The Lyric Opera of Kansas City embraces American musical theater in its 2018-19 season with a new production of “West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein’s update of “Romeo and Juliet.”
It’s just one of four intriguing works to be offered next season. Puccini’s tragic “Madama Butterfly,” Mozart’s brilliant “Così fan tutte” and Bizet’s exotic “The Pearl Fishers” complete a varied season.
More and more opera companies are expanding their notions of what opera is. But presenting musicals is not a new concept for the Lyric, which has been doing so for decades.
“In the early days of the company, when Russell Patterson founded the Lyric and then went on to be the general director, he did a lot of musical theater,” says Deborah Sandler, general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
“There’s the famous story about Lyric’s production of the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ being featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1971. And that wasn’t the first. Russell was a very interesting producer with a range of different things that he did.”
Indeed, the Lyric Opera has produced several musicals over the years, including “Sweeney Todd,” “Man of La Mancha,” “The Happy Time” and Bernstein’s “Candide.” The Lyric is once again turning to a musical by Bernstein, and it’s appropriate this year for a variety of reasons.
“This year the classical music world is celebrating the centennial of Bernstein, who was born in 1918,” Sandler says. “We’re also in the middle of the 60th anniversary year of ‘West Side Story,’ which had its premiere in 1957.
“But it’s also our own 60th anniversary. So we’re saluting the heritage of Russell Patterson, 60 years of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, the Bernstein centennial and the 60th anniversary of ‘West Side Story.’ It’s a spectacular convergence.”
The Lyric Opera gave its first performance on Sept. 29, 1958, at the since-demolished Rockhill Theater, which was at Troost Avenue and Brush Creek Boulevard. Patterson conducted Puccini’s “La Boheme” and inaugurated one of Kansas City’s most beloved cultural institutions. Could Patterson have imagined how the company he founded would be going strong 60 years later and be performing in the state-of-the-art Muriel Kauffman Theatre?
The Lyric’s presentation of “West Side Story” is a co-production of Houston Grand Opera, Glimmerglass Festival and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Although it’s classified as a musical, Sandler says it has all the elements of grand opera.
“ ‘West Side Story’ is musical story-telling,” she says. “It was written for big complements of players. It’s a pretty fantastic piece.”
With the combined resources of three opera companies, this promises to be a spectacular production. Currently, the Houston Grand Opera is readying the sets and costumes for the first performance in April. Francesca Zambello, director of Glimmerglass Festival and the Washington National Opera, will be making her Lyric Opera debut directing the musical.
“I have directed it (“West Side Story”) before at the Bregenz Festival (in Austria) about 10 years ago,” Zambello says. “I just finished doing ‘Candide,’ another big Bernstein piece, in Los Angeles. I think that what I call the classic musicals are particularly well-served in opera companies. We have the vocal resources and the orchestral resources. Musicals really are America’s version of opera.”
Zambello points to Stephen Sondheim’s musicals to support her claim. Many of Sondheim’s musicals are “through-sung,” meaning there’s no spoken dialogue. She calls “Sweeney Todd” “as complex as an opera by Alban Berg.”
Another element that brings “West Side Story” closer to the world of opera is its dance, she says.
“I mean, dance and opera are connected from the beginning of the 18th century,” Zambello says. “So I think in that sense it’s operatic in its scale and its musical language. We are using the original Jerome Robbins choreography, by the way.”
After “West Side Story, are more musicals in the future for the Lyric Opera?
“The possible repertoire is rich indeed,” Sandler says. “So we’ll take it one season at a time.”
One work that will always be a part of the operatic repertoire is Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Its premiere in Milan in 1904 was panned by critics, but after Puccini revised the libretto, it was a smash hit and has since become one of the world’s most beloved operas.
Operabase, an online database of opera performances, ranks it as the sixth most performed opera in the repertoire.
“For many people, it’s the quintessential opera,” Sandler says.
The tragic tale of a young Japanese geisha requires a superb singer for the title role, and Karah Son, who has sung the role at Opera Australia, Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne Festival, will do the honors in the Lyric’s production. Sandler has lined up other great singers, as well, including St. Joseph native Daniel Belcher.
“We have several people singing roles for the first time here, but they’re people who have sung them in very big houses,” Sandler says. “Four out of the five are making their debuts in Kansas City. Danny (Belcher) is the fifth, and he’s clearly a favorite of our Kansas City audience. We’re thrilled to have Danny on our stage and in our cast whenever we can.”
“Così fan tutte” is one of three operas Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and bubbles over with Mozartian lyrical melodies. It’s also the only opera on the Lyric’s new season that has a happy ending. James Alexander, who directed the Lyric’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” last year, is setting “Così” during the belle epoque in a Monte Carlo casino.
“The notion of gambling and a game of a chance is very relevant to the story,” Sandler says. “It will be very colorful, and I think the setting will lend itself to the story. It’s a beautiful production.”
Also of note is the conductor, Jane Glover, who wrote the critically acclaimed book “Mozart’s Women,” which examines the role women played in Mozart’s life and work.
“We’re thrilled that Jane will be with us to conduct it,” Sandler says. “She’s a Mozart specialist, so I think in addition to her fabulous musicality, she will bring her own perspective on Mozart and his notion of women. And, of course, this show is about women and men.”
Concluding the season is “The Pearl Fishers” by Georges Bizet, which contains some of Bizet’s lushest music. For those who know Bizet only from his opera “Carmen,” “The Pearl Fishers” should be a revelation.
“As soon as people hear that very, very famous duet (“Au fond du temple saint”), they say ‘Oh, my God, that’s one of the most beautiful pieces ever,’ ” Sandler says.
The Lyric’s “Pearl Fishers” was designed for the San Diego Opera by eccentric British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes and is an eye-popping, technicolor version of Ceylon.
“If anybody Googles Zandra Rhodes, they will automatically see her fuchsia hair, and you’ll see the same kind of exotic, bright colors in this production,” Sandler says.
Australian-born Antony Walker, who will conduct the production, is steeped in French culture and music and is especially fond of “The Pearl Fishers.”
“I must say ‘Pearl Fishers’ is a work that I love to conduct,” he says. “Most recently, I conducted ‘Pearl Fishers’ at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the music you can feel sometimes not only the exotic harmonies and scales that are slightly different to the European harmonies that we’re used to, but in the musical painting that Bizet offers. There is the warmth and sensuality of a different culture, a different climate.”
As someone who began his career as a choral conductor, Walker has another reason for being drawn to “The Pearl Fishers.”
“There’s so much chorus in it,” he says. “I’m a very passionate choral conductor from way back, so I love putting this piece together. I guess because Bizet was not quite 25 years old when he wrote it, the good thing about ‘The Pearl Fishers’ is that on every page you see this really youthful exuberance, exoticism and passion that I think audiences just love.”
Sandler hopes audiences will love the entire season. She’s encouraging people to buy their tickets early, especially for “West Side Story,” which she expects will be popular.
“We think the demand is going to be very high,” she says. “We added one performance, but we still think the demand will be quite high.
“We have a real set of contrasts next season. We’re spanning a number of years in music history and opera. It’s a rich tapestry of different kinds of works.”
Lara St. John
Violinist Lara St. John, who came to prominence in the 1990s with a rather provocative album cover photo, has proven she has world-class skills to make her one of America’s most popular violinists for the past two decades. The Performing Arts Series of Johnson County Community College will present St. John in recital with pianist Matt Herskowitz Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Polsky Theatre in the Carlsen Center.
The first half of the program will feature music by César Franck and George Gershwin, while the second half will explore music from Armenia, Palestine, the Jewish diaspora, Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, Greece, Romania and Hungary. It promises to be a recital for traditional concertgoers and aspiring world travelers.
7 p.m. Feb. 11. Polsky Theatre, Carlsen Center for the Performing Arts, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd. Overland Park. $21-$25. 913-469-4445 or jccc.edu/theseries.
Kansas City Chamber Orchestra
The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra has put together a Valentine package perfect for music-loving sweethearts. On Feb. 13, you can enjoy cocktails, appetizers and a three-course dinner before guest conductor Ward Holmquist leads the orchestra in a concert of classical music for lovers.
Suzanne Anderson, Joshua Lawlor and Frank Fleschner, three of Kansas City’s finest singers, will be the soloists for Bach’s “Coffee Cantata.” Also on the program are Brahm’s “Liebeslieder (Love Song) Waltzes” and Arthur Foote’s “A Night Piece.” After the concert, Champagne and coffee will be available for romantic lingering.
6:30 p.m. Feb. 13. Californos, 4124 Pennsylvania Ave. $75. 816-235-6222 or kcchamberorchestra.org.
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at facebook.com/kcartsbeat.
Lyric Opera’s 2018-19 season
▪ “West Side Story” (Sept. 22-30): Music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
▪ “Madama Butterfly” (Nov. 3-11): Music by Giacomo Puccini; libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
▪ “Così fan tutte” (March 16-24, 2019): Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.
▪ “The Pearl Fishers” (April 27-May 5): Music by Georges Bizet; libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré.
All performances in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and more information, call 816-471-7344 or visit kcopera.org.