set it apart from smaller, “raw and ready” local companies like Opera Theater Oregon and Renegade Opera. . He relied on his long history of connections and connections in Portland and the national opera community to recruit supporters, collaborators and performers.
“Frankly, I’m pulling a few favors,” he said. “I can say to artist managers, ‘I know the fee isn’t competitive with what the Met is paying, but will you do this for me?'”
Quite often the answer has been yes.
legendary love story
Monteverdi’s relatively short 1607 opera provides an ideal opening for OrpheusPDX, and not just because it’s the company’s namesake. The tragedy of seductive singer Orpheus trying to save his beloved Eurydice from hell through the power of his voice alone has been set to music many times throughout history, including American composer Matthew AuCoin’s “Eurydice”. in 2020, staged last year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
“The legend of Orpheus is one of the great love stories,” Mattaliano said. “Monteverdi’s music really touches the soul in a way you can’t quite feel in a 3,000 seat theatre.”
Setting the story at a wedding party in a modern garden, director Chas Rader-Shieber “takes a cheerful and charming approach to the play,” Mattaliano said. “He has a dynamic, fun and colorful look.” And he thinks baritone Conor McDonald, who plays the title character, is headed for a big operatic career. To compensate for the technical limitations of Lincoln Hall, the actors will move scenic elements around the stage.
Over the next year, Mattaliano also wants to set up a six-week artist training program that would bring a dozen selected young singers to town for summer master classes given by professional guest artists from the company, while participating in summer productions. It’s another way OrpheusPDX, while staging the first great work from opera’s past, also looks to the future of opera.
If you are going to
“The Orfeo”: 7:30 p.m. August 4 and 6, 3 p.m. August 7
“The Fall of House Usher”: 7:30 p.m. August 25 and 27, 3 p.m. August 28
Where: Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.
Tickets: $50 to $110, www.orpheuspdx.org or 503-308-4828; season passes available between $90 and $198.
To note: “L’Orfeo” is sung in Italian with English surtitles; “House of Usher” is sung in English with English surtitles.
— Brett Campbell is a freelance writer from Portland.