Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Opera opens its 2019 season later this month with a varied and unique slate of operas, recitals, workshops and lectures. The mainstage season will feature The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the mariachi opera El pasado nunca se termina, and the world premiere of Companionship by Brooklyn-based composer/librettist Rachel J. Peters—marking the first fully staged opera by a woman composer in the company’s history.
On face, the three operas have little in common besides being operas—two large enough to fill the stage at Bass Performance Hall, and Companionship of a smaller scale for its venue, the auditorium at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. It's also the first festival programmed by General Director Tuomas Hiltunen, who began working at the opera just before the 2017 festival.
Porgy and Bess is the most familiar of these, being part of the American pantheon and, in 2012, featured in an award-winning Broadway revival. El Pasado, part of the Opera’s ongoing initiative to present Spanish-language pieces as a draw for a local community firmly rooted in the language, is a sweeping drama about migration in the face of war, set in both 1910 and the present. Companionship is what its composer terms a “domestic story” with all its action set in suburban Waukesha, Wisconsin.
In addition to these, the Fort Worth Opera season will have recitals by sopranos Karen Slack (May 2 at Broadway Baptist Church) and Angela Meade (May 6 at Fort Worth Botanic Garden); a lecture on Porgy and Bess with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and renowned cultural critic Margo Jefferson (April 27 at Bass Performance Hall); a free outdoor concert in Sundance Square with Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan (noon, May 8); the annual Frontiers showcase of new works, this year with five (May 8-9 at Fort Worth Botanic Garden); and a showcase of the opera The Last Dream of Frida and Diego, which will have its world premiere at FWO in 2021 (the showcase is May 30-31 at the Rose Marine Theater); plus a gala on May 4 at Stonegate Mansion in Fort Worth.
As for the three major opera productions, Maestro Joseph Illick, FWO’s artistic director, finds a much deeper connection between the three works. “They are all about the search for identity in some way. Porgy and Bess is about establishing yourself in a small community despite conflicts from severe racial and economic disadvantage. The mariachi piece explores the meaning of identity in the long term stories of immigrants—what does it mean to be American or Mexican-American? And the premiere opera is so exciting because it externalizes the very internal struggles that the main character has with her family and the pressures of our society.”
Illick enthuses about all the major works. “El Pasada is really exciting because we have an internationally acclaimed Mariachi band, Nuevo Tecalitlan, coming to accompany. Their challenge has been to adapt their dance music style to the give-and-take rhythms of a passionate opera score. And Porgy and Bess of course is quite simply the most magnificent piece of theater ever created. For us to stage it with such a stellar cast and with the world class contribution of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra is a unique opportunity. I just recently worked through a read-through, and my reaction was ‘Oh My God!’ I think the audience will be touched by the brilliance of the work. There are parts of it that are very familiar and very funny, but the real heart of the opera is so emotive, so painful and deep.”
The most remarkable work on the season is likely to be Companionship, a piece that was “discovered” during last year’s Frontiers Program, Fort Worth Opera’s annual presentation of promising new compositions. In it, a baker named Leslie is obsessively trying to make the perfect baguette when the dough on her final effort comes to life. The bread becomes her constant companion, guiding her through the complex relationships of a magnificently dysfunctional family, while meanwhile insinuating itself into Leslie’s life. The result according to Maestro Illick is “absurdity, which somehow addresses life beyond reality.”
Composer/librettist Rachel J. Peters is more circumspect about the meaning. She was drawn to the story by Brooklyn author Arthur Phillips as early as 2011. “I immediately identified with the main character Leslie, in terms of her obsessive focus on work and to some degree the family dynamic she was living in. Plus, the story itself was full of music.” Over the next several years, Companionship was an ongoing project, when she submitted an excerpt to the 2018 Frontiers Program. Not only was the excerpt accepted for the concert, but the entire opera was fast-tracked for performance. “Thank goodness I had just a completed draft prior to Frontiers.”
For her, the opera is “a reflection on the American myth of meritocracy. There is this idea that if we work hard and with purpose that we will be handsomely rewarded for our efforts.”
There are other themes at the core of the story. “I consider myself a feminist, and I do work to amplify female voices. In Companionship, though, the conflict is less about a battle between the sexes and more about—among many things--the way women treat each other. The Dough is, in part, a projection of Leslie’s mother’s and sister’s casual cruelty. That is how, through the rewrite process, I arrived at the conclusion that the Dough must be sung by a mezzo as opposed to a male voice.”
Peters is no stranger to casting and writing for inanimate objects and other non-human characters. She has written parts for, a reincarnated dog, taxidermy specimens, and even chicken pox. “The chicken pox sing as a barbershop quartet,” she says with justifiable pride at her inventiveness. I love to play with the text and the music to try to create a language that would be appropriate for a non-human singer. In Companionship, for instance, the bread speaks with a syntax that is unique, instantly placing the audience in unfamiliar territory.”
The designer of Companionship, acclaimed artist Laura Anderson Barbata (sister of Amphibian Stage Productions Artistic Director Kathleen Culebro), was equally excited about the challenges of creating the living but clearly non-human baguette. Although she is careful to point out that in all 14 baguettes come to life at various parts of the opera. She thinks it was her love of bread and her fascination with its texture and comforting nature which drew her initially and gave her the inspiration for the design. Beyond that, she was influenced by Bauhaus, Ballet Russe and Picasso’s “Guernica.” “The opera is so different, intimate and personal. I am so thankful for the opportunity for the opportunity to enter the inner self of the main character, because it gave me so much to work with as a designer.” Barbata agrees that the opera presents the internal struggles that make up anyone’s life, made more extreme by both the extrinsic forces and the inner psychology.
Maestro Illick acknowledges both the political and the psychological forces of all three of the featured operas. “They all have strong messages about very timely subjects—whether it is racial struggles, immigration issues or feminism. But ultimately they are about strong and emotionally appealing stories. That and the overall great music are what bring this season into a coherent package.”
Below is a complete schedule of events in the Fort Worth Opera Festival:
Fort Worth Opera Festival subscriptions can be purchased here (click the ticket link in each event below for individual tickets or RSVPs). Full productions are noted in blue.
Porgy and Bess
Music by George Gershwin | lyrics by Ira Gershwin | libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 26
- 2 p.m. Sunday, April 28
- 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 30
Bass Performance Hall
With Thomas Cannon as Porgy and Indira Mahajan as Bess. Originally directed and designed by Francesca Zambello
Margo Jefferson Lecture
- 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27
Bass Performance Hall
Music and libretto by Rachel J. Peters
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 1
- 7:3 p.m. Friday, May 3
- 5 p.m. Sunday, May 5
Fort Worth Botanic Garden
With Maren Weinberger as Leslie. Directed by Beth Greenberg, music direction by Adam Marks.
Rachel J. Peters will also speak about the work at 1 p.m. May 5 at Arts Fifth Avenue in Fort Worth.
Soprano Karen Slack in Concert
- 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2
Broadway Baptist Church, 305 W. Broadway Avenue, Fort Worth
Southern Soirée Gala
- 6-10 p.m. Saturday, May 4
Stonegate Mansion, Fort Worth
Soprano Angela Meade in Concert
Presented by McCammon Voice Competition and Fort Worth Opera
- 7 p.m. Monday, May 6
Fort Worth Botanic Garden
Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan
- 12 p.m. Wednesday, May 8
Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth (free, no reservation required)
Frontiers New Works Showcase
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8
- 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9
Fort Worth Botanic Garden
The Hatfield-McCoy Triptychs
Music and libretto by Steven Aldredge
Set deep in the Appalachian Mountains, on the border between good and evil, composer and librettist Steven Aldredge’s The Hatfield-McCoy Triptychs recounts the epic American story of betrayal, love, and the destructive force of revenge as it scorches a trail of unspeakable violence across generations.
Behold the Man
Music by Paul Fowler | Libretto by Andrew Flack
In August 2012, during the depths of the Global Recession an elderly woman in the village of Borja, Spain, attempts to restore a little-known and long-ignored fresco of Jesus in her local church. Discovered before she’s finished, her botched image goes viral, ascending to the cult status of “Internet Sensation.” Composer Paul Fowler and librettist Andrew Flack’s Behold the Man explores how artist Cecilia Gimenez’s efforts helped revitalize the economy of a struggling town. Was it a miracle? Great outsider art? A selfless act of faith? Or just another internet meme?
Death of a Playboy
Music and Libretto by Brian Rosen
Composer and librettist Brian Rosen’s Death of a Playboy takes place at the graveside funeral of the original cad, Hugh Hefner. A former playmate, whose charitable foundation depends on the financial support of the recently deceased, prepares to give a eulogy. The only challenge is that she hates his guts. As she debates with her husband, she is confronted with a dilemma as to whether it is wiser to speak her truth or to play nice?
Music and Libretto by Tony Soiltro
Based on a play by the mysterious playwright Jane Martin, composer and librettist Tony Solitro’s Triangle, follows Joyce, a woman who finds herself in a love triangle. She isn’t concerned. She knows exactly how to handle the situation. When she learns the “other woman” is a goddess, she begins to unravel. How can she compete with that?
Music by Patrick Soluri | Libretto by Devorah Brevoort
An adaptation of the classic novella by George Moore, composer Patrick Soluri (Buried Alive, 2016 Festival) and librettist Deborah Brevoort’s Albert Nobbs is a gender-bending story about a butler in a 19th century Irish hotel who hides a secret: he is really a she. When her identity is discovered by another woman posing as a man, Albert begins a desperate search for love and identity that leads to despair and ultimately her death. This riveting story was also adapted into a critically acclaimed film starring Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, which was nominated for three Oscars at the 84th Academy Awards.
El pasado nunca se termina (The Past is Never Finished)
Music by José “Pepe” Martinez, Libretto by Leonard Foglia
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 10
7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11
2 p.m. Sunday, May 12
Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth
Featuring Abigail Santos Villalobos, Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo, Daniel Montenegro, Luis Ledesma, Francisco Garcia Jr., Cassandra Zoé. Directed by Leonard Foglia with music direction by David Hanlon.
The Last Dream of Frida & Diego (showcase)
Music by Gabriela Lena Frank | Libretto by Nilo Cruz
The World Premiere will happen at Fort Worth Opera in 2021
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 30 RSVP (free)
7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 31 RSVP (free)
» Keep watching for coverage of the FWO Festival 2019 in our special section, which you can link to by clicking on FORT WORTH OPERA FESTIVAL 2019 at the top of this page in the black banner