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BWW Interview: Josh Shaw of MADAMA BUTTERFLY at Home Computer Screens

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BWW Interview: Josh Shaw of MADAMA BUTTERFLY at Home Computer Screens

Named as one of Musical America's Top 30 Innovators in Classical Music, Josh Shaw is the Executive and Artistic Director of Pacific Opera Project (POP), one of L.A.'s most exciting opera companies. During the past nine seasons, Shaw has directed over 35 productions at POP including The Rake's Progress, Ariadne auf Naxos, La Calisto, Tosca: A Moving Production, and La Boheme: AKA "The Hipsters". Shaw's reimagining of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) as an episode of Star Trek has gained national attention and has been produced by eight companies whose halls sold out with record-breaking numbers.

Since 2011, Shaw has directed over 70 productions at regional opera companies. His The Barber of Seville at Opera Santa Barbara was described as "riotously funny" and "thoroughly amusing from overture to final bow." In more serious operas, his work has been described as ingenious, brave, and unflinching. Some of his upcoming projects at POP include: Floyd's Susannah, and Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte.

How is theatrical life going in Los Angeles?

Well... it's not alive at all, I'd say. There is just a bunch of "wait and see". I was just getting hopeful about outdoor options, and then we started the rollbacks. Everyone, including us, is constantly looking at on-line options and daily reevaluating possible scenarios for when and how things will work when things reopen. But the truth is, there just isn't much we can do right now except wait and plan, wait and plan.

We had to cancel our second production of the year, Cosi fan tutte, one day after rehearsals started. Our next production, a US premiere of Vivaldi's Ercole sul' Termodonte, was scheduled to open this Friday, but has been postponed to December, hopefully.

As soon as the Shelter in Place Order was announced, we began posting a production a day online from our archives. That lasted 35 days. We saved a few of our most Popular Productions for "Interactive Watch Parties." About a month ago, we streamed our Star Trek-inspired Abduction from the Seraglio on YouTube and Facebook. We put together a website just for the event, made an "Activity Packet" with food and drink recipes as well as craft and do-it-yourself costume ideas. We really encouraged viewers to participate in the chat and share pictures of their at-home viewing experience. The experiment was a huge success with about 500 people watching at any one time throughout the stream and by now we have had over 20,000 views since the broadcast. We even got a nice mention in Le Figaro all the way over in Paris.

We did it again with our 90s video game-take on The Magic Flute. We had all the same interactive elements plus we added a very nice "Education Packet" for teachers and parents to use at home. We had a very similar turnout for SuperFlute-about 500 viewers at any single point and a total of nearly 20,000 views since the airdate.

Has the situation gotten any better since March?

It's hard to say. We're closer to the end of this-whenever that end is, so that's good. Through a whole bunch of tedious work we secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan. So that means our little staff can stay employed through at least July without us eating further into our savings.

But now we're approaching big decision time about our July and September productions. So there's the question of whether or not to go all in on trying to make new digital content or to hunker down and wait it out. I've seen enough living room concerts to last a lifetime and as a director, I'm not very interested in making an opera where people can't touch each other or even be in the same room.

Please tell us about your version of Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

As we wait for a venue and time when we can do something live outdoors, we're moving forward with our "Watch Party" on July 15 for our bilingual production of Madama Butterfly e??々a??a??. Certainly, the most ambitious and important production in Pacific Opera Project's history, the 2019 co-production with Opera in the Heights of Houston was also produced at the Aratani Theatre in LA. The Aratani is part of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in LA's Little Tokyo. The cast featured 35 Japanese-American singers and attempted to tell the story of Puccini's opera as if it really happened. The American characters sang in English and the Japanese characters sang in Japanese. The characters of Sharpless and Goro switched back and forth to interpret at appropriate times. Great detail and thought went into costume and set designs to make the production as authentic and accurate as possible. We were incredibly lucky to partner with a prominent kimono designer, Sueko Oshimoto of SK Kimono, who provided elaborate and accurate costumes for all the Japanese characters. Furthermore, chorus master Naoko Suga brought her South Bay Singers to the production to serve as our chorus. Maestro Eiki Isomura, Artistic and Executive Director of Opera in the Heights, and I wrote the libretto and unlike most of my English singable translations, we worked extremely hard to stick to the literal meaning of the original Italian libretto. Supertitles were projected in both languages and will be shown during the stream as well.

This production of Madama Butterfly was a dream ten years in the making for me, and it surpassed every expectation I had. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd be able to have a completely Japanese chorus. That, coupled with the perfect setting at the Aratani, the extremely accurate costumes, gorgeous decor, and talented cast made this an experience that I may never top in my career. It was very special, and I am so glad that we are getting to share it again, this time with a world-wide audience. We are putting considerable marketing efforts into this Watch Party so as to get the word out about the unique production. Additionally, we are partnering with two organizations (one in LA and one in Houston) who are working to combat the racism we are seeing right now against Asian Americans due to COVID-19. Viewers will have a chance to contribute to these organizations during the stream.

What kind of food and drink do you suggest for the watch party?

We have put together an excellent "Activity Pack" for this Watch Party, so that it is an event-not just a time to sit and watch a video. Less "kitchy" than our Flute or Abduction "Activity Packs," this pack has a few cocktail recipes based on the main characters of the opera, a list of Japanese restaurants around Los Angeles that the cast recommends for take-out, and even a "learn some basic Japanese" section with audio examples.

Do you see any light at the end of the shutdown tunnel?

I know we Angelenos are in the city that will open last, in the state that will open last, and in the industry that will open last. So, we've a long way to go. I was just beginning to feel hopeful about outdoor performance-options at the end of June, but now we've taken a big step backwards. I understand why we are rolling back and, of course, POP is going to follow all mandates and directives from the city, county, and state. That said, I have been very frustrated by the lack of information and explanation from the authorities specific to our field. Because we are getting so little information, I'm finding it impossible to find even outdoor venues that will start a conversation about possible scenarios in September or October. I would like to get a drive-in opera, a performance in a parking lot--anything--on the books, knowing there is a good chance we may have to cancel. But so far I have not found a location that will even discuss it.

Eventually live opera will be back, and POP will be there ready to produce it as soon as allowed.

Photo of Josh Shaw by Martha Benedict.

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From This Author Maria Nockin