OperaBend World Premiere | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

OperaBend World Premiere

"Vía Láctea" will debut in June

"Vía Láctea," a new opera in English, is coming to life in Bend, transformed from the page by an ensemble of prodigious music, literary and theater professionals from across the country. The original opera will premiere June 10 at the Tower Theatre, where audiences will be the first in the world to see the two-hour musical performance.

"Vía Láctea" is Spanish for the Milky Way, Earth's beautifully warped and spiraling galaxy visible as a cloudy patch of stars in the night sky. The opera recreates the magical world of the Camino, a journey to the cathedral of Santiago through France and Spain. The Camino is not one path, but many, as several roads lead to the destination, beginning at each pilgrim's door. Peregrina, the pilgrim, is at the heart of the tale, beginning her journey in Bend, at a turning point in life when she estimates there to be few new starting points left.

Famed American opera soprano Emily Pulley, with more than 150 operas in her repertoire, will lead the cast of seven principal performers in the lead role of Peregrina, the pilgrim. The spiritual quest of the Camino unfurls along the 500-mile pilgrimage route that passes through the Pyrenees mountains and on to the shrine of St. James, patron saint of Spain. There are many reasons for walking the Camino, many prayers and personal quests, and answers that lead to many more questions; this is the nature of the journey, and life.

The masters behind the production include its nationally-recognized writer, librettist Ellen Waterston, conductor/maestro Michael Gesme, award-winning composer Rebecca Oswald, and OperaBend founders, musical director Jason Stein and director Nancy Engebretson. Professional opera singers and symphony musicians are rehearsing the material for the original production, never before performed. Choreography is by Michelle Mejaski.

"The actors bring their unique perspective to the characters with the end result being a living, breathing, multidimensional version of the poems on the page," says Engebretson. Seeing the opera interpreted and performed for the very first time will be an experience to cherish for a lifetime.

Waterston became a peregrina, or pilgrim, making the journey from Bend to the Camino in 2012. At that time, after a long and rewarding, but demanding career as founder and executive director of the Nature of Words, she decided to pass the baton. She had reached a crossroads in her life.

"I will walk my way to answers to what's next," Waterston said to herself. What she discovered is that "the Camino gives you exactly what you need, whether one lives on it for three days or three months. It is very something other," she shares. "The pilgrimage is a spiritual experience for all faiths," she explains.

The journey from the road to the book of verse to the opera began when she came off the trail in 2012 and by 2013 finished the verse novel, "Vía Láctea, a Woman of a Certain Age Walks the Camino." She then wrote the first draft of the libretto, the text of the opera, during a writing residency on Summer Lake through PLAYA. In 2014, she met with Central Oregon Symphony's conductor Michael Gesme. He suggested Rebecca Oswald as the composer and by 2015, they previewed the opera.

Oswald, a prior finalist for the American Prize in Composition says she was thrilled at the opportunity to work with Gesme, who premiered one of her orchestral works in Bend in 2007. She found "Vía Láctea" to be a complex, interesting, and beautiful literary work. "Each poem is unique in structure and tone, yet there is an overarching journey replete with intense emotions and colorful characters." She immediately understood its potential. 

"Composing the music for Vía Láctea has been incredibly rewarding and genuinely fun," says Oswald. Since completing the score last fall, she notes it has been gratifying to learn that the principal singers, all professionals in the opera world, have enjoyed learning and working on their vocal parts. "I look forward to hearing the music come to life with our incredible cast and orchestral musicians under the baton of Michael Gesme, and to seeing the production staged by OperaBend under the direction of Nancy Engebretson." 

Engebretson, co-founder of OperaBend, notes the many influences on the final opera. As director, she will stay true to Waterston's libretto while creating a production that is born out of her vision of the story. Some of the interesting challenges of being the first director to stage the opera involve creating the transitions that make the story come to life on stage in a way that is believable and seamless for the audience.

"I love the themes in this production, namely the Camino," says Engebretson, "what compels people to walk it, what they discover, and how they are changed by it." Whereas in traditional opera, universal themes are often modernized for the audience, "Vía Láctea" is an opera set in contemporary times, appealing to many ages and musical tastes. "That's very exciting for me," says Engebretson.

Waterston says she is looking forward to the work going out into the world. The opera has seven principal characters, a chorus of 12 members, a boys' chorus of four children, and five dancers, bringing the total number of performers to 28. In addition to Pulley, soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas, tenor Chad Johnson and soloist Jeanne Wentworth have joined the cast along with baritone Zachary Lennox. Stein, as musical director for the opera, is very excited about the talented performers he has chosen for Vía Láctea.

"The way this has fallen together is nothing short of a miracle," says Waterston, holding the scallop shell she wore as a pilgrim on the trail. She shows the map of trails, which in her imagination, resembles a woman leaping, who is the Camino Woman in the opera. That role will be played by Wentworth. Mezzo soprano Hannah Penn fills the role of the Omniscient, and Stein, a tenor, will play Father Tomas, completing the cast.

Stein explains that there is a major difference between previous performances such as "Les Misérable," and "Vía Láctea." In this opera, most of the principals are professionals doing opera for a living. This is a different plane," says Stein. "The rehearsal time is much shorter. Whereas "Les Mis'" was rehearsed for nine months, for "Vía Láctea," everyone will come to the first day of rehearsal with the music memorized, ready to be staged. "It is completely different in the opera world," says Stein, who studied with the famous acting coach Stella Adler in New York. "Adler loved Chekhov, Ibsen, Arthur Miller," he says. "She really expected you to come completely prepared from day one. She was strict, and this gave me a huge respect for the playwrights," he says. "At OperaBend, we are really taking this seriously."

Central Oregon Symphony's Gesme will work with the musicians and cast in rehearsals. "He's amazing," says Stein. "He breathes along with the singers." Gesme, who was responsible for bringing composer Rebecca Oswald aboard, is chair of Central Oregon Community College's Fine Arts department and a professor of music for the college.

For Oswald, the interplay between music and text in the opera is the most interesting element: how the music forwards the story and evokes the characters and situations. "Vía Láctea has over two hours of music, with seven named roles, a chorus, a boys' chorus, and a pit orchestra of perhaps 26 musicians. There are a number of musical themes throughout the opera that recur and sometimes interweave with each other to support the story's progress and the characters' development," she says. 

The quest of "Vía Láctea" exists on many levels. On the surface, an imperfect woman walks and searches for answers to the meaning of her life. On another level, the life lesson is that answers do not come from within, found through self-absorption. There is yet another tale, one of a culture that sidelines older men and women, choosing instead to worship youth.

Vía Láctea, the Milky Way galaxy above the Camino, is said to be created from the dust of pilgrims' feet, kicked up on the trail. In that spirit, a Kickstarter campaign is available for everyone to be a part of the journey, and the opera project is within $5,000 of its goal. (The campaign will end on Monday, May 2, at 8 p.m.) A preview of the opera is available on the Kickstarter page. Thus far, the opera has raised $200,000 of its $250,000 budget, with the generous support of Bend arts patron Marjorie Carmen. All performers, including the principals and the chorus members, will be paid.

OperaBend is a nonprofit performing arts organization in Bend. It debuted with "Carmen" in 2012 and produces three productions per year. Following "Vía Láctea," the next opera will be "Maelstrom," by Ben Larson in October, then Puccini's "La Bohème," next winter.

"Vía Láctea" will be performed three times in Bend, on June 10, 11 and 12. Tickets are on sale through the Tower Theatre and OperaBend.org.

"Vía Láctea" Tower Theatre

835 NW Wall St., Bend

June 10, 7:30 p.m.

June 11, 7:30 p.m.

June 12, 3 p.m.

Reserved Seating $35, $45

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