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Intimate Opera 

Utah Opera returns with smaller-scale stories of isolation.

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  • Kathleen Sykes

There is, perhaps, a misconception about the way opera might fit in a world of smaller audience sizes and smaller productions—one based on a very limited span of the art form's history. According to James Lowe, musical arranger for Utah Opera's upcoming joint production of The Human Voice and Gentleman's Island, "Opera, if you look back, it's really only the 19th century that it became this thing where we associate with big orchestras, elephants, and so on. It started out small, and returned small. There's something to me, as a musician, to being more intimate, more direct."

By necessity in this very unique time, Utah Opera is indeed getting more intimate and more direct as it returns to the Capitol Theatre. The Human Voice, Francis Poulenc's adaptation of Jean Cocteau's one-actor play about a woman's phone conversation with her ex-lover, and Gentleman's Island, Joseph Horovitz's 1958 comedy about two English gentleman stranded together but separated by their observance of strict etiquette rules, both offer stories rich in themes of isolation that also work for the safety protocols necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Human Voice in particular feels very much of this moment, as a new film version by director Pedro Almodóvar shot during the pandemic. Kristine McIntyre, who directed these productions for Utah Opera, notes that she was involved with a production of The Human Voice staged by Des Moines Regional Opera in February, when the story's themes might have been seen quite differently. "It was obvious then that it was about the way technology isolates us," McIntyre says. "We have this pipe dream that having FaceTime and cell phones all the time brings us closer to each other, yet we know that it actually doesn't. ... Then COVID hit, and suddenly all we could do is talk via Skype or Zoom, so it takes on even more poignancy."

Soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer—a Utah native who plays The Human Voice's protagonist, Elle—agrees that the idea of someone unable to connect physically carries a bit more weight in this moment. "The Human Voice sheds a light on the danger of total isolation, what isolation does to our mental health," she says. "I dislike when people refer to Elle as crazy. I think she's lonely and insecure, and that's very different from crazy. ... Elle is a little bit of a doom-scroller in her relationship. So this is a very poignant piece to be doing by now, particularly for those whose relationships have changed during this time."

By contrast, Gentleman's Island takes a more light-hearted approach to the idea of isolation, as its two characters encounter difficulties entirely of their own making by refusing to adapt their behavior to the new circumstances. Baritone Christopher Clayton, who plays Mr. Somers in Gentleman's Island, says, "The satire is apropos to now, with people using kind of inaccurate ideas of how they should approach social distancing. They can't adjust to the idea that maybe there's a better way."

"These two idiots are isolated from one another because of conventions from 6,000 miles away," McIntyre adds of Gentleman's Island's protagonists. "There's nothing preventing these two from living a much more reasonable and socially connected life."

For the cast and creative teams of these shows, the thematic material bumps up against their own reality of getting back to work and in front of an audience during this pandemic. The actors state that they believe the company is doing all the right things to keep people safe, including a creative approach to rehearsals that includes employing two different rehearsal spaces for the two shows' creative teams, and a stage configuration that places the orchestra behind the actors rather than in a confined pit.

The participants also recognize that there will be some adapting required to playing for a socially-distanced audience. According to tenor Brian Stucki, who plays Gentleman's Island's Mr. Gray, "Opening night, that sort of critical mass of audience density is something that adds energy to the performance. So it will be different to look out at a socially-distanced audience and lots of empty seats, and adjust to those expectations."

Lowe adds that the audience response for Gentleman's Island in particular will be different than it might otherwise have been. "For Human Voice, something like that, we don't expect a big reaction," he says. "Nobody produces a knife and everyone gasps. With Gentleman's Island, it might be a little strange, because with comedy, one of the things that helps are laughs, and laughs are contagious. When audiences are seated several rows apart, it might be a very different thing."

Still, the actors and creative team are ready to give their all to a production on this smaller scale. "In theater, there are pieces of all sizes," McIntyre notes. "I don't think anyone would go to Waiting for Godot, and think that was any less of a piece of theater than going to Macbeth. ... In these smaller works, there's nowhere to hide; everything is out there."

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