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UAO's 'Trouble in Tahiti' should be smooth sailing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Many of Allyson Ditchey’s St. Louis friends passionately love Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” but tell her they don’t like opera. “I tell friends that they should come to ‘Trouble in Tahiti’,” says Ditchey, the production’s stage manager.

“They will love this music, very Bernstein. It’s a perfect introduction to opera. It’s in English with supertitles. And the story is very smart, as relevant today as it was when he wrote it” in 1951.

“Trouble in Tahiti” opens Union Avenue Opera’s 19th season at 8 p.m. April 19.

Scott Schoonover, Union Avenue Opera founder and artistic director, said he’s wanted to stage it since he was in college and was the rehearsal accompanist for a “Tahiti” production at Illinois Wesleyan.

“I love its great poignant scenes,” he says. “It’s a real opera in term of drama and beauty.”

Love and communication

The story is about one day in the life of Sam and Dinah, a young suburban couple surrounded by a commercial consumer society. Sam throws himself into long work days,  distracting him from communicating with the wife he loves. She’s bored and accuses her husband of having an affair with his secretary. He’s focused on winning a handball tournament rather than attending  their son’s sporting events. She spends an afternoon at the movie theater seeing “Trouble in Tahiti,” which at least gives her something to talk/sing to her husband Sam about and provides the opera title.

The opera “reads like a movie” with the couple’s conversation sometimes put on pause while they sing about their thoughts, Ditchey said. The complex, thoughtful opera uses a jazz vocal trio as what the composer called a radio jingle trio acting like a Greek chorus that comments on the couple’s issues. Clark Sturdevant, Anthony Heinemann and Elise LaBarge sing the trio at UAO.

This work is usually paired with another one-act opera by another composer, but Union Avenue will present an all-Bernstein evening. For its “second act,” the five singers and a jazz instrumental trio will perform in cabaret setting. They’ve chosen music from “Candide,” “On the Town,” “West Side Story,” “Mass, A Theatre Piece” and “Songfest.”

“We’ll do a few pieces that are rarely heard,” Schoonover said. He expects many Bernstein fans who sing in the shower will come eager to hear trained opera singers give their all to these pieces.

Ian Greenlaw: Sam

“I can’t imagine doing this piece at 20,” says baritone Ian Greenlaw, who sings the role of Sam. “How can college students understand what it means to work on a relationship? I didn’t at 20.

“Sam and Dinah love each other, they want to stay together, but they don’t communicate,” he says. It takes a singing actor a bit of living and even suffering to understand the depth that Bernstein demands of the singers playing the uncommunicative couple,” Greenlaw says. “An actor may even need some experience to see the humor in some of Bernstein’s lines.”

He had questions when Schoonover told him that “Tahiti” was being updated from 1951 to today. The lyrics won’t be changed, only costumes and sets. But Bernstein was a bit ahead of the curve.

To prep for the role, Greenlaw went to see “On the Road,” the new movie about Jack Kerouac in the 1950s. The movie helped Greenlaw see similarities between today and the 1950s, he says.

“The American middle class is struggling again,” he says. “Its members are under siege to keep up with bills in a consumer society. Many people are working longer hours sometimes at more than one job.

“Bernstein mentions the radio jingles. Television was limited and new at the time of the 1951 opera. Instead of just the radio bombarding a couple with ads and other distractions, today couples have much more distractions,” Greenlaw says. He constantly notices couples in restaurants and coffee shops reading text messages, using cell phones and checking email even when they are out as a couple. Some employers and friends expect responses to messages 24/7.

“You see it all the time,” he says. “Distractions all the time.”

“And like the Red Scare of the McCarthy (hearings) Era people have to be careful about what they say today,” Greenlaw says.

“About the only thing that is really different about this couple from the 1950s when the opera was written is that today the wife would be working, too.”

Working at UAO is like coming home. The Crestwood-based Greenlaw has sung a leading role in Lorin Maazel’s “1984” at  La Scala. He’s sung at the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- in Britten’s “War Requiem” – and New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall. His St. Louis work includes Peter in Opera Theatre’s 2006 “Hansel and Gretel” and the solo baritone part in Bartok’s “Cantata Profana” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. UAO regulars remember him as Marcello in Puccini’s “La Boheme" in 2006 and Danilo in Lehar’s “The Merry Widow" in 2006. But, his roots run deeper in the Union Avenue Christian Church. Twenty years ago his mother Leona Greenlaw was Union Avenue’s choir director until she moved to the southeast and Schoonhover succeeded her as the church’s music director and organists.

As a boy, Greenlaw and his twin brother Eugene turned pages for their mother as she played the church organ. Both sang in her children’s choir Young Singers of Missouri based at the church. Their father Kenneth Greenlaw, who directs the Missouri Youth Choral Society in St. Charles, is also a musical role adviser.

Since no opera calls for identical twin baritones, they only sing together in recitals. Eugene, based in London, and Ian usually travel to celebrate their birthday together.  

Before accepting the “Tahiti” role of Sam, Ian phoned his twin who sang Sam in Caen, France, last year and asked about the role. His twin told him to go for it, that it was good for their voices at this stage in their life and that he’d find preparing the role interesting.

He relished picking a few Bernstein pieces to sing in the cabaret. One is a 12-tone piece from “Songfest” which he sang with the Milwaukee Symphony.

He won’t be singing as much in St. Louis after this summer, as he has been accepted into the University of Michigan doctorate in music program.

Kara Cornell: Dinah

The role of Dinah belongs to mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell  based in Albany, N.Y. She’s seen the opera several times and has wanted to sing it for years. She particularly like singing Dinah’s aria “What a Movie,” which she sang in auditions for Schoonover. The minute she ended the aria, the UAO artistic director told her the part was hers if she wanted it.

She sang at UAO twice before, a lady in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in 2007 and wicked stepsister Tisbe in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” in 2011. Both times she appreciated that UAO respects singers so she accepted.

Cornell loves that Bernstein’s music has syncopation, some scat singing and other jazz elements. Her maternal grandfather, Edward Patrowicz, was a jazz pianist. Forty years ago, when he retired on a modest pension at 55 he was able to spend more time playing in jazz groups. At 80, he began taking jazz piano lessons. When she sang in New York, her grandfather attended her opera performances. Sometimes he’d take the opera score she was learning and sit beside her at the piano and play it for her in a jazz style. She smiled at the memory.

A week before Cornell came to St. Louis for rehearsals he died at the age 95.

“He knew I was doing Bernstein. He liked Bernstein music, he’d have enjoyed ‘Tahiti’, ” she says. The opera has now become special to her, she says with a few tears in her eyes.

Stage director Ditchey likes the focused intensity of the one-act opera. This is her third directing gig at UAO. She’s directed “Amahl and the Night Visitors” a couple years ago and last April directed Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.” Her day job is marketing director for Hot City Theatre.

She hopes the production will help couples think about how distractions of career, consumerism, texting and social media can be barriers to face-to-face communication between people who love each other.

“Little has changed since 1951,” Ditchey says. “This stuff sometimes gets in the way of our primary dreams. Entertainment helps tell us what our dreams should be.”

Union Avenue Opera’s season will continue this summer with Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” July 12, 13, 19, 20. “Die Walkure” the second production in the company’s four-year Wagner “Ring” cycle using the Jonathan Dove reduced score runs August 16,17, 23, 24.

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