Pasadena opera strives to modernize industry

Pasadena Opera concluded their two-performance run of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah on Saturday. The sold-out performance was held in the A Noise Within Theatre in Pasadena.

Only in its second season, Pasadena Opera is quickly establishing a name for itself as one of L.A.’s premier opera companies. According to its website, Pasadena Opera strives to “present modern adaptations of timeless stories both old and new,” as well as “invite the public to learn about the process of bringing opera to life.”

Susannah was led by conductor Dana Sadava, who also serves as co-founder and artistic director of Pasadena Opera.

“Being an opera ‘startup’ is challenging, of course,” Sadava said. “[But] in some ways it’s refreshing to starting something from the ground up.  We haven’t inherited old ideas or practices, and we can try new things on a small scale to see if they work.”

Sadava, a Pasadena native, led an on-stage chamber orchestra of 17 instrumentalists. Having the orchestra appear on stage allowed them to be fully be immersed in the staging of the production, as opposed to remaining unseen in an orchestra pit, as is typical with most productions.

Susannah is a complex opera, both in content and execution. The story, which is loosely based upon the biblical story “Susanna,” explores themes of sin, integrity and betrayal. Sadava stated that she chose to present Susannah because of its relevance to everyday audiences.

“I chose Susannah because I was astonished at how relevant it is to our modern-day audience[s],” Davana said. “Being afraid of people who are different from us, getting caught up in vicious gossip, enduring gender inequality and domestic violence … these are all issues in 2016 that are beautifully explored in Susannah.”

Indeed, the ways in which Pasadena Opera chose to present their production differs from more traditional styles of opera staging. What was perhaps most striking about the performance was the intimacy of the experience. Much of the content dealt with in the opera is considerably heavy; the close space allowed the audience to feel as though they were a part of the storyline. In some ways Susannah is aesthetically representative of the style Pasadena Opera hope to achieve.

Likewise, the performance was staged upon a thrust stage, which allowed the audience to immerse parts of the stage. Additionally, some staging occurred beyond the physical set, with singers often utilizing the theater aisles for entrances and exits.

“It’s a controversial, complicated story that will both entertain people and provoke conversation,” Sadava said.

Many of the singers cast in the production, including the principal characters, are young, budding singers on the cusp of established careers. The titular role was sung by soprano Chelsea Basler, who made her West Coast debut with this opera. Basler, a San Diego native, performed with an emotional intensity that was utterly mesmerizing; one couldn’t help but be captivated by her emotional range and ardor.

Equally as enticing was bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee in the role of Olin Blitch. Brownlee, a current Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist at L.A. Opera, possesses an enormous, full sound that is equally as focused. His scenes with Basler, particularly in Act II, were among the most passionate of the evening.

Pasadena Opera is certainly en-route to becoming a staple within L.A.’s classical music scene. According to Sadava, the amount of support they have received from the community has been astounding.

“It’s clear that people in the Pasadena area want to be involved, either as audience members, donors or volunteers,” Sadava said. “And although we’ve started small with two performances per show, our houses are full. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

More information regarding Pasadena Opera’s future productions can be found online.