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Drive-in Mozart: Pacific Opera Project adapts a rom-com for the COVID era

Cast and crew of Pacific Opera Project's "Covid fan Tutte" share a laugh while rehearsing.
Sharing a laugh while rehearsing Pacific Opera Project’s “Covid fan Tutte,” from left: E. Scott Levin, Ariel Pisturino, couple Colin and Christina Ramsey, and couple Jamie Chamberlin and Nathan Granner. POP Artistic Director Josh Shaw is standing in the foreground.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Further proof that the automobile has emerged as an unlikely savior of arts and culture in Southern California: Pacific Opera Project will become the second opera company in the region to stage a drive-in production when it opens “Covid fan Tutte” on Saturday.

Based on “Così fan Tutte,” Mozart’s lighthearted take on romantic fidelity, the POP production has an English libretto by Artistic Director Josh Shaw, who retooled the story for a thoroughly modern pandemic.

“Covid fan tutte” unfolds on a Southern California golf resort where two women are spending their quarantine. After the women fall for local caddies, a rich resort member bets the caddies that the women won’t remain truly faithful. When the caddies are furloughed, they return in disguise in an attempt to seduce their girlfriends — and prove that the women won’t stray.

“I’ve been trying to make opera happen since the lockdown,” Shaw said in a recent phone interview. “None of us thought this would go on so long, and so we decided somebody has gotta do something. If not us, who?”

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Shaw says POP, which was founded nine years ago with the mission of making opera more affordable and accessible, is the perfect size to pull off the challenging feat of staging a production in the coronavirus era. The company, he said, is big enough to make things happen but small enough to be flexible.

POP had a $500,000 pre-coronavirus operating budget this year and typically stages four to six full productions annually. The company, which is used to operating with a skeleton crew, does not pay rent on a home venue but rather performs in various nontraditional spaces, including outdoors.

Its unconventional, often playful productions have included a bilingual “Madama Butterfly” performed in the Aratani Theatre in L.A.’s Little Tokyo; a “Magic Flute” that took its cue from 1990s video games; and at the outdoor Ford Theatres, a version of Mozart’s “Abduction From the Seraglio” staged as an episode of “Star Trek.”

Still, the company has done nothing quite like what it is attempting in the parking lot of Camarillo United Methodist Church in Ventura County, about an hour’s drive northwest of downtown L.A.

The parking lot has room for 90 vehicles, and music performed by a socially distanced orchestra and three real-life couples who quarantined for the job will be broadcast into cars via FM radio. The stage is built on top of a shipping container, so it will be visible from a distance, and projections will complement the action.

The show runs about two hours with no intermission. There are also no concessions; audience members are encouraged to picnic in their cars. Bathrooms are available, and masks are required by everyone exiting a vehicle.

The cast and crew isolated for two weeks and got tested before in-person rehearsals, although they all still wear masks when they aren’t performing.

Kyle Naig, left, conducts as director Josh Shaw watches rehearsal of Pacific Opera Project's "Covid fan Tutte."
Kyle Naig, left, conducts as director Josh Shaw watches rehearsal of Pacific Opera Project’s “Covid fan Tutte.” The production employs a cast of three real-life couples as part of its pandemic-related safety strategy.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

“Everything is a challenge, everything is harder than it normally is,” said Shaw. “Everything is a little slower, it takes a little longer, but you’re trying to do it faster because these people are putting their lives on hold.”

The six singers feel very safe, said Christina Pezzarossi, a mezzo-soprano who performs alongside her real-life husband, bass-baritone Colin Ramsey.

“Singers are notorious for being clean and for being very aware of germs and of not getting sick,” Pezzarossi said. “So not for a second did I feel afraid of getting back into rehearsal.”

Ramsey got his feet wet again in San Diego Opera’s drive-in production of “La Bohème,” which ran for four nights in late October and early November and is the only other drive-in opera in Southern California during the pandemic. He said both productions brought an incredible sense of relief.

“It was just so amazing to make music with people again,” he said. “Not hearing music over a computer or on Zoom. Just to be together experiencing that tangible energy you feel with people.”

Ramsey and Pezzarossi are grateful to be among the minority of artists able to perform live in front of an audience. Restrictions regarding outdoor performances in Los Angeles made it difficult for POP to stage anything there, Shaw said, explaining that he couldn’t find an L.A. venue willing to take on the liability. The church in Camarillo, however, had been holding drive-in services for years before the pandemic.

As the pandemic slogs on, arts companies in America are increasingly looking at remote ways to put on productions for a socially distanced crowd. Europe provided a successful example with the continent’s first drive-in opera: English National Opera’s production of “La Boheme.” (Esa-Pekka Salonen’s completely different production of “Covid fan Tutte” for Finnish National Opera, with a libretto by Minna Lindgren, was presented largely as an online offering.)

Closer to home, L.A.’s avant-garde opera hero, Yuval Sharon, who was recently named the next artistic director of Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theater, staged a production called “Twilight: Gods,” based on “Götterdämmerung,” the finale of Wagner’s “Ring.” The one-hour, six-scene show required audiences to drive through a parking garage past various scenes.

Various other productions have taken place with audiences watching from the safety of their cars, including a chaotically staged play titled “5711 Avalon,” about a drive-through coronavirus testing site, presented by Slauson Rec. Theater Company; L.A. Dance Project’s drive-in shows, which took place in the company’s downtown L.A. parking lot; and live shows presented to 16 cars at a time in the parking garage of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center.

For his part, POP’s Shaw has already announced additional drive-in performances in Camarillo: the U.S. premieres of two rare one-act operas by the 18th century composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. One is aptly titled “La Corona” (Shaw said he couldn’t resist), and the other is “Il Parnaso Confuso.” POP also will reprise its “La Boheme: AKA ‘The Hipsters,’” set in modern-day L.A.

'Covid fan Tutte'

Where: Parking lot of Camarillo United Methodist Church, 291 Anacapa Drive, Camarillo

When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Nov. 22.

Tickets: $65 to $175 per car. Passengers limited to the number of seatbelts in the car.

Info: (323) 739-6122 or pacificoperaproject.com

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (no intermission)


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