BWW Preview: Thursday in the Garden with Wolfie - On Site Opera and Atlanta Opera Tackle Mozart's SECRET GARDENER
On Site Opera's (OSO) new production of THE SECRET GARDENER--better known to Mozart aficionados as LA FINTA GIARDINIERA--debuts in New York, as part of the New York Opera Alliance's New York OperaFest, in Manhattan's Westside Community Garden on Thursday May 11 for three performances. It was created and produced in conjunction with the Atlanta Opera, which will be presenting it in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens as part of its Discoveries Series. It marks the start of a series of "beautiful friendships" for the spunky New York company--including future collaborations with the Chicago Lyric Opera and Pittsburgh Opera--which is known for its unique, immersive, site-specific productions of often-unfamiliar works.
GARDENER definitely falls into that category. It was written when the composer was a mere 18 (though, of course, he'd been writing operas practically since he could walk). While some of the music rivals LE NOZZE DI FIGARO's in quality, this one has never been among Mozart's most popular because of what they call on Broadway "book trouble": The original libretto is long and doesn't always make much sense. That's why the new production's producers have opted for an abbreviated, simplified version for this go at it, developed with the company by translator Kelley Rourke.
I spoke to OSO's General Director Eric Einhorn, who also directs the opera, and the Atlanta Opera's General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun about the opera's merits, how their collaboration came about and various other topics.
"For us, it's kind of the chicken or the egg thing: Sometimes there are pieces that are really great that we want to do; other times, we come across spaces that we want to work with and try to find the right piece to go there," says Einhorn. "But regardless, it's about working to make sure that the piece and the space are the perfect match."
"SECRET GARDENER came about a little differently," he explains. "Tomer Zvulun from Atlanta Opera and I have been friends for years"--they were on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera together--"and early in his tenure in Atlanta, we started a conversation about a potential collaboration. Then finally he calls me up one day and says, 'I want to do Mozart's FINTA GIARDINIERA in a garden. I think it's a really great match for the Botanical Gardens here in Atlanta, to give our patrons something really beautiful: Mozart outside in the spring.'
"That was the pitch, the idea. I said 'Okay, let's see what I can do and I'll get back to you,' because, honestly, I didn't know the piece at all." Of course, it wasn't like we hadn't programmed like that before. For instance, we did Gershwin's BLUE MONDAY in 2013, which was essentially 'Gershwin at the Cotton Club.'"
Then Einhorn set to work on GIARDINIERA (the original) and what he found was a piece that was "musically wonderful" but "dramaturgically a mess," including a prolonged dream sequence in Act II that turns into a "just-kidding" in Act III. "What's funny is that the libretto was done by Calzabigi--a major reformer of opera text, who worked with Gluck on ORFEO--who collaborated with Mozart and got himself completely stuck in this convoluted jumble. It was as if he went too far breaking from operatic tradition of the time--Metastasio and opera seria form, the serious operatic style of the early 1700s--and he needed a little workshopping (which, of course, didn't exist at the time) to get the opera in shape. I think it would have benefited enormously from a workshop," he laughs.
(I asked Einhorn if he thought about workshopping his version. "We didn't have that option, though we tossed around the idea. It was a logistics and financial kind of thing. For both On Site and Atlanta, this was an addition to the season. We already had Milhaud's THE GUILTY MOTHER on the books as the completion of our Figaro Trilogy" [offering alternate versions of the more famous operas] "plus we did a double bill in the fall (Berlioz's MORT DE CLEOPATRE and Argento's MISS HAVISHAM'S WEDDING). So it turned into this hugely programmed season--it was great, but it meant workshopping wasn't in the cards.")
Zvulun, on the other hand, had seen it performed several times and thought of it as "a hidden gem"--one that patrons of the Atlanta Opera would appreciate and "would help us expand our audiences with a high quality, immersive production in an unexpected setting," even though it has its challenges. "I had seen it at the Santa Fe Opera and thought it was utterly charming, but also that it could definitely use some editing. Mozart hadn't yet teamed up with Lorenzo da Ponte"--the librettist of DON GIOVANNI, NOZZE DI FIGARO and COSI FAN TUTTE, some of his greatest works--"and needed some help. But I knew Eric's abilities and thought OSO could make it work."
After ironing out some details with Zvulun, says Einhorn--the usual coproduction conversations about casting, approval of Beth Goldenberg's costume designs etc.--"Tomer really empowered me and OSO to produce the kind of work we know how to produce, knowing that when it comes to Atlanta--where there will be some changes in the staging--we will execute with as much quality and precision as we do in New York."
Because the opera isn't as well known as many other Mozart works, Einhorn and his collaborators at OSO, including music director/conductor Geoff McDonald, felt there was a little more license to shape the work differently and to do it in English. (This would make it easier to do in daylight and without titles--particularly key in Atlanta, where it is being amplified to broadcast it throughout the Botanical Gardens, as well as being performed for an audience of 200).