Puccini, Britten and two sacred works

‘The roof is going to come off’ says Central City Opera general director

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'Madama Butterfly'
Courtesy Central City Opera

Central City Opera (CCO) opens its 2019 festival season Saturday (July 6) with one of opera’s most loved works, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Other works on the schedule are less familiar: Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten, which has an all-male cast; and a double bill of two short works for all women, Debussy’s Blessed Damozel and Francis Poulenc’s Litanies to the Black Virgin. Puccini and Britten will be presented in the Central City Opera House, and the shorter works in St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church, at 135 Pine St. in Central City. 

The season came together around the choice of Billy Budd for one of the mainstage productions. Pelham Pearce, the general/artistic director of CCO, is a fan of Britten’s music and aims to eventually do all of his operas at CCO. So far they have done six, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Turn of the Screw.

“Britten is a creature of the theater,” Pearce says. 

Still, Billy Budd, with its large all-male cast and setting on a British man-of-war, is a challenge for any opera company, much less a small house like Central City. “Billy Budd is, at this point, the biggest show we will ever have done inside the theater,” Pearce says. “There are so many people it’s just crazy, but it’s such a glorious work, I swear the roof is going to come off.”

The opera is based on a short story by Herman Melville, about a naive young sailor on a British ship during the Napoleonic Wars. Budd is framed for mutiny by a jealous and evil sergeant-at-arms, whom Budd kills in a moment of shock. Even knowing that Budd is innocent of the charges against him, the ship’s captain allows him to be condemned to death.

“How [Britten] creates the sense of isolation and water on a boat in the music that he wrote for Billy Budd is just amazing to me,” Pearce says. 

Recreating a man-of-war ship on the tiny CCO stage seems like a huge challenge, but Pearce notes that the space onboard the ship was actually cramped. Besides, he says, “We have some really great people that look forward to the challenge of creating work in this little theater.”

Performances of Madama Butterfly will bring back a production that was first presented in 2010, but with a new director, Alison Moritz. It will not be a recreation of what was done before, Pearce says. “I gave her free rein.

“She wants to flesh the characters out more. She wants them to be real to the audience, because that will create a story that people can connect to, rather than observe, is how she described it.”

The two smaller works both originated as sacred music. Both are for exclusively female voices, which fills a gap left by Billy Budd’s all-male cast. “I had to have [works for] women,” Pearce says. There are women in the Butterfly chorus, and “other than that they’ve got nothing to do.

“I was aware of The Blessed Damozel. It’s a gorgeous piece of music that’s been sitting in the back of my head for decades. I went looking for something else to fill out the time and I ran across the Poulenc.”

Debussy’s Blessed Damozel is a story of sorts, about a woman who has died and is pining for her lover left behind. In contrast, Poulenc’s music was written as a liturgical litany, full of text repetition, but the real story is how he came to write it. His very first in a large catalogue of sacred pieces, the Litanies to the Black Virgin was written after a pilgrimage Poulenc undertook after the death of a close friend.

“[These two works] were not composed to be staged, but they tell a story,” Pearce says. “I left it to (stage director) Alessandro Talevi, who’s always up for a challenge, to stage these pieces inside the church. We’ve got costumes for everybody — the whole thing is going to be staged.”

While you may be looking forward to the performances, Pearce is more excited right now, during the production process. “I enjoy the process more than I enjoy the performances,” he says. “It’s getting to that point that’s always the fun for me, because that’s where the real creativity happens.”

“Getting to that point” where it all comes together in an opera house — sets, costumes, lighting, direction, singers and orchestra — is one of the most complex jobs in the world. “It is,” Pearce says. “There’s too many moving parts, too many opportunities for problems. 

“It’s a miracle when it happens.”  

ON THE BILL: Central City Opera Summer 2019. Central City Opera House, 124 Eureka St., Central City, Tickets and full schedule at centralcityopera.org. Through Aug. 6.