In the theater world, there’s still one word that strikes fear in the hearts of many Americans: opera. There’s a general perception that opera is dull, partly because it often seems to be some extended love story, and partly because it’s in Italian. But it could be argued the primary reason opera evokes apprehension is because we think opera is inaccessible.
Sin City Opera has been working to change that perception and appeal to regular people by offering English performances that focus on modern subjects. Sin City’s latest endeavor in that direction involves their first collaboration with local darlings Cockroach Theatre in presenting a two-piece performance of Kurt Weill’s opera-ballet The Seven Deadly Sins and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation).
“If I had to recommend a show to someone who has never seen an opera,” says Ginger Land-van Buuren, executive director of Sin City Opera, “this would be that show.” That’s because it’s Sin City Opera’s general mission to contemporize opera, taking it out of what Land-van Buuren calls “the grand opera” context. And these pieces are ready-made for a small opera context, with small casts and ensembles.
What links the two pieces also makes them a good fit for a contemporary American audience. Although each one has its own director (Darren Weller for Deadly and Katie St-Pierre for Erwartung), Land-van Buuren points out that the composers of both works “fled Germany during World War II and were interested in the American way of life they came face to face with in leaving Europe.” This focus on America influenced the pieces’ jazz style and, at times, cabaret approach to opera.
The subject matter of the show also seems more relevant than one might expect: perspectives on women’s lives. Kurt Weill’s opera-ballet The Seven Deadly Sins tells the story of Anna, a woman who must travel away from her Louisiana home to earn money for her family house. With a libretto by frequent Weill collaborator Bertolt Brecht, Deadly also offers a satirical and lighthearted look at capitalism. Played in part by Dina Emerson—fresh off a long career in Mystère—Anna’s role is split between opera singer and ballet dancer.
That split echoes the uber-Modern tone audiences will see post-intermission in Erwartung, a 20-minute stream-of-consciousness portrayal by Rebecca Morris. “The way we present it almost extends Weill’s piece into Schoenberg’s,” Land-van Buuren says, “with the life of a woman manifesting in the latter work as a later point her the life.”
Fittingly, Sin City and Cockroach also split their roles down the middle, “collaborating on everything,” Land-van Buuren emphasizes, “from the producing to the designing.” Land-van Buuren says Sin City was inspired by Cockroach and proposed the first joint effort between the two companies. “We love their work, and we wanted their fresh take on opera, which can be a fun challenge for a company that’s never done it before.”
Opera might be a different challenge, but if all goes as planned, the companies’ combined powers will remind opera newcomers why different can be delightful.
The Seven Deadly Sins and Erwartung Through September 10, times vary, $15-$20. Art Square Theatre, 725-222-9661.