Not so long ago, any intersection between Opera Philadelphia and something fringe-y would’ve been an April Fools’ joke. Yet parts of the upcoming Festival O19 — Opera Philadelphia’s third concentrated venture towards the cutting edge — resemble and intersect with the Fringe Festival, with neither side batting an eye.

A pre-opening grand tour for the Sept. 18-29 opera festival, heading from south to north, begins a few doors down from Geno’s Steaks in a former auto-body shop that is being turned into a cabaret setting for a program called Late Night Snacks, hosting some of the festival’s biggest stars, Stephanie Blythe and Anthony Roth Costanzo, alongside the seriously queer Bearded Ladies cabaret.

Just north, on the Avenue of the Arts, Handel’s Semele is being reimagined for the Kimmel Center’s Perelman theater — not as the usual study in social-climbing ambition, but as a story of a woman running from a possibly Manson-ish cult to higher, safer deities. The Academy of Music hosts Prokofiev’s ultra-comic Love for Three Oranges that doesn’t always try to make sense.

Further up, in a Spring Garden studio, rehearsals go on for the brand new Denis & Katya, based on a real-life drug- and gun-fueled social media tragedy, which will play at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Forging on, we reach a Fishtown rehearsal space where Joseph Keckler melds numerous operatic deaths scenes into an evening titled Let Me Die — a Fringe co-presentation that will play at FringeArts.

“This is normal for us now,” says David Devan, Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president.

New normal can translate into new freedom, even with the festival’s best-known piece, The Love for Three Oranges. “It’s not like La Traviata, where everybody has an opinion on how it should be,” says music director Corrado Rovaris.

In fact, preconceived notions may be out of fashion. “Our audience doesn’t want this year’s festival to look like last year’s festival,” says Devan. “Each year will be different kinds of extremes.”

If that doesn’t sound like tradition-bound Philadelphia, it’s not. More than a third of the ticket buyers from the past two festivals came from beyond a 70-mile radius of the city. Roughly a third of all ticket buyers were at Opera Philadelphia for the first time.

With its trim $3.7 million budget (less than a third of the company’s overall $13 million budget), the festival is already close to meeting its ticket sales projections. There’s a reason why most venues this time around are traditional theaters: Museum spaces of past years offered novelty, but limited seating capacity. No surprise, then, that the timely Denis & Katya has a full seven performances in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

Safe space to be dangerous

The bridges between the individual events may not be obvious. But last year, for example, Lucia di Lammermoor star Brenda Rae appeared in a late-night cabaret singing Tori Amos songs. “We push each other,” said John Jarboe, Bearded Ladies’ founder. “Opera Philadelphia comes to artists asking: What will no one else let you do? And isn’t that what the Beards are doing as well? You just have to create the right space where people feel safe to be dangerous.”

The O19 key players tend to be in the 35-45 age range, past their early experimental stage but not yet arriving at any set method for approaching any project. Often, opera is not a first love, but something they’ve come to via other disciplines, whether theater or the visual arts.

Or studies in ancient mythology in the case of director James Darrah, who feels comfortable enough with the gods in Handel’s Semele that he’s re-ordering some of the arias, rethinking all of Act I in a production he has done twice before, and is generally going for a topical festival piece rather than a definitive rendering in the Icarus-like story of a woman who climbs too high.

“In 2019, we can’t do another opera about a woman who gains agency and power and then is punished for it by dying,” Darrah says.

Handel's Semele will be performed in the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater as part of Festival O19.
Kent Sievers
Handel's Semele will be performed in the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater as part of Festival O19.

The piece itself is conceptually subversive: Semele pretended to conform to proper oratorio rules (opera was out of fashion) but has such an erotic libretto — first presented during Lent, no less — that Handel’s Messiah librettist Charles Jennens called it a bawdy opera. “Handel was the original O Festival,” says Darrah.

In Denis & Katya, the emotional complexities assume train-wreck status, based on a real-life 2016 incident in Russia in which 15-year-olds Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova holed up in a house, shot at police, and streamed it all on the internet before their deaths by suicide.

But the title characters will never be seen onstage. “On a moral level, we wanted to avoid making a disaster-porn piece about sexy teenagers in love,” says librettist Ted Huffman.

Fresh from their acclaimed operatic adaptation of the Sarah Kane play 4:48 Psychosis, Huffman and composer Philip Venables visited the Pskov area of Russia, and realized their piece would center on a journalist who covered the story and a close friend of the deceased — in a story of how the internet fosters judgments and conclusion with little supporting information.

Each singer plays several roles. Many scenes are as short as eight to 10 seconds. The orchestra consists of four cellos.

The Brexit of operas

Writing such an unformulaic piece in only a year’s time must’ve at least had them breaking a sweat.

“We broke a sweat, furniture, emotional barriers, sleep patterns…what else did we break?” says librettist Huffman.

“We’ve been ... changing our ideas about how to tell the story,” says the composer. “It’s like Brexit: Nothing gets decided until everything is decided.”

"Denis & Katya" composer Philip Venables and director/librettist Ted Huffman.
Dominic M. Mercier
"Denis & Katya" composer Philip Venables and director/librettist Ted Huffman.

Also in a state of formation is Keckler’s Let Me Die, instigated by FringeArts president Nick Stuccio, who emerged from one of Keckler’s shows convinced that he should be jointly presented in Philadelphia.

“Half-essay, half-ritualistic collage” is how the charismatic, operatically trained Keckler describes his piece, which brings together death scenes (such as “The Cold Song” from Purcell’s King Arthur), embrace scenes (such as Verdi’s Aida), and last words (Emily Dickinson’s) in a synthesis that Keckler promises will retain “frayed edges.”

“This inquiry about death emerged over breakfast,” says Devan. “It was 9 a.m. and he arrived with dark glasses. Clearly, this was early morning for him.”

The festival’s biggest ticket-selling risk is the sure bet, The Love for Three Oranges, with four performances in the Academy of Music. Last year’s innovative production of Lucia di Lammermoor filled the Academy to the 70% mark of 1,800 full-view seats (the venue has a total of about 2,900 seats) — not a disaster, but not a success.

This year’s fairy-tale comedy, which premiered in 1921, is considered Prokofiev’s best opera — and is something mainstream opera audiences would find readily digestible. But it has only been seen in Philadelphia twice, and apparently not since 1991. What it does have, though, is title recognition, since the quirky “Three Oranges March” is one of classical music’s greatest hits.

The fantastical production by South African director Alessandro Talevi was acclaimed at Florence’s Maggio Musicale and will be populated by an ensemble cast drawn partly from local conservatories. The opera’s rich but hyperactive orchestration, says Rovaris, is the biggest challenge yet to his instrumentalists. “The orchestra doesn’t have a moment to breathe.”

Any genre of opera tends to be a magnet for challenges, if only because the art form is so specialized, singular, and multi-faceted. But in modern opera, there are doozies. Will singers in Denis & Katya adjust to getting all of their cues from an earpiece rather than a conductor? Will the giant oranges in the Prokofiev opera open correctly — or leave singers trapped inside? Will that sinkhole be fixed outside 1316 S. Percy St. where Blythe and Costanzo will be doing cabaret?

In the end, the singers make it work. In Three Oranges, theatrically savvy bass-baritone Zachary James — a Broadway veteran whose future includes Metropolitan Opera’s Ahknaten in November and Don Giovanni at Wilmington Concert Opera in December — is getting off easy.

Here James plays an enormous chicken/human hybrid that’s supposed to be female despite the performer’s near-Wagnerian male voice. “When there are no rules,” he says, “you can do a lot more, especially with comedy.”

Festival O19 performances
  • The Love for Three Oranges, Sept. 20, 22, 27, and 29, Academy of Music.
  • Semele, Sept. 19, 21, 24, 26, and 28, Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center.
  • Denis & Katya, Sept. 18, 21, 22, 23, 25, 28, and 29 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
  • Let Me Die, Sept. 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, and 28 at FringeArts.
  • Curtis in Concert, Sept. 21, 22, 28, and 29 at the Curtis Institute of Music.
  • Opera on the Mall: La Boheme, Sept. 14, Independence National Historical Park.
  • Late Night Snacks, Sept. 7-29, 1316 S. Percy Street, including Stephanie Blythe (Sept. 14 and 15), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Sept. 20), Martha Graham Cracker (Sept. 21), and the cast of The Love for Three Oranges (Sept. 24).

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