At Opera Parallèle in San Francisco, a Legendary Painter Comes to Life

United StatesUnited States Laura Kaminsky, Today It Rains: Soloists, Orchestra, Vocal ensemble of Opera Parallèle / Nicole Paiement (conductor), Z Space, San Francisco. 29.3.2019. (HS)

Blythe Gaissert (Georgia O’Keeffe) & Nathan Granner (Aubrey) (c) Steve DiBartolomeo

Libretto — Mark Campbell, Kimberly Reed
Direction — Brian Staufenbiel
Scenic design — Sean Riley
Costumes — Alina Bokovikova
Lighting — Alexander V. Nichols

Georgia O’Keeffe — Blythe Gaissert
Rebecca ‘Beck’ Salisbury Strand — Marnie Breckenridge
Alfred Stieglitz — Daniel Belcher
Aubrey Wells — Nathan Granner

One day in 1929, the already-admired painter Georgia O’Keeffe boarded a train for Santa Fe, New Mexico, arriving three days later to revel in the light and images of the American Southwest. In the years that followed, her works found untold depths in the stark landscape, and made her an American icon.

On Friday, in the second of four performances by San Francisco’s scrappy Opera Parallèle, the world premiere of Today It Rains used that train trip like one of O’Keeffe’s close-ups of a cow skull or a flower to reveal a great deal more than the obvious.

For the chamber opera’s 11 biographical scenes, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed compiled the libretto from letters between O’Keeffe and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Most episodes are on the train, with O’Keeffe’s friend and traveling companion, the artist Rebecca ‘Beck’ Strand, broken up by cleverly split scenes and a few flashbacks with Stieglitz (left behind in New York), and a Pullman coach porter who longs to play clarinet in a jazz orchestra. There may be some mythologizing, but it feels real.

Composer Laura Kaminsky uses the rhythms of the rolling train and her own penchant for jazz gestures and harmonies to spice up the score. An 11-piece orchestra paints its own picture of conflicting emotions, and ably reflects excitement for adventure, and regret over separation from a spouse. The hubbub and noise of New York is spiky with dissonance; the silence and open spaces of New Mexico are lush with a sort of casual beauty.

Kaminsky, Campbell, and Reed — the latter a documentary filmmaker — also collaborated on As One in 2014, with Sasha Cooke as a transgender woman, and like this latest effort, it runs about an hour and a half. It’s also credited as the most widely produced contemporary opera in the United States. Campbell also wrote the libretto for As One (and for Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night).

In Today It Rains (a phrase from a letter to Stieglitz) Kaminsky isn’t afraid to write real melodies, whether it’s one of several soliloquies for Georgia or scenes with Beck that deftly deal with sexual politics and balancing an artist’s life with marriage. A scene with the porter draws a parallel between the freedom of jazz and what might await the artist in Santa Fe. Instrumental interludes play with those same rhythms, and glow with timbres achieved with minimal orchestral resources. Opera Parallèle’s regular conductor Nicole Paiement led it all with vigor and a welcome sense of balance.

Director Brian Staufenbiel and scenic designer Sean Riley use back-wall video projections as backdrops — passing scenery shot from an actual train trip from New York to Santa Fe, images of O’Keeffe’s paintings (including a famous one of New York harbor as a backdrop), and paints being mixed on an artist’s palette. An ensemble of four voices, functioning as a Greek chorus, also rolled around train windows, tables, and seats that convert into beds and couches, fitting them together in various forms to create the scenery.

The stars in the vocal department were mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert as Georgia and tenor Nathan Granner as Aubrey Wells, the porter. Gaissert, a mezzo-soprano who has sung the lead role in As One at San Diego Opera and is scheduled to perform it in New York City Opera’s upcoming production, voiced Georgia with freshness and a direct charm. Granner’s lithe tenor and graceful bearing lent vocal suavity and gravity to the invented character, especially in a scene where he and his clarinet convince Georgia not to abandon her move to Santa Fe.

Two Opera Parallèle regulars completed the solo lineup. Daniel Belcher sang Alfred Stieglitz’s lines with a firm baritone. Marnie Breckenridge lent a reckless edge to ‘Beck’ Strand, Georgia’s painter pal and drinking companion.

O’Keeffe subsequently spent summers in New Mexico separated from Stieglitz until his death in 1946, after which she moved to New Mexico permanently. The train trip was a turning point, and it makes an apt focal point for an opera about her. And the warehouse-like Z Space helped make a strong evening of both music and emotional theater. Similar to As One, Kaminsky’s newest opus should have a long and vivid life with small opera companies across the land.

Harvey Steiman

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