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San Diego Opera Opens New Season With ‘Aida’

Production puts symphony on stage with singers

Photo credit: Edward Wilensky

San Diego Opera's new production of "Aida" has a bold but simplified look that places the symphony and singers on center stage and minimizes big sets.

San Diego Opera launches its 2019-2020 season with a well-proven grand opera from Verdi. But this production of "Aida" tries something different.

When David Bennett took over San Diego Opera in 2015 he introduced a program called dētour, which was meant to showcase everything that was not grand opera.

Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

Reported by Beth Accomando , Video by Roland Lizarondo

"If you think of the word of a detour, a detour is along the same direction but maybe a different path, right? Getting you to the same place but on a different path," Bennett said.

That program has led audiences to innovative productions of chamber opera, concert opera, contemporary opera, and opera from other cultures. But now perhaps grand opera is ready for a detour as well.

"That's actually a very good metaphor right? We’ve actually thought about that. We said, why don't we think about applying some of the learning that we've taken from detour and see if we can put a little bit of that on the main stage," Bennett said.

To kick off the new opera season Bennett is doing precisely that with a scaled back version of the Verdi favorite, "Aida."

Technical director Tim Wallace painted epic, traditional sets for an "Aida" back in 1995 and is now repurposing some of those pieces for a very different looking show.

"We’re ever evolving and adapting into who we are and something fresh and something new that our audience hasn’t seen," Wallace explained. "This is definitely like the jumping off point for that on the main stage."

As general director for San Diego Opera, Bennett has to not only decide on programming choices but also keep an eye on the budget. When programming this new season he was looking for cost efficient ways to stage an epic opera like "Aida." But necessity can lead to creative solutions that go beyond mere financial concerns.

"Just in the way that it’s played," Wallace said. "The orchestra is going to be onstage, and the singers are all downstage on the thrust as opposed to being in the middle of the stage. If anybody’s ever been to see the symphony live just on their own you know that's a spectacle. So we're bringing it all together but all in full view."

Photo credit: Edward Wilensky

San Diego Opera's production of "Aida" offers a different look for the epic Verdi opera.

Musicians and singers dominate the stage but that means fewer expensive and massive set pieces and no live animals.

"I did the world's largest production of 'Aida' with elephants and snakes and camels," tenor Carl Tanner said. "And I've done scaled down versions of 'Aida.' It's all about the music, it’s all in the music. I mean a lot of people go for the spectacle but I think the majority of the music lovers go for the music."

That’s what Bennett wants to emphasize.

"I think it draws attention to the beautiful writing of Verdi across the board," Bennett stated. "So Verdi actually made a comment in his compositional style or referred to something in his compositional style right before he composed Aida of a new idea about composing operas that's with sort of intention across all musical spectrum, of actually honoring the orchestra in the same way as he honors singers."

So audiences will clearly see the musicians on stage with the singers and the chorus, and Tanner will be a mere few feet away from the front row.

"For the people right down in front, they're going to feel a little overwhelmed with the sound maybe from the artists, maybe from the soloist but I feed off the audience's energy. When they're excited I'm excited," Tanner said.

And even veterans like Wallace, who’ve seen plenty of "Aidas," is looking forward to what this production brings to the main stage.

"It's not fully finished yet but it's exciting and good to actually sit back and watch it and see what happens." Wallace said the night before the first full dress rehearsal.

It may not be the epic production people are used to but for a technical director there are still a lot of moving parts.

"There are moving parts to this: drops fly in and out, some scenery comes flying in, some moves across the stage," Wallace stated. "So it's not just a concert version of anything, it is still very much a theatrical experience."

But an experience that may allow audiences to hear Verdi in a new and more intimate way without any elephants to distract them.

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