A COFFIN IN EGYPT, Starring Frederica von Stade, Comes to the Wallis, Now thru 4/27
The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts presents the West Coast premiere of A Coffin in Egypt, a new chamber opera in one act, based on the play, A Coffin in Egypt by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote, for three performances only tonight, April 23 and April 25 and 27 in the Bram Goldsmith Theater. A Coffin in Egypt stars mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, one of opera's most beloved figures, whose formidable bravura has won her wide acclaim. Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer, has also composed The Grapes of Wrath, Rappahannock County, and Orpheus and Euridice. Leonard Foglia, librettist and director, directed Master Class on Broadway and Jake Heggie's Opera Last Acts.
The story, rich with regional imagery of Horton Foote, the legendary Texas playwright and author, tells of 90-year-old grand dame Myrtle Bledsoe, who has outlived her husband, her daughters and virtually everyone else in Egypt, Texas. But in the last stage of her life, she can't outlive the truth and an intimate afternoon conversation triggers a searing examination of the past -- a haunting tale of memory and murder, racism and recrimination -- in this tour-de-force written for von Stade.
"In our first season, we are pleased to collaborate with Houston Grand Opera and Opera Philadelphia, two of America's most distinguished companies, to present A Coffin in Egypt, bringing Frederica von Stade, one of the great artists of our time, to the Bram Goldsmith Theater stage," said Lou Moore, Executive Director of The Wallis. "It also brings the deep atmosphere of renowned Texas writer Horton Foote, the music of Ricky Ian Gordon, one of this generation's most theatrical and accomplished composers, and Leonard Foglia, a leading director of opera and Broadway theater."
The company also includes Cecilia Duarte, Carolyn Johnson, David Matranga, Adam Noble, and a Gospel Chorus of Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, and Jawan CM Jenkins. The conductor is Timothy Myers. The set and costume designer is Riccardo Hernández; the lighting designer is Brian Mason. A Coffin in Egypt is co-produced and co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
A Coffin in Egypt offers only three performances: Wednesday, April 23 at 8pm; Friday, April 25 at 8pm; and Sunday, April 27 at 2pm. Tickets ($99 - $199) are available at www.thewallis.org or by calling 310-746-4000 or in person at the Wallis Annenberg Center Box Office located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
About A Coffin in Egypt from program notes by Patrick Summers (Houston Grand Opera)
Author and director Leonard Foglia worked closely with the late Texan playwright Horton Foote on a number of plays, and he originated the idea of A Coffin in Egypt. Foote, a native of Wharton, Texas, was prolific: he wrote fifty-two plays and won two Academy Awards for his screenplays for Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird.
His most famous play, written for television in 1962, The Trip to Bountiful, was given a memorable cinematic treatment in 1985 with a vulnerable portrayal of Carrie Watts by Geraldine Page that ranks among the greatest in American film, and last season was revived on Broadway with Cicely Tyson who won the Best Actress Tony Award. The Trip to Bountiful shares some qualities with A Coffin in Egypt: both are set only a few miles from Houston, and both are infused with Foote's characteristic honesty and uniquely Texan banter.
In A Coffin in Egypt, the audience initially believes it is settling in for a quaint chat with a sweet old lady; instead it is taken on a deep journey with a wounded but noble heart, getting to know a character not always sympathetic but ultimately understandable.
The triple-entendre title is of significance to Christian scholars and believers, as they are the final words of the Bible's Book of Genesis, describing the death of Joseph far from his Canaan homeland: "So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt." (Genesis 50:26) It also refers to a literal journey, more of an escape, really, in Myrtle's earlier life to the famous sights of ancient Egypt. But most importantly it is about a tiny windswept hill, an hour south of Houston, where this intimate opera is set, Egypt, Texas, and where the cathartic events of Myrtle's life played out.
Ricky Ian Gordon has written a diverse range of works, from a grand opera on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath to a quartet of small-scale musicals with Tina Landau. He has eclectic tastes and influences: his song cycle Only Heaven is based on the poetry of Langston Hughes. His moving chamber opera Green Sneakers is scored for string quartet and an empty chair. His musical My Life with Albertine is based on an episode of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Based on an ancient Buddhist text, he wrote The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Houston Grand Opera in 1996. His recent song cycle Rappahannock County was commissioned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War.
Gordon's musical language is tonal and tuneful; its essence is a particular type of American memory, a shared cultural past with diverse influences. As a musical dramatist, he is at his most poignant when examining the quiet moments behind larger events, and the private wounds they leave behind.
About the cast and creative personnel:
Frederica von Stade (Mezzo-soprano-Myrtle Bledsoe) - Frederica von Stade began her career when Sir Rudolf Bing offered her a contract during the Metropolitan Opera auditions. Since her Met debut in 1970, she has sung nearly all of her great roles with that company. In January 2000, the Met celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of her debut with a new production of The Merry Widow specifically for her, and in 1995, as a celebration of her twenty-fifth anniversary, the Met created for her a production of Pelléas et Mélisande. She has appeared with every leading American opera company; new productions have been mounted for her at La Scala; Royal Opera, Covent Garden; Vienna State Opera; and the Paris Opera. Her repertoire encompasses bel canto (the heroines of La Cenerentola and The Barber of Seville), the French mezzo roles (Mignon, Périchole, Marguerite, and Mélisande), and, of course, trouser roles (Octavian, the Composer, Sesto, Idamante, and Cherubino). She has created a number of roles in new works, including Tina in Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers (Dallas); Madame de Merteuil in Conrad Susa's Dangerous Liaisons; Mrs. De Rocher in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (both in San Francisco); and Madeline in Heggie's Last Acts (Three Decembers) at Houston Grand Opera. She has been named an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, and in 1983 she was given a special award for her contributions to the arts by President Ronald Reagan.
Ricky Ian Gordon (Composer) - Ricky Ian Gordon's songs have been performed and/or recorded by such renowned singers as Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Audra MacDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Frederica von Stade. His opera, The Grapes of Wrath, debuted at Minnesota Opera and was also seen in New York at Carnegie Hall. Other works include Orpheus and Euridice at Lincoln Center (Obie Award), Sycamore Trees at The Signature Theatre; Green Sneakers at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, My Life with Albertine at Playwrights Horizons, and Dream True at The Vineyard. A Lincoln Center/American Songbook Series concert titled "Bright Eyed Joy: The Music of Ricky Ian Gordon" was devoted to his music. He has been the guest of many festivals, universities, and conferences and received numerous honors, including the Stephen Sondheim Award, the Helen Hayes Award, an Alumni Merit Award from Carnegie-Mellon University, and the Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation Award. He studied composition at Carnegie Mellon University. He is currently writing operas for the Metropolitan Opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Leonard Foglia (Librettist/Director) - Leonard Foglia is a theater and opera director as well as librettist. His opera credits include the premieres of three operas by Jake Heggie-Moby-Dick (The Dallas Opera and in San Diego, Calgary, South Australia, and San Francisco Opera and seen on PBS's Great Performances); Last Acts (Three Decembers) (HGO, San Francisco, and Chicago), and The End of the Affair (HGO, Madison, and Seattle). His production of Heggie's Dead Man Walking has been presented across the country. After the premiere of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna at HGO, the opera went on to be performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, San Diego Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. His theater credits include the original Broadway productions of Master Class (also national tour and West End), Thurgood (also the Kennedy Center, where it was filmed for HBO), and The People in the Picture as well as the revivals of Wait until Dark and On Golden Pond. He directed Anna Deavere Smith's Let Me Down Easy off-Broadway and on tour; it was also filmed for PBS's Great Performances. He has written five books with David Richards: the mystery novels 1 Ragged Ridge Road and Face Down in the Park and the thrillers that form the Sudarium Trilogy: The Surrogate, The Son, and The Savior.
Timothy Myers (Conductor) - Timothy Myers's diverse repertoire comprises more than sixty operas. He recently made his debut with the Chautauqua Symphony in a program of Wagner, Korngold, and Tchaikovsky. Other recent and upcoming engagements include debuts with the Atlanta, Portland, Toledo, Chautauqua, and Tulsa symphony orchestras and engagements with Fort Worth Opera and New Music Raleigh. In the months ahead, he will also make two recordings of music by living composers Louis Andriessen, John Supko, and D. J. Sparr. Other recent engagements include the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, the North Carolina and Milwaukee symphony orchestras, the Wolf Trap and Central City festivals, and numerous other projects spanning four continents. In 2009, he was appointed by mentor Lorin Maazel as the first-ever associate conductor of the Castleton Festival, where during his two-year tenure he was entrusted with multiple symphonic and opera performances. In 2012, he completed a three-year term as principal guest conductor of Opera Africa in Johannesburg, where he conducted nearly thirty performances of varied repertoire and assisted the company in artistic development. He is currently the artistic director and principal conductor of North Carolina Opera.
Horton Foote (Playwright) - Horton Foote, born in Wharton, Texas in 1919, has enriched American literature with his unique writing style and his truthful examinations of the human condition. Besides To Kill A Mockingbird and The Trip To Bountiful, Foote wrote a score of notable plays, teleplays, and films such as The Chase, The Traveling Lady, Tender Mercies, The Habitation of Dragons, Night Seasons, The Roads to Home, Tomorrow, The Orphans' Home Cycle, Talking Pictures, Dividing the Estate, Of Mice and Men, Alone, Vernon Early, Laura Dennis, and The Young Man from Atlanta (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), to name only a few. These works represent a remarkable career. In January 2001, his play The Last of the Thorntons received its world premiere at New York's Signature Theatre and in June, 2002 his drama, The Carpetbagger's Children premiered at Houston's Alley Theatre before traveling to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, and the Lincoln Center in New York. In March 2002, Foote's play, Getting Frankie Married . . . and Afterward, premiered at the South Coast Repertory in California. A Broadway Revival of The Trip To Bountiful in 2013, directed Harris Yulin, starred Cicely Tyson (Tony Award, Best Actress in a Play), Cuba Gooding, Jr., Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat. Horton Foote died in Hartford, Connecticut in 2009.
ABOUT THE WALLIS: Located in the heart of Beverly Hills, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (The Wallis) transforms a Beverly Hills city block, facing Santa Monica Boulevard, between Crescent and Canon Drives, into a vibrant new cultural destination with two distinct, elegant buildings: the historic 1933 Italianate-style Beverly Hills Post Office (now the Paula Kent Meehan Historic Building) and the new, contemporary 500-seat, state-of-the-art Bram Goldsmith Theater. Together these two structures embrace the city's history and future, creating a new cultural landmark. Within the treasured Post Office, existing spaces are re-imagined into the 150-seat Lovelace Studio Theater, a theater school for young people, a café (both opening in 2014), and gift shop (currently a Sugarfina pop-up candy boutique). The Wallis, the first performing arts center to be built in Beverly Hills, will be a home for artists from around the world and audiences of every age. For its Inaugural Season, The Wallis is producing and presenting outstanding theater, music and dance, as well as exciting programming for the family audience. The venue also enhances the live theater experience through special exhibitions that reveal another layer of meaning to a show or presentation.