By Matt Hickman
Don’t look now but opera is making a comeback, reaching younger generations and wider demographics.
Long, stuffy and dour are out; peppy, modern and topical are in. This accounts for the rise in new operas, as the Anchorage Opera accommodates with its second of three shows each season, and for the classics, it means preference for the upbeat hits like Rossini’s Barber of Seville, which plays the Performing Arts Center Friday through Sunday.
“This is the fourth time I’m doing Barber in 12 months; it’s becoming kind of a mainstay in my repertoire,” said Alex DeSocio, who plays Figaro this weekend. “To me, it’s the best intro to opera. It’s fun and it’s under two-and-a-half hours. It’s nothing but a comedy with great tunes you’re going to recognize.”
Blake Friedman, who plays the lead tenor Count Almaviva, describes the plot as, “Boy sees girl; boy falls in love; boy does everything he possibly can to make the girl realize it and they fall in love — it’s one of the few non-tragic operas.”
That non-tragic tone is picking up steam, said soprano lead Juliana Curcio, who’s played Rosina a number of times, even in Italy.
“That’s how young people get involved,” Curcio said. “Operas have always been about social commentary, but also entertainment. It used to be you’d have arias, and then people would chit-chat. How can you be expected to sit through that?”
Curcio said there’s even an opera now based on the 90s sitcom ‘Friends’ and she’d like to see even more light and comic pieces. She and Friedman, who are both based in New York City, agree that their favorite of the modern operas is ‘As One’, a two-person show about the journey of a transgendered person which was performed by the Anchorage Opera two seasons ago.
“I’ve worked for a company called American Opera Projects which champions brand new composed operas,” Friedman said. “One of our hashtags is ‘golden age of American Opera’, because composers are now taking American stories and modern issues and making art about it. Opera has always been about social commentary, people taking social issues and making it into art so people can respond and have emotions about. It spurs all kinds of things; it’s important to keep that tradition alive and to keep evolving.”
The modern show on this season’s docket for the Anchorage Opera is ‘Frida’, based on the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, whose life was portrayed in the 2002 movie starring Salma Hayak. Curcio said there are so many new operas being written, anything written as recently as the 90s might not be considered ‘modern’ anymore.
“Even now, it needs to be written after 2000 — ‘Little Women’ was 2001,” she said. “That and ‘Dead Man Walking’ was the opera to do then, now it’s ‘As One’.”
Friedman said he loves operas based on movies and wants to see more.
“I’m a movie fiend and I would love to see ‘A League of Their Own’. Jimmy Dugan would make a great baritone,” he said.
Though she’s performed all over the world, opera is not a full-time job for Curcio. She makes ends meet by working part-time as a fitness instructor.
“I teach everything from pilates to weight training to spin classes. It’s a good way to stay in shape between gigs,” Curcio said, adding that often her students are aware of her operatic talents and make requests. When called upon during spin class Curcio prefers the arias of Tosca. “I would say working out makes you a better singer, mentally. If I’m teaching a spin class, sometimes I’ll be sprinting with the mic and I’m able to sing a very long phrase.”
But singing opera isn’t all therapeutic. In fact, it can be quite physically taxing.
DeSocio was a high school football player from his hometown of Wichita, Kan. and when he arrived at Northwestern University, he had an eye on trying out for the football team but arthritis and persistent injuries kept him from making a go at it. Those aches and pains have stayed with him and opera does little to ease.
“Oh God, no. Coming from a football background I can say opera is very physical,” DeSocio said. “This is a very physical thing; it’s the marathon of singing things. It is a physical art form. Hopefully we make it look easy, but it doesn’t feel that way.”
Audiences, however, ought not feel taxed by the ‘Barber of Seville’, DeSocio said.
“It’s a fun, classic night at the theater. You’ll be laughing within the first 10 minutes,” he said. “This is a story that is time-tested; it’s a great show. You’re going to come and laugh and when it’s done you’ll say, ‘oh, shoot. It’s only been two-and-a-half hours and it’s already done?”
The Anchorage Opera’s presentation of the Barber of Seville is Nov. 1-3 at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 p.m. and the Sunday finale is at 4 p.m. Tickets are available at https://anchorageopera.org/