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San Diego Opera Journeys Down River With ‘Florencia En El Amazonas’

Conductor talks about opera and magical realism

Photo caption:

Photo credit: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

San Diego Opera takes you on a journey down the Amazon in the new production "Florencia en el Amazonas."

San Diego Opera opens the Gabriel Garcia Marquez inspired "Florencia en el Amazonas" this weekend. KPBS went behind the scenes to find out what role a conductor plays in bringing an opera to life.

After spotting conductor Joseph Mechavich walking down the aisle at the Civic Theater and hear music coming from the orchestra pit, a visitor might have a moment of panic, like when you see the pilot chatting with passengers while the plane is in flight. But Mechavich says it’s OK — the orchestra is warming up.

So, just what role does the opera conductor play?

"I’m there to assist my friends in the pit, in this case the wonderful San Diego symphony orchestra," Mechavich said.

As the orchestra warmed up for the dress rehearsal of "Florencia en el Amazonas," director Candace Evans points out that a conductor’s work really begins with the singers.

"He doesn’t even meet the orchestra till probably three-quarters of the way through the piece," Evans said. "So he has a very strong vision of what the singers can do, where they need to breath and the relationship between what he wants them to do. Then he links the orchestra in and I’ve always said the orchestra score is like the magic carpet, we put it together and then we take that ride."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

Baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco is Riolobo in San Diego Opera's "Florencia en el Amazonas."

The word magic is especially apt for this opera, which takes its cue from the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"This idea of magical realism, that character, that idea, is in the orchestra," Mechavich stated. "The orchestra provides the sounds of the forest. You hear the birds, you hear the forest, you hear the movement of the Amazon itself. So all of that sonic world is needed to tell the story outside of the words and the singing comes from the orchestra."

It’s a complete soundscape that composer Daniel Catan creates.

"Daniel Catan was a man of genius and he captured the emotional world and the jungle world and he writes exquisitely for the human voice," Evans said. "The way the arc of an emotion enters your body he’s just brilliant … it echoes Puccini in the lushness, it has some Straussian kind of power but it’s also an original voice, if you can hear behind me there’s the sound of steel drums not a lot of operas with steel drums so it is evocative of the world he is trying to create."

"You hear the Amazon come to life," said Elaine Alvarez, the soprano who sings the title role of Florencia. "You hear the thunderstorm. The ship sort of gets shipwrecked for a little while and it’s a very dramatic scene and it’s all in the orchestra."

Florencia is a successful opera singer who decides to travel down the Amazon to reconnect to her roots and to hopefully find a lost love.

"It’s a really romantic story, a mystical story, there’s magical realism, there’s creatures from the Amazon that are the wonderful chorus that we have here, they are dressed up as monkeys," Alvarez said.

Opera proves well-suited to conveying magical realism.

"Opera exists in this world where it can be very realistic," Alvarez explained. "But it can also use fantasy to amplify ideas, amplify the human experience in a way that we sort of dream about."

Evan agreed and added that magic and illusion always play better in a live venue.

"I think the live factor is particularly potent," Evans said. "Opera is an increasing step toward your emotional center. When you add the musical component, it touches us in a way that I think is inexplicable it hits your emotion centers. It hits the core of the magic childhood part of us."

Journey and transformation are at the heart of "Florencia en el Amazonas," and it’s Mechavich’s job to make sure those ideas come through.

"Whenever anybody comes to the theater whether it is a movie theater or live theater like this you are looking to be transformed," Mechavich said. "So what you want to do is to be sucked into the energy of this incredible room here, the kinetic energy you get from all the singer-actors onstage and the scenic elements and the energy from the pit."

And from someone like Mechavich who adds what he calls his own spice into the mix, a little bit of cayenne pepper to turn up the heat on this trip down the Amazon.

San Diego Opera's "Florencia en el Amazonas" opens Saturday and has three more performances through March 25.

San Diego Opera opens the Gabriel Garcia Marquez inspired "Florencia en el Amazonas" this weekend. Go behind the scenes to find out what role a conductor plays in bringing an opera to life.

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