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If you’re like me, when you hear “opera,” you think belting soloists, foreign languages, and works that are several centuries old. “Opera is not what people think,” says Rachel Hanauer. “Opera is still being composed. Today’s opera is very close in style to musical theater.”
Hanauer is co-producing “The Voice of Gertrude Stein” at the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield with Caroline Spaeth. “Part of our mission is to make opera more accessible for Rhode Islanders,” said Spaeth in our recent phone interview.
The first act of the show will feature the words of Gertrude Stein, a “person caught on the wrong side of history,” says Hanauer. “She was an American writer, a lesbian and a person of Jewish background.”
Hanauer and Spaeth crafted the first act based on Stein’s text. “She was stuck in France in World War II. She was known for writing Nazi propaganda, but she was clearly anti-Nazi.”
The first 15 minutes will be a discussion about Stein and her influence, followed by six singers presenting her text musically.
The second act is a one-act opera called “Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters.” The piece is almost 50 years old, and according to Hanauer, comes from “that era of opera that helped bridge the gap between opera and musical theater.”
It’s very much theater of the absurd, says Spaeth. “Five young children are playing a game where they’re trying to find a murderer. The performers are all wearing animal onesies. Especially during this time, it’s a break from the news cycle.”
(It’s important to note that our interview took place several days prior to the events in Uvalde, Texas. At that point, the news cycle consisted of losing abortion and voting rights, the continuance of Covid, the presence of monkey pox and the war in Ukraine.)
All of the performers, says Hanauer, “are very experienced musical theater and opera performers. They’re all good actors, good singers. This should be an engaging theatrical event, theatrical experience.”
Hanauer refers to the classical style of opera as “park and bark. The performers stand and sing for about 15 minutes.” Modern opera is more like a play with music. Hanauer quoted a director who described “modernist” works. “Suppose you had mutton your whole life, and then you try sushi for the first time.” The sushi is modernist opera. “It’s opera singing, but very action-driven.”
There’s been a change in attitude, says Spaeth. “People wanted to see current works.” The problem is that most opera programs in the larger cities are controlled by wealthy patrons. They get the reputation of being very stuck. They do the same programming over and over again. It gets stale.”
Hanauer would like to see a local spot at which opera could be performed. “RIC and URI both have opera as part of their musical studies,” says Hanauer. “But most of those kids move out, to Boston or New York because there’s no place to do it in Rhode Island.”
“We don’t need a big space, and we don’t need to spend a lot of money,” says Spaeth. “We’d just like to see it easier for Rhode Islanders to access opera.”
Rachel Hanauer and Caroline Spaeth present “The Voice of Gertrude Stein” on May 26 and June 4 – two shows only – at the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield. For tickets and information, visit www.contemporarytheatrecompany.com.