Thursday, January 15, 2015

Rise of the Small Opera Company, Part Two: Pacific Opera Project

As promised in recent article, "Rise of the Small Opera Company," we will be featuring small opera companies from across the country, in order to gain their perspective on opera today. We are thrilled to kick off this new Sexi Soprano Series with: Pacific Opera Project.

What year was your company founded and by whom?  
July 2011. Josh Shaw and Stephen Karr

What is the mission of your company? 
We have the usual five sentence mission statement, but most of the time we reduce it to this:  Accessible. Affordable. ENTERTAINING. Opera.  

Who makes up your creative team and staff? What are their backgrounds?
Myself (Josh Shaw), artistic director and essentially executive director, and Stephen Karr music director. I come from a singer background and had sung about 40 roles or so before switching to directing only. I found myself doing more and more in the productions I was cast in to make them better- building sets, making my own costumes, helping with publicity. Eventually I said, "Why am I doing all this for other companies? Wouldn't it be easier to just do it all exactly how I want to do it?"  

Stephen comes from a coach/accompanist background and was looking for conducting opportunities.  We worked on a production of Cosi several years before POP came into place, (he was the assistant conductor and pianist, and I was singing Ferrando) we were no more than acquaintances in 2011.  When the idea to form a company came to me, I put out an ad in LA and Stephen was by far the best candidate for the job. You couldn't find two guys with more opposing views of life, but it has been an incredible partnership thus far.  

What do you see as being your most important contribution to the opera industry?
One of two things: Providing a place for young, talented singers to really be able to perform to their fullest and without the hindrances of opera "conventions". Or, our success in introducing opera to new audiences. We don't have actual numbers, but I think it is safe to say that at least 20% of every audience has never seen an opera before.

What kind of opera do you produce? Describe your opera productions.
The most common word tossed around is "irreverent." This is a misnomer we happily accept. In fact we have nothing but reverence for the art. We just believe our art must be inviting and entertaining to be viable and appreciated by the regular person off the street. Zany, wild, on the edge of good taste are all words that have been used to describe us. But, what I always make sure to point out, is excellent singing and acting are ALWAYS the base of what we do.

Our most definitive production has to be La Bohème AKA "The Hipsters." Set in the actual neighborhood where it is performed, La Bohème is a party. The audience is as close as five feet from the stage. Our "ironically clever" liberally translated supertitles mention establishments, streets, and people from the neighborhood.

Many of our operas, and hopefully eventually all of our operas, offer seating at a table with a bottle of wine and food (for the ridiculously low price of $100 for a table of four). We've made a commitment from the very beginning to keep our venues small--under 250 ideally--so that our audience can experience the power of a human voice hitting them and literally shaking their body.  
We've done 13 productions in just over three years. Some highlights include our Tosca where the audience, actors, and 22 piece orchestra moved venues each act from a sanctuary to a theater, to the roof of the church; our Barber of Seville set in current day Hollywood; our LA premiere of Cavalli's La Calisto set on a post-apocalyptic playground (this show featured no less than 50 penis jokes, a bear, water-boarding on a see-saw, and satyrs with 2ft long functioning furry penises); a Così fan tutte set a la "Gone with the Wind;" and our Nozze set as "Scarface."

When picking shows and concepts, we always ask two questions: 
1) How can we do this so that anyone off the street can immediately relate to this show.  
2) What can we do to make this "news?"  (Just letting people know we exist has been the number one difficulty in the Los Angeles market. So much competition.)

What kind of performers do you look for in casting?
No hiding it. We look for people who look the part. Now, a lot of times that means we are looking for Ken & Barbie. But other times it means we are looking for overweight people or short people or (this one will probably get me in trouble) people of a certain race or ethnicity. (When you are setting Nozze in Miami, you want hispanic looking people. When you are setting Così as Gone with the Wind, you can't very well have a black Confederate soldier.) Look, movie casting does this all the time and no one cares. Opera is far far behind the curve on this and so damn afraid of being "not PC." Let me stress--it's a buyers market as a casting director. In nearly every case I could cast a tall one, a short one, a fat one, a skinny one--all equally talented singers, musicians, and actors--so why in the world would I not choose the one that looks "just right?"

Do you feel like you are reaching a new audience? Is it growing? What is the audience response?
Absolutely. Our audience reach is easily doubling every 6 months. Our revival of Bohème is nearly sold-out a month in advance. This table set up has been huge for us. (If people don't start copying it, they are missing the boat.) It makes it so much easier for an opera fan to buy a table of four and then say to their friend, "Hey, I've got an extra seat for this weekend. Come check it out. It's only $25 and it comes with food and wine."  

We started with 4 sold-out performances of Trouble in Tahiti just over three years ago.  That was about 300 people total. 1200 people saw our Tosca and we turned away another 100.

Our audiences are THE BEST. They are half "newbies" who don't know any of "the rules" and half lifetime opera lovers who really appreciate the level of artistry. My favorite moment ever in POP history is the opening night of La Bohème when the audience began applauding in the middle of Rodolfo's High "C" in Che gelida. They couldn't even wait till the song was over! I get choked up just thinking about it. That's when I knew we were doing something special to "save" opera. 

Do you think opera is dying? 
Who knows? Who cares? I can't worry about that problem. I'm having too much fun doing what we are doing. It is certainly changing and I think for the better. Any one who says, "There just aren't voices like there used to be" is not out there hearing the 350 auditions a year that I am. And even if the "legendary" voices aren't as common, isn't it okay to sacrifice just a bit of vocal horsepower for some entertainment value? 

For more information on the Pacific Opera Project visit their website:

Coming up next time on "Rise of the Small Opera Company" Opera On Tap!