BWW Preview: Thursday in the Garden with Wolfie - On Site Opera and Atlanta Opera Tackle Mozart's SECRET GARDENER

By: May. 12, 2017
Ashley Kerr and Spencer Viator

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.

Eric Einhorn

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.

Tomer Zvulun

"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.

Manhattan's Westside Community Garden

(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).

"The great thing about this piece is that it shows us seven people dealing with love and relationships in different ways. And like all of Mozart it gives us a view into our own personal experiences. There's something everybody's going to connect with on some level: 'Oh, I've done something crazy like that before,' or' I know how she feels' or 'I've been pursued relentlessly by somebody.'

"We've pared it down to 90 minutes, from almost four hours, and homed in on these three love stories that are the true focus of the piece--and made it 'follow-able.' All of a sudden you have this great arc, this great music, some wonderful arias that bridge opera seria and what we think of as real Mozart opera. You can certainly hear his later work in it; for example, the Act I finale of the original gets very close to the Act II finale of FIGARO in its complexity and its beauty. It also offers the character of Sandrina, who's the prototype of some of his later strong-willed soubrettes, like Susanna in NOZZE. So it's an incredibly mature piece in a lot of ways--he just needed a better librettist," says Einhorn.

I asked him whether, after all the cuts, there was still enough of an arc in the material for it to resemble what they originally found and loved about the opera. "Absolutely," says Einhorn. "Mozart takes you on this journey with all these subplots along the way and each informs the next. When you start making cuts, you're left with a hole. So the trick is: How do you get from point A to point L, now that we've excised what was in between? What Kelly (Rourke) did that was absolutely fantastic was to bridge those points really well.

"We only rewrote a part of the story, which has the same problem for modern audiences as the 'Batti batti, o bel Masseto' aria from DON GIOVANNI, where Zerlina begs Masseto to beat her if he wants (but she swears she's been true to him). Here, we've had to go one step further and make a change from the very beginning of the story, which has to do with the two main characters, Belfiore and Sandrina, where he stabs her, leaves her for dead and she runs away--but talks about how she still loves him in the course of the story. How can we want him to win if he's abusive? So we softened it to being a matter of temper and not physical violence--and mix it with a healthy dose of mental instability inherent in the music for all the characters. We also refocused the character of Serpetta--a character like Despina in COSI--because she ended up with too many arias to explain all her storylines."

But even after all the changes were incorporated in the opera there was still the challenge of taking what was basically a new opera--one where the performers didn't have the role in their back pockets or experiences from other productions to simplify the rehearsal process--and bring it to life in just 15 days. "We tried to stay in front of all the obstacles in front of us, like doing it in the round, being in a non-amplified setting, having it feel like a cohesive piece after making major cuts, by making extensive site visits to remind ourselves of the acoustics and thinking about all the 'what-ifs.' I think that all our legwork paid off.

"The great thing about being in this position is that no one comes with any preconceived notions and we're all figuring it out together. It was really nice to work with the translator, Kelly--who focused the narrative as I wanted--who has been here for rehearsals so we got to fine-tune the text, since, in the singspiel tradition, there's dialogue, which is always tricky in opera. She's a great collaborator and if something isn't working, she'll pop up and say, 'what if you try this?' Nothing is sacred about changing her work.

The Mozart opera is being done in Atlanta as an addition to the company's Discoveries Series--which this year included Astor Piazzolla's MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES, melding opera and tango and done in a bordello-like setting--and it sold out instantly. (In New York, the performances are in a garden wedged between two buildings--good from an acoustics perspective--and free because it's a public space.)

"Seeing an opera up close, the way audiences will experience THE SECRET GARDENER, is a very special experience, because it takes away the distance that is inherent in even smaller opera houses. It's like going to a magic show and seeing how the tricks are done. There's a special thrill to it," says Zvulun


Production team and orchestra
Conductor: Geoffrey McDonald
Director: Eric Einhorn
Costume Designer: Beth Goldenberg
Lighting Designer: Shawn Kaufman
Orchestra: Grand Harmonie
English Translation: Kelley Rourke
Orchestral Arrangement: Yoni Kahn & Thomas Carroll

Sandrina: Ashley Kerr, soprano
Arminda: Maeve Höglund, soprano
Serpetta: Alisa Jordheim, soprano
Ramiro: Kristin Gornstein, mezzo-soprano
Belfiore: Spencer Viator, tenor
Podesta: Jonathan Blalock, tenor
Nardo: Jorell Williams, baritone

The performances

In New York, the production will be performed on May 11-13, 2017 at the Westside Community Garden (123 West 89th Street) at 7pm. (Rain Date: May 14). Tickets are free with reservations. In accordance with the West Side Community Garden's charter, the production will be open to everyone. 50 reserved seats will be available for each performance. Open seating and standing room will be available for all after that, on a first-come first-served basis. All tickets are completely free. On Site Opera is a member of The New York Opera Alliance (NYOA) in partnership with OPERA America. NYOA's New York OperaFest, which runs from the beginning of May through June, is comprised of 34 events from 24 companies.

The Atlanta Opera Discoveries Series production will take place at The Atlanta Botanical Garden, located adjacent to Piedmont Park at 1345 Piedmont Avenue, on May 19 (3 pm), May 20 (1:30 pm) and May 20 (5:30 pm). While tickets are sold out, the opera will be broadcast throughout the gardens.


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