BY SANDY STAGGS
Christian Elser is knee-deep in pre-production for GLOW Lyric Theatre’s summer festival of love.
As General Director of Greenville’s only professional opera company, Dr. Elser and his wife, Artistic Director Jenna Tamisiea, are shoring up the final logistics of a double-bill program starting July 27 dedicated to William Shakespeare’s doomed star-crossed lovers with Charles Gounod’s French opera “Roméo et Juliette” and the modern adaptation set amidst urban gang warfare, Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece “West Side Story.”
The programming for GLOW’s sixth season in its new location at McAlister Auditorium at Furman University was selected, Elser said in a recent interview, in honor of the Bard’s 400th birthday.
And just as last summer’s sizzling “The Hot Mikado” and “The Wiz” had the noble objective of celebrating diversity, this season has a double-edged dagger that reflects “GLOW’s mission is to be socially relevant,” he said, noting current events such as the contentious presidential election, immigration policy and the refugee crisis in Syria.
Instead of rival Italian families, the Capulets and Montagues in “Roméo et Juliette” have been updated to a wealthy family sparring with an immigrant family.
Tenor Wesley Morgan, previously heard as Nanki-Poo in the 2011’s “The Mikado” returns to GLOW as the iconic Romeo. An alumnus of the Atlanta Opera studio artist program and the St. Petersburg Opera’s Emerging Artist program, Wesley is a highly sought, fresh-voiced, young tenor.
Making her GLOW company debut, soprano Ruth Brooks will appear as Juliette. Seen in such roles as Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” Ms. Brooks displays a wide range of vocal prowess.
There are a couple dozen operatic adaptions based on the infamous teen lovers, but Gounod’s 1867 opera sung in French is by far the most notable.
Bizet’s “Carmen” aside, Elser, who will conduct the GLOW chamber orchestra and chorus, conceded that French is not the most requested language for opera in the United States, ranking in popularity behind Italian, German and English.
“Roméo et Juliette” will be presented with English Supertitles for the audience, but a French libretto is such a rarity that some in the ensemble have little experience singing in French. But Elser is certain they are equipped for the challenge.
Some of the Libretto is lifted word-for-word from Shakespeare’s text such as Mercutio’s big monologue sung as a baritone aria in the first act.
In addition, and much to the chagrin of initial London audiences, “Roméo et Juliette” does take artistic license with the ending, sacrificing the story for musicality. Carolina Curtain Call will not reveal the altered ending, however I will say this work is known for the soprano waltz “Je veux vivre” and its series of duets.
“The French love their Shakespeare but they do like to tweak it,” Elser said of the controversial libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. “You have to suspend disbelief.”
And, he said, the opera “sounds very pretty and elegant. I think people will dig it.”
GLOW’s version is stage directed by Ms. Tamisiea and has been trimmed by one hour, but all of the salient scenes and plot points are still intact.
“West Side Story”
With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by a very young Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, “West Side Story” explores the tragic romance of two teenagers affiliated with rival street gangs the Jets and the Sharks and boasts an electrifying Latin and jazz-infused score with favorites like “Tonight,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere.”
Tenor Brandon Snook (GLOW’s “Pirates of Penzance” and “Die Fledermaus”) returns to the Greenville stage as Tony, and soprano Katherine Sandoval Taylor makes her company debut as Maria. A North Carolina native, Ms. Taylor has performed locally at Flat Rock Playhouse, Asheville Lyric Opera, and Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre.
Elser said he and Jenna took great strides to properly casting for this show, which has a checkered history of casting Caucasians in the Hispanic roles. GLOW was fortunate to find Taylor, who is Latina, and most of the performers that play the Sharks are really Hispanic.
“West Side Story” is dance-heavy show and Elser has recruited Hernan Justo, Artistic Director of Carolina Ballet Theatre, and his wife Anita Sun Pacylowski (co-owners of DanceArts Greenville) to choreograph.
The 2015 season was presented at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre, but GLOW has found a new home at Furman where the company will hold rehearsals and has established an apprentice program with the department of music.
“We take on a few apprentice artists we give and give them small roles and some training in acting and stagecraft. It bridges the gap between the pre-professional world and the professional,” he added.
“People are used to going to Furman to see things and we look forward to hopefully staying there and we really appreciate them helping out. And there is free parking at Furman,” he reminded opera and musical theatre fans.
Elser said GLOW keeps prices very affordable with early bird subscriptions for both shows starting at $55, which is half the price of comparable professional opera companies in the region.
“Romeo et Juliette” will be presented Wednesday, July 27 at 8 p.m. and
Sunday, July 31 at 2 p.m.
“West Side Story” shows are Friday, July 29 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, July 30 at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Meet the Cast of “West Side Story” for a Night of Cabaret, wine and cheese on Thursday, July 28 at the Furman Playhouse. Tickets are available at www.glowlyric.com.
Early Bird Season Ticket subscriptions are available until June 6 for $55 & $75. Subscriptions after June 6 will be $65 & $85 and individual performance tickets will be $35-45. Call Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or visit www.glowlyric.com/tickets or the Timmons Arena Box Office at Furman University.