Pamplin Media Group – Opera company OrpheusPDX debuts ‘L’Orfeo’
Christopher Mattaliano is back with two chamber works, convinced that Portland still has taste
The first opera OrpheusPDX opens August 4 for three engagements. Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” (1607) kicks off a short season for the new chamber opera company. OrpheusPDX was formed by Christopher Mattaliano, who served as Director of Portland Opera for 16 years until 2019.
“There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you think, ‘What do I do next?’ I realized I wasn’t done directing operas, bringing artists together to do their best work, and people still want beautiful, beautifully sung music,” he told Pamplin Media Group. “I’m also still very connected to Portland.”
Chamber operas have casts of less than 15, no large choirs, modest set budgets, and less than a full orchestra.
“’Where opera becomes intimate’ is our slogan,” said Mattaliano.
OrpheusPDX’s programming model is to create “intimate” opera in smaller theaters, like Lincoln Hall (Mattaliano’s favorite in Portland). “We’ll do a Mozart, a Handel or a Rossini, then we’ll skip the whole 19th century: ‘Carmen’, ‘Aida’, ‘La Traviata’. They usually take place in halls with 3,000 seats. We focus on emotionally direct operas in an intimate setting.”
Starting off with ‘L’Orfeo’, followed by Philip Glass’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, might seem dicey – they don’t have melodies you can whistle – but Mattaliano is dedicated to making the best works, eh good.
“L’Orfeo” is considered the first opera as we know it – a unique and dramatic story, mostly sung – and it can be hard work. This is the era of big wigs and make-up which returns, without irony, to Greek legends. Musician Orpheus is suddenly bereaved when his wife, Eurydice, dies on their wedding day. The gods allow him to retrieve her from the underworld, as long as he doesn’t look her in the eye. Spoiler alert: Orpheus blows it away. However, the gods give him a second chance to reunite upon his death.
“Opening with” L’Orfeo, it’s voluntary. The opera speaks a lot about the power of music to touch the soul. When Orpheus goes to the underworld, he brings tears to the eyes of all the creatures of Hades by the beauty of the music and his singing,” Mattaliano said.
Inauguration of Usher
The second opera will soon follow: the psychological thriller “The Fall of House Usher” will take place from August 25 to 28 at the same location. Mattaliano brings in talent for an entire month, some from out of town, and uses some in both operas, which he calls “crossover casting”.
“I’ve always loved opera festivals and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I love going to Ashland to see a week of performances, where we’d see (actors play) Henry the Fifth one night and then do Groucho Marx the next night. and then do “Sound the Music” the next night. I wanted to create a similar dynamic here where the audience will see the same singer and two very different types of opera. Those tracks are Steven Brennfleck and Holly Flack, a former student from the Oregon Episcopal School, now based in New York City, “These are all singers to watch.”
OrpheusPDX aims to round out the Portland Opera’s lineup in taste and schedule, hosting summer shows and being a little more edgy. “Usher” is the fourth Glass opera he produced in Portland.
“(‘Usher’) is among the greatest works of Philip Glass. The combination of Glass’s music and the world of Edgar Allan Poe is particularly powerful, very beautiful and very haunting,” he said.
When he floated the idea of a chamber opera company a year ago, Mattaliano discovered that wealthy people in Portland would welcome another professional company.
“I have received a lot of encouragement from the philanthropic community here, and have made deep friendships with many art lovers and those in a position to support the arts over the years,” said he declared.
Although his wife, Clare Burovac, is the General and Artistic Director of the New Orleans Opera, they spend more time here and call Portland their home. Her daughters and grandson are nearby.
OrpheusPDX rents the room. “Lincoln Hall, there’s no bad seat in the house, and Leroy Bynum (an accomplished opera singer and the dean of Portland State University College of Arts has been wonderfully cooperative at PSU.”
Next year Mattaliano plans to have a young artists program to help apprentice singers and musicians and give them time on stage, but for now OrpheusPDX has to put on two chamber operas in a month and see if the he appetite for high culture is still there in Portland.
Mattaliano, who was used to the big-budget world of big opera companies, says the distributed/hybrid model is the future of modern art companies. There’s no office rental overhead, everyone’s an entrepreneur and works from home, until that month when the talent takes off for three weeks of intense rehearsals and a week of shows.
Live from Portland
In 2019 Mattaliano taught Baroque Opera at Princeton University. When the campus closed during the pandemic, he made an online video production of ‘La Caliste’ by Francesco Cavalli.
“It was an incredibly satisfying and fulfilling experience. I had no idea it would have evolved this way. Because literally, the soprano was in Mexico, the baritone was in Scotland, a soprano was living in Germany. …”
It was original and creative, but what has he learned from the pandemic? Would anyone do this today, now that theaters are open?
“I love listening to a jazz quartet while sipping a glass of wine… these are the great experiences of life, nothing comes close to the experience of being live. That said, I am very impressed with the creativity that evolved during the COVID shutdown and how the industry responded.”
While it’s nice that productions can be viewed online, streamed live, or archived, “If we have the ability to have a singer, sets, and costumes, live before our eyes, as opposed to ‘We have an excellent video recording of The Barber of Seville”, I much prefer the live experience.”
Mattaliano added: “I have a directing education and I have always taken pride in creating a rehearsal period that allows directors, conductors and singers to do very detailed work, because I think that the audience feels the difference when there is great attention to detail from set design, costumes, make-up, staging and with the orchestra and musicality. I wanted to create a company where we get the right artists who are interested in doing great, detailed work.
When: “L’Orfeo” by Claudio Monteverdi, 7:30 p.m. on August 4 and 6; 3:07 Aug;
“The Fall of the Usher House” by Phillip Glass, 7:30 p.m. August 25 and 27, 3 p.m. August 28
Where: Lincoln Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave.
Cost: $45 to $99
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