Courtesy of UCSB

The UC Santa Barbara Department of Music, in conjunction with the Department of Theater and Dance and The Ventura College Department of Performing Arts, presented the Opera Gala on May 17. This showcase combined the talents of stars along the central coast to perform a sweeping program that traveled the range of genres and periods of operatic music.

This event was a unified vision directed by Head of Voice Area at UCSB Isabel Bayrakdarian, in close-knit collaboration with Director of Choral Studies at UCSB and Department Chair for Performing Arts at Ventura College Brent Wilson, as well as Christina McCarthy, theater and dance lecturer at UCSB. These three powerhouses of talent and creative vision came together to provide a spectacle that truly amazed.

As the lights dimmed in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall and the crowd applauded in anticipation of the eminent performance, the red curtains parted to reveal a beautiful set, created by UCSB’s Production and Events Manager for the Department of Music, Richard Croy. Already onstage were the combined chorus, consisting of the UCSB Chamber Choir and the Ventura College Chamber Singers. In the pit, the orchestra under the direction of Wilson.

“I think Richard Croy made an amazing set that created space for all the performers to be seen. [It] feels like a sacred space. The stage feels like both a place where community gathers to be together, and also like a formal cathedral to honor the art,” McCarthy said in regards to the set.

The evening started with the baroque music of George Handel and soloistic performances from the choir, orchestra, dancers and soloists. Handel’s quintessentially baroque music was performed with grace and beauty by the entire production. The orchestra and choir blended together beautifully as the oboe timbre became one with the voices emanating from the stage. Over the course of the evening the orchestra, filled with virtuosos, did well to not overpower the choir or soloists on stage. However, at some points the space lended itself to favoring the instrumentalists over the singers—the soprano of the flute sometimes outshining the soprano vocalist onstage.

The dancers, performing the lovely choreography of McCarthy, felt like a physical fugue onstage. Small groups of dancers repeating the same movements in timed succession that felt both modern and highlighted the antiquity of the music performed alongside them. They were bouncy and bright, feeling like ballerinas in their leaps across the stage, as harpsichord chords emphasized each step. 

The vocalists Oliva Barker and Lorenzo Johnson Jr., both doctorate students in musical arts, were music to the ears. Barker had a lovely and warm sound that was supported in her runs, even as she perfectly embodied the role she was portraying in the excerpt from Handel’s “Alcina.” In contrast, Johnson, performing a piece from Handel’s “Rodrigo,” had a deep silky richness that perfectly paired with the jaunting strings that were just beneath him. The pair each performed on stage alone and allowed the true beauty of their voices to be experienced, but the true highlights of the night came in the collaboration between artists, both singer-to-singer and in the pairing of dance and song.

The gala then continued into a second act featuring excerpts of Christoph Gluck, and this is when the true spectacle of the night began. Opera singer, Christina Pezzarossi, and the solo dancer, Bella Sorokwasz, became one performer as they told the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Pezzarossi was on the floor, begging for their love to not truly be dead and Sorokwasz, ghostlike and ethereal, was dancing around the singer reaching out for connection but a force prevented them from being together. That barrier between the living and the dead, something that not even the most pure of love can surpass. This blend of dance and song was a high moment of the night and the beauty and pain of the scene is something that never left the mind of the audience throughout the rest of the performance. It was a tragic conversation between beautiful singing and perfectly executed dance, and was a perfect encapsulation of what is possible when mediums of art are combined into a single artistic vision.

All of the dancers throughout the night were wonderful and became embodiments of the music and the story. They were frankly amazing and a sight to behold. Executing challenging choreography perfectly nearly every time they were asked, the dancers earned every ounce of   praise they received from the audience. 

After the deeply haunting and tragic second act, a more traditional one followed. There is not much one could say about this third act, other than it was perfectly executed by all the performers. The orchestra supported the chorus and operatic soloists as they projected from the stage straight into the audience. The singers became worthy actors in performing their solos and when they were called upon to perform against another. With a barrier of a foreign language and a lacking subtitle projector, the actors displayed the story so clearly that laughter was often heard in the humorous lines and their character’s traits were clearly evident. It was a masterclass in the power of storytelling and a showcase of the raw talent of the performers.

Second-year MM/DMA graduate student, Colin Ramsey, as Figaro was such a joy to watch, and DMA candidate Ariana Horner Sutherland’s chemistry with Barker had a richness to it. Then, fifth-year DMA student, Valdis Jansons’ perfectly played and sung role of the Count had an evilness that was still grounded in reality. Not a campy over-the-top villainy, nor a puny and wimpy one, but a character that was realistic in their anger and frustrations with others. It was refreshing to see them all in a scene together to close out the first half of the gala. They sang beautifully together as their voices, like single pieces of thread weaved together in air to form something greater and more beautiful than each singer individually. It was a perfectly classic opera performance and gave the audience a wonderful representation of the traditional medium and its modern performances. But after the intermission, something radically new opened the eyes to modern opera and the interweaving of electronic and live performance.

The performance of João Oliveira’s “The 70th Week” was truly mind blowing. Oliveira is the UCSB Corwin chair of composition and a Guggenheim Fellow, and his piece was staged with a beauty that highlighted the newness of his vision for opera and the talent of every performer on the stage. With an electroacoustic backing, a single vocal soloist, April Amante, and a group of dancers appeared onstage, lowly lit which created a fog like appearance and set the atmosphere for what was to come.

Amante, who graduated from UCSB with a doctorate in musical arts just last year, was invited back to perform with the larger ensemble. She was heavenly to listen to, and the dancers around her seemed to breathe together. Like fundamental particles of an early universe, creating and destroying, being and then annihilating. Pairs of dancers became sound in their movements and the ghostly, and yet purely serene and surreal, mix of the electronic track and live vocals was a key component of their movements. They swirled around Amante as she sang with such beauty that her pain and longing for relief was so evident. It was as if the singer was in a void, separate from the world and from time, crying out for God’s forgiveness as particles pop in and out of existence around her.

“As I worked with the dancers, we created an embodiment of the sound and visual that is meant to feel like a weaving of elemental particles, energy flowing, light traveling, and space shifting,” McCarthy said. “The newness of this opera was an invitation for investigating in a non linear and abstract way that felt very freeing and exciting, because I could create from a place of instinct and visualization of the pure sound components.”

It was one of the most powerful moments of the night and it earned Amante and the dancers a very well deserved standing ovation from the crowd. The jaw-dropping excerpt encapsulated everything that modern music, and modern classical music, has to offer to a listener. A new world of sound that takes elements and tones from different cultures and genres to create something that invites a deep contemplation about its themes. It was haunting and yet beautiful, and the artistic vision showcased was one of a distinct mission to explore the past, present and future of opera. It was simply amazing to watch true artists perform a masterpiece of art.

As the night drew to a close, the final act was a perfect way to showcase the solo singers of the night in one scene that highlighted beautiful singing and playful acting on stage. In the finale of act one of Wolfgang Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, all the performers shined under the bright lights of the stage. Playful and fun, the scene gave each the opportunity to have individuality and present a collective performance that made everyone the star. Soaring above the orchestra’s beautiful accompaniment, the singers eloquently blended together, and when emphasizing lines, each rose above the musical texture to highlight their beautiful melody or moving line. It was musicianship at its finest. 

In staging the UCSB Opera Gala, Bayrakdarian said, “Every single year the project must be adapted to the voices we have, and my job is to showcase the singers.” She did just that, allowing the singers to soar high as they sang challenging repertoire, while giving the audience a taste of different eras from opera’s history. “You see the progression of humanity’s creativity in four centuries.”

The UCSB Opera Gala was a splendid performance of repertoire that spanned over time and regions and gave everyone in the theater a true experience of opera at its best. The collaboration between three of the campus’ best artistic minds led to a night that was simply unforgettable. Each element of the performance was highlighted and each performer was given space to showcase their individual talents, all stemming from the unifying vision of Bayrakdarian, McCarthy and Wilson. It showed the enduring power of the medium and the enduring power of the arts here at UCSB.