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Santa Fe Opera uses late impresario to embellish performances

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Soprano Erin Morley, center, sings the role of Madame Tintement in “The Impresario” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Courtesy of Ken Howard/The Santa Fe Opera)

Soprano Erin Morley, center, sings the role of Madame Tintement in “The Impresario” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Courtesy of Ken Howard/The Santa Fe Opera)

SANTA FE – The Santa Fe Opera is weaving together dueling divas and a haunted songbird using the ground-breaking impresario Serge Diaghilev as the loom.

A double bill of Mozart’s “The Impresario” and Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignol” will debut in Santa Fe on July 19. Additional performances are scheduled for July 23 and Aug. 1, 7 and 15.

The music of Mozart and Stravinsky reigned more than a century apart. The unique pairing emerged from a conversation between Santa Fe Opera General Director Charles MacKay and director Michael Gieleta.

“The Impresario” was written at the height of what was arguably the composer’s peak (he had just premiered “The Marriage of Figaro”). But librettist Gottlieb Stephanie had packed the dialogue with in-jokes from a period now lost on us today, with auditioning actors as the focus.

So Santa Fe commissioned an English libretto by famed British playwright Ranjit Bolt, changing its centerpiece to a hapless impresario auditioning bickering singers, their readings replaced by a cocktail of Mozart concert arias.

Tying the comedy to Stravinsky was simple: the clashing singers are all auditioning for a role in “Le Rossignol,” the composer’s rendition of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a nightingale.

The dynamic Diaghilev embellishes both operas. Director Michael Gieleta based the character of the impresario on Diaghilev, the founding director of the Ballets Russes, the most innovative dance company of the 20th century. Diaghilev also produced the original staging of Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignol,” which debuted in Paris 100 years ago.

Coloratura soprano Erin Morley plays Madame Tintement in “The Impresario,” what Mozart called his “comedy with music.” A 2010 graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, Morley was hailed as a major success earlier this season when she stepped in for a sick colleague to sing all the performances of Sophie in “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Met.

“I’m a fabulous diva,” Morley said of the Mozart role. “She has a super high opinion of herself.”

The competition ascends into high-altitude battles as Morley competes with soprano Brenda Rae (Madame Popescu).

“Brenda is supposed to be the washed-up old diva,” Morley continued. “She was probably a fabulous diva in her day but now she is scraping for work. They hate each other.”

Acclaimed British baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore plays the exhausted Impresario.

“He’s trying to put on good art,” Morley explained. “But he’s grappling with the challenges of selling tickets. It’s very relevant to what’s going down across America. It’s very close to home because opera companies are closing down.”

In the end, the Impresario realizes creating art is worth the financial and ego-driven headaches.

With “Le Rossignol,” the performance turns darker but ends on a hopeful note.

The opera opened in 1914, a time when artists, musicians and dancers were fleeing the Russian Revolution. Art Deco was in its infancy and provides the basis for the costumes. Picasso was revolutionizing the world of art, Nijinsky was catapulting the world of dance, while Coco Chanel remodeled fashion. Projection screens and set designs will quote from all of them, Gieleta said.

The fairytale is set in ancient China as a fisherman awaits the arrival of the singing nightingale. The cook says its beautiful song makes her cry. Both of them invite the songbird to sing for the emperor.

Stravinsky’s music is more impressionistic than classical.

“It’s very exotic,” Morley said. “A lot of the time there isn’t a tonal center. It’s this discovery of song from nature. The emperor’s so touched that it sort of scares him because he hasn’t stopped to look at his life and what his dreams are.”

Then the Japanese emperor sends a gift of a mechanical bird and the nightingale flies away. Transfixed, the Chinese emperor names the machinelike version “first singer.”

“It’s this juxtaposition of artificiality and reality,” Morley said. Americans face a similar division in this age of instant gratification driven by social media, she added.

“American culture is conditioned to like the things that don’t require anything of us,” she said.

“It’s everything opera is not. It requires you to think. We’re here to move people. If you cry, job well done.”

The double billing marks Morley’s third SFO performance. She played the Queen of the Night in the 2010 production of “The Magic Flute” and Roxana in 2012′s “King Roger.”

“The Impresario” is sung in English, “Le Rossignol” in Russian.

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