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Revenge, betrayal, and gypsy clowns: OperaSLO brings 'Cavalleria Rusticana' and 'Pagliacci' to the PAC 

"Opera” has a bad rap. 

Chances are—if you’re under 50—you’ve probably never seen a true operatic performance, let alone a “good opera.” You may think the art form is all about funny hats, shrill glass-shattering voices, and antiquated themes disguised in Italian. 

Maybe you’ve seen late-night television glimpses of The Who’s Tommy, produced in 1969 about a deaf, dumb, and blind teen “who sure plays a mean pinball.” Perhaps you’ve seen clips of Green Day’s 2009 album-turned-rock-opera American Idiot on YouTube. I’m guessing that, by now, we’ve all seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon parody of Wagner, where Elmer Fudd bellows the line, “Kill the wabbit” in a deep and menacing baritone.

click to enlarge MORE THAN WORDS :  Opera San Luis Obispo performers Judith Dunlore and David Gustafson are warming up their vocal chords and stretching their limits for a 30th anniversary performance slated for Oct. 10 and 11 at the San Luis Obispo PAC. - PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
  • PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
  • MORE THAN WORDS : Opera San Luis Obispo performers Judith Dunlore and David Gustafson are warming up their vocal chords and stretching their limits for a 30th anniversary performance slated for Oct. 10 and 11 at the San Luis Obispo PAC.

If you’re a true opera fan, I don’t need to tell you what it’s all about. For the rest of us, I beg the question: When’s the last time you actually went to see a real opera performance?

Opera San Luis Obispo invites all ages and walks of life to get better acquainted with the cultural experience—no teeny tiny binoculars or fur coats required. Tickets are on sale now for OperaSLO’s 30th anniversary show featuring Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci this Oct. 10 and 11 at the SLO Performing Arts Center.

Both operas are set in rural southern Italy in the 1880s, and each contains more backstabbing, lust, revenge, and betrayal than a vintage episode of Melrose Place.

Cavalleria Rusticana opens during a provincial Easter celebration, while Pagliacci spotlights the performance stop of a group of touring gypsy clowns (because there’s nothing better than a gaggle of opera-singing clowns). The over-the-top anniversary performance features a full orchestra, choruses, ballet, soaring arias, period sets, and fantastical costumes. An internationally acclaimed cast of opera singers will unleash their voices on an unsuspecting audience.

“There are no spears, togas, fairies, elves, kings, and queens, although that is what many people believe opera is about,” said OperaSLO Media Director Marilyn Fidler. “What you will experience is truly gorgeous music. These are short operas, but the concentration of music is truly amazing.”

For the third year in a row, OperaSLO has incorporated a swath of community arts groups into its star-studded lineup: You’ll see folks from the Central Coast Children’s Choir, Civic Ballet San Luis Obispo, CORE Dance Company, Deyo Dances, Resonance Vocal Ensemble, and Studio at Ryan’s American Dance, among others.

OperaSLO Artistic Director and Conductor Brian Alhadeff is largely credited for spreading a love of opera into unsuspecting nooks and crannies of the local art world.

“What that has done for the community is that it gives all those groups and genres an opportunity to perform more, study more, and practice more,” Fidler said. “And it gives everybody a chance to see a bigger variety of classical arts, dance, and music in particular.”

- LET’S GO TO THE OPERA!:  On Saturday, Oct. 10, the performance of both operas will begin at 7 p.m. On Sunday, Oct. 11, the performance of both operas will begin at 2 p.m. A pre-concert lecture in Phillips Hall at the PAC begins one hour before the shows at the Performing Arts Center San Luis Obispo. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to www.pacslo.org or call 756-4849. -
  • LET’S GO TO THE OPERA!: On Saturday, Oct. 10, the performance of both operas will begin at 7 p.m. On Sunday, Oct. 11, the performance of both operas will begin at 2 p.m. A pre-concert lecture in Phillips Hall at the PAC begins one hour before the shows at the Performing Arts Center San Luis Obispo. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to www.pacslo.org or call 756-4849.

OperaSLO was founded in 1985 by Dr. Jill Anderson and the late Jean Cook. What began as a brown bag lunch at Linnaea’s Café in downtown SLO has grown into fully staged professional productions, bringing in performers from the county and around the globe. A lot has changed in 30 years, but the passion—and the music—remains.

I had the chance to watch part of a recent OperaSLO rehearsal, and I can say with complete conviction that there is nothing more intense than hearing a trained opera performer belt out a sorrowful line. The art form was created back before vocal amplification, allowing singers’ voices to carry over orchestras for the first time. With the right practice and technique, a good opera singer can fill an entire hall with warm, heart-palpitating sound.

This, combined with the pulpy storylines, electrifying costumes, and larger-than-life personalities, is what makes opera important.

“It’s the extravaganza of it,” Fidler said. “And if you separate the quality of music from the emoting and drama and soap opera nature of it, you still get just incredible music.”

Hayley Thomas is currently listening to Screeching Weasel’s punk rock opera “Baby Fat Part I” at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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