Nicolas Reveles died last month from pancreatic cancer. He was the director of education at San Diego Opera for more than two decades. This Friday his opera "Ghosts" will have its world premiere at the Balboa Theatre.
Last summer, Nicolas Reveles was debuting one opera at San Diego International Fringe Festival and prepping another for a world premiere at San Diego Opera.
"I'm very excited about that, and to be produced by my home company as well as it's a big professional opera company in the United States," Reveles said in an interview from May 2022.
And what delighted him even more was that the opera was in a genre he loved.
"The horror is up front and center," Reveles enthused.
But last October Reveles was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died just six weeks before this Friday’s world premiere of "Ghosts," an evening of three one-act, horror-inspired operas. The operas are "Eden," a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe with a tale of madness and obsession; "Dormir," an exploration of what might happen when Old World spiritual practices meet the Christian belief system; and "House," about the trauma that haunts a mother.
But with a title like "Ghosts," perhaps Reveles knew he would be haunting the rehearsal hall.
"Oh, undoubtedly," said mezzo soprano Emily Fons. "We joke about it. It's in the text. We can say, 'Oh, that's Nic right there for sure, that moment.' It feels like somehow we're still exchanging ideas and asking for his blessing on the choices we make."
John de los Santos is directing the opera.
"Nic is definitely here with us, laughing, crying, getting very involved, and making sure that we're going to present an amazing premiere to commemorate him," de los Santos said.
At the rehearsal last week at the East San Diego Masonic Temple, de los Santos and conductor Bruce Stasyna were discussing a scene and how the stage would go completely black and how "Nic would love it".
Back in December, Reveles was in hospice but continued to work with the singers and de los Santos.
"I just told him creepy. I want jump scares. I want everything a horror movie would have," Reveles said in a Zoom interview from hospice care.
Reveles and de los Santos bonded over shared passions.
"Nic loved horror and I love horror," de los Santos explained. "But we also both loved opera. I think something that both horror and opera have in common is they elicit strong emotions, strong feelings."
Strong feelings that Reveles fell in love with the moment he heard a recording of Maria Callas sing "Tosca" when he was in college. It made him an immediate fan.
"I'm a great believer that you can approach anything through opera," Reveles said. "I absolutely believe in the genre. I think when you sing things, the story, the drama is more heightened, it becomes more important, it becomes bigger. And I like that. The bigness of that."
Last December, the passion was still there but cancer was taking a toll and his usual bubbling energy was not as evident. But he was still eager to discuss "Ghosts."
"It is an opera in black and white," Reveles said. "And when I think horror, I think black and white. And when I say that, I mean that the sound colors, the colors from the orchestra, are even kind of black and white."
Maybe that is because when Reveles was eight years old, his mother introduced him to James Whale’s 1931 black and white film "Frankenstein."
"And from then on, I was hooked on horror," Reveles said. "I don't know what it is really, but there's something about about the darkness and about being scared and about telling a story that might frighten people even just a little bit that I've always enjoyed. I always enjoyed telling campfire stories, and writing horror stories, and even with an old 8mm camera making my own werewolf film when I was twelve, I love that stuff. And so now that I'm grown up, I haven't gone very far away from it, but it's a little bit more sophisticated now, I hope."
Indeed it is. David Bennett, general director of San Diego Opera, is one of his fans.
"So (with) any artist, when you want to allow them to create a work, you want to make sure that they're in an area of their art or choosing a subject matter they feel deeply connected to," Bennett explained. "So I knew allowing Nick to play in that playbox of horror and ghost story genre would result in something that would be deeply compelling."
For the opera "Eden," de los Santo was also the librettist. He and Reveles collaborated on what ghosts can mean in the opera.
"Ghosts are not figures in sheets," de los Santos said. "They are memories. They are regrets. They are unknown and unanswered questions that we have that we have to confront."
In the opera "House," Fons plays a mother.
"Nic and I did talk about how ghosts can be trauma, can be experiences, can be people who we aren't able to shed emotionally from our lives," Fons said.
Bennett saw "Ghosts" as an opportunity to fulfill his goal of offering audiences a detour from traditional opera.
"So that's why it's really an honor for us to produce this, because there's so much in this work that's unusual and unexpected, but there's also so much in it that is in many ways traditional," Bennett said.
Reveles expressed hope that the opera would have a future beyond this weekend. And Ghosts would be the perfect legacy for a man who devoted his life to being an ambassador for opera and whose heart always belonged to horror.