Stephen Schwartz conjures up an opera
The sky is a clear and light enamel blue, but inside the banquet hall of the El Montecito Presbyterian Church, a light drizzle falls. You can’t see the actual drops, of course, because they exist in another realm -- the bountiful imagination of “Wicked” composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz.
Schwartz is one of the American musical theater’s most successful composer-lyricists, and the scene is a rehearsal for his first opera, “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” which Opera Santa Barbara will unveil Saturday at the Granada Theatre for the first of three performances. Based on the 1964 British film starring Richard Attenborough and an Oscar-nominated Kim Stanley, the opera tells the story of an emotionally unstable medium who persuades her husband to kidnap a child so that she can become famous when she reveals the whereabouts of the girl and the ransom.
Things go terribly wrong in the story, but not in the El Montecito church hall, where soprano Lauren Flanigan, as the twisted medium, Myra, pretending she’s a nurse in a hospital ward (actually her home), is singing wistfully to the kidnapped young girl.
Later, Flanigan, Schwartz’s muse who’s known for her flair for acting, talks about working with an opera composer who doesn’t come from the world of classical music.
“It’s as if Leonard Bernstein were writing the opera,” says the singer, who has also had music written for her by Philip Glass and William Bolcom. “If he were writing an opera, this is the kind of vernacular and vocabulary he would be completely immersed in.”
It’s a significant departure for Schwartz, 61, best known as the driving force behind such Broadway mega-hits as “Godspell” and “Pippin,” and a three-time Oscar winner and four-time Grammy winner.
In fact, Schwartz is one of Broadway’s most successful composer-lyricists -- only Jerry Herman has equaled his record for writing three shows (“Wicked,” “Pippin” and “The Magic Show”) that have each topped 1,500 performances. But despite his accomplishments, he has never won a Tony in his own backyard, even though he has received five nominations.
Not surprisingly, the West Coast feels right to him as a fitting place for his high-culture debut, a possibly sacrilegious foray into a largely rarefied realm of music.
“I just always have been better treated in Los Angeles,” he says, seated at a huge dark-wood table in the church library. “I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s my sensibility.”
If Los Angeles is the fountainhead of pop culture and New York the mecca for high, heading west may indeed have been wise for his first daring crossover on the professional stage, because Schwartz’s idea of what a contemporary opera should be diverges from the sensibility of many recent works. His goal is to entertain audiences, and he’s borrowing conventions from the popular arenas of musical theater and film to do it. Schwartz and his producers know that may not sit well with classical music critics, who often bristle at any departure from contemporary music’s intellectual purity of purpose.
“Classical music, in my personal opinion, went through a very bad phase through a lot of the 20th century, when the 12-tone [atonal] rule took effect,” Schwartz says. “And if something was accessible to listeners or had some emotional content, then it was denigrated by the critics and orchestra conductors of the day.
“There was a long period of time where classical music lost a lot of audience because no one actually wanted to listen to it. There were, of course, exceptions, the Coplands, etc., and just in the last few years, my sense is that the minimalist composers -- Philip Glass and John Adams -- broke that mode, but it was hard. And now people are writing tunes again.”
For the most part, opera companies program seasons with tuneful works, a seat-filling strategy that largely eliminates repeat performances of the 20th century pieces. But Schwartz’s English-language opera may have more in common with its European predecessors, offering tunes that audience members may even find themselves humming as they leave the theater.
“I don’t want to mislead people,” he says. “The music for ‘Seance’ is certainly, I think, challenging in some ways. It’s not just simplistic tunes. But definitely there are melodies in it that are at least intended to be memorable.”
Far from serving as a handicap, Schwartz believes, his experience in musical theater enables him to bring a fresh, needed approach.
“I bring a certain skill set with me -- I hope it doesn’t sound immodest to say it, but I believe it served me well: principally a dramaturgical and storytelling skill. I think many contemporary composers who undertake opera don’t have the same level of experience in that regard.
“They may be more musically knowledgeable and perhaps more musically accomplished, but I have a lot of years of experience telling a story on the stage, using song and music to advance the plot and illuminate the characters. One of my goals was not just to have people sing pretty music, but to tell a really good story.”
Working from the original film script, as well as earlier versions by “Seance’s” director, Bryan Forbes, Schwartz wrote a libretto that alters the fate of the movie’s characters. So it was important for him to break away from another opera convention -- including a synopsis in the program. “I think part of the fun is not knowing” the ending, he says.
The opera’s seeds were planted in 2004, shortly after “Wicked’s” opening, when literary agent John Franklin suggested Schwartz use “Seance” as the basis of a new musical. The composer declined, believing that the dark, moody movie was not a good fit.
Meanwhile, wanting to stretch beyond musical theater, he’d contemplated writing an opera, a plan he’d discussed with his friend, producer Michael Jackowitz. So when Jackowitz, now the production’s executive producer, moved to Santa Barbara, he suggested that Opera Santa Barbara commission a work by Schwartz for the soon-to-be renovated Granada Theatre.
Delighted at the prospect, the company asked Schwartz if he had any ideas “and more or less instantaneously, ‘Seance on a Wet Afternoon’ came leaping out of that memory chip,” the composer says.
Opera Santa Barbara General Director Steven Sharpe says, “The distinction between what is opera and what is musical theater is slowly starting to erode, and obviously there’s a big difference between the voices and that will probably always be there. But in terms of musical styles, you’re starting to see a lot of crossover, and our goal was to significantly bridge that gap.”
In early 2006, Santa Barbara secured $1 million for the first commission in its 15-year history from arts philanthropists Richard and Luci Janssen and Sara Miller McCune, and Schwartz dove into the intense process of writing and orchestrating his first professionally staged opera.
This production, directed by Schwartz’s son, Scott, will have a cast of 23 -- seven principals and an ensemble of news reporters who comment musically on the action -- that includes Kim Josephson as Myra’s husband and Hila Plitmann and John Kimberling as the wealthy couple whose child is snatched. Josephson, a baritone, is a veteran of more than 230 performances at Metropolitan Opera, including the title role of “Rigoletto,” while Plitmann is an Israeli soprano and Juilliard honors grad who has sung premieres of important works in New York and Berlin. Kimberling is a tenor who has straddled L.A. Opera and musical theater.
The opera can be performed by just 16 singers or as many as 60 with different orchestration, Schwartz says. Creating an opera with flexibility is important to the company and composer.
“It is absolutely 100% our goal that this effort results in a new American opera that is accessible and shown to be popular with broad audiences and therefore has a life,” Sharpe says.
While opera companies concerned with the graying of their audiences often respond by staging audacious productions of classic works, Flanigan believes they would do well to perform music that appeals to a wider audience. “Seance,” she says, would probably draw fans of Schwartz’s Broadway shows to their first opera.
“Why do those girls keep going back to ‘Wicked’?” Flanigan muses. “It’s because something happens in that meeting of music and words and hearing that person sing it that people can’t get enough of because that’s the experience they want. And that, in a funny way, may be his real genius, because that’s what he’s able to do.”
‘Seance on a Wet Afternoon’
Where: Granada Theatre, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 2, 2:30 p.m. Oct. 4
Price: $23 to $188
Contact: : (805) 899-2222; www.operasb.com
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes