Circles of blood-red seats provide an edgy backdrop for a recent weekday night dress rehearsal of the most avant-garde production on Cincinnati Opera's Summer Festival calendar. Soprano Catherine Malfitano walks on the Music Hall stage to perform a triple bill featuring Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine and the world stage premiere of William Bolcom's 21st-century opera, Medusa.
This is a risky undertaking, one that's appreciated — at least on this particular night — by a small crowd of opera board members, staff and assorted guests. Malfitano is used to performing in front of small crowds during her regular cabaret performances, but filling Music Hall's vast empty space creates new challenges.
Malfitano is comfortable performing Weill. His songs are a regular part of her popular cabaret act. She's also familiar with Bolcom's music, having performed his opera, A View from the Bridge, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She recently performed his Medusa onstage, although not in a theatrical setting.
The June 24 dress rehearsal is a night of firsts, and isn't that what the Festival of the New, the summer-long celebration of Cincinnati's arts community is supposed to be about? Malfitano is testing her reputation with a triple bill performance that demands varied vocals and a rich, expressive performance.
Cincinnati Opera increases its critical profile by presenting the world stage premiere of Medusa. The music debuted at Carnegie Hall this spring, but Music Hall claims its first staged production.
Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director Nicholas Muni conceived all three productions with the support of costume designer Dany Lyne and acclaimed lighting designer Thomas C. Hase. The results are progressive, intentionally humorous in The Seven Deadly Sins and challenging throughout all three operas. The triple bill of is an avant-garde performance in the best way — a crisp, beautiful production that supports its edginess with exceptional quality.
The handful of dress rehearsal attendees respond positively, but it takes an enthusiastic opening-night crowd to convince Muni his risk-taking paid off. Mounting operas is an expensive undertaking, and the financial risks loom greater when a mid-sized company like Cincinnati's puts an avant-garde work on its four-program calendar.
Muni believes it's a risk worth taking because the payoff is extraordinary creative growth, both for the company and the patrons who come to Music Hall. He's convinced the tide is turning in Cincinnati, that more and more people are open to new and experimental productions. His task at hand is to convince the majority of administrators, board members and donors that staging the triple bill is a better decision than mounting a familiar production of La Bohème.
Making that argument is not as easy as one would think. Still, positive responses to the triple bill make Muni's job easier.
It's early Saturday morning and Muni is taking a break from ongoing rehearsals for his production of Vincenzo Bellini's classic opera, Norma, and the evening's closing production of the triple bill to look into the opera's future. He admits these are tough times for arts organizations, both locally and nationwide. Funding is difficult, and additional monies are required to meet the artistic goals he's set. Muni remains optimistic, and the reactions to the triple bill convince him the company is on the right track.
"The tide has turned," Muni says. "I sensed it last year with Dead Man Walking and Elektra and previously with Erwartung. The response to those operas amazed me. People respond to quality, even if they don't like the piece. I feel today that supporters outweigh detractors. They accept new work as part of the blend."
Asked where the tide is leading him and the company, Muni pauses before answering: "We are limited by what can work in Music Hall due to time, and we're limited by what Cincinnati Opera can afford. You look at what's out there that can be a tool to tell stories and what's out there you can afford."
Actually, the key question is what Cincinnati can't afford to lose — an opera company growing in prestige and an artistic visionary like Muni at its helm.