Arts & Culture


Chorus members rehearse for Opera San Luis Obispo’s upcoming production of ‘La bohème.’
Chorus members rehearse for Opera San Luis Obispo’s upcoming production of ‘La bohème.’ TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JOE JOHNSON

A new name, a new logo and a production of “La bohème” will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pacific Repertory Opera.

The new name, Opera San Luis Obispo, is more appropriate in this silver anniversary year, said Artistic Director Robert Ashens.

The “repertory” part of the original name implied that it was a repertory company — that the same people performed a repertoire of operas each season. But now the company recruits performers from national, regional and statewide talent pools.

“The season is spread out and includes elements of education and outreach. It’s a whole new era,” Ashens said.

“The name change represents the company’s moving forward into the next 25 years. The colors in the new logo are reminiscent of the colors in the San Luis Obispo City logo and recognize our presence and participation in this community, as well as the global opera community.”

The message on Ashens’ phone is in both English and Italian, and when he was interviewed he was preparing to leave for Vienna the next day for a Johann Strauss Foundation Symposium. Opera is an international art, and Ashens travels to find singers for Opera San Luis Obispo productions.

“I perform all over the world and hear singers at annual auditions and competitions. I hear 700 auditions personally each year,” he said. “I remember vocal qualities, and take notes. We post in advance what productions we’re planning, so singers can prepare appropriate pieces for auditions.”

Now the Internet and Facebook have made talent more accessible than ever, he added.

“If at the last minute I need a replacement, I can put out the word.”

The cast of Puccini’s “La bohème” includes guest artists as well as local area talent, with an orchestra of local musicians, a chorus of singers from the region and a youth chorus from the Central Coast Children’s Chorus.

“La bohème” is the story of young lovers in the bohemian district of Paris in the 19th century. It unfolds with comedy, drama, and tragedy, and has some of opera’s most beautiful music, Ashens said.

“It’s called ‘opera truismo,’ everybody can identify with the characters. … Puccini gets the audience involved in the story using lyrical, romantic scenes, then action that is sharp and quick, and shakes you out of your boots.”

The story has endured and been updated in the hit Broadway musical “Rent” and the film “Moulin Rouge.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with supertitles above the stage. It’s important that the performers know the original language, the director said. That opinion was confirmed as he watched a video after a performance.

“The camera was focusing on me as conductor, but we could see audience members in several rows behind me. At first they were looking at the titles every few seconds, but in 15 minutes they were watching the stage. This comes from good stage direction, but also from the acting of the singers. The body language and the sounds of the voices tell the story.”

The principals in the “La bohème” cast include Carol Ann Manzi from Santa Barbara as Mimi, Torlef Borsting (Marcello), Chester Pidduck (Rodolfo), and Igor Vieira (Schaunard) from the San Francisco Bay Area, Stephanie Cook of Clovis as Musetta, Ed Moran of Vancouver, B.C., as Benoit-Alcin, Alvaro

Ramirez of Illinois as Colline, and Christine Eagleson of Oregon in a character role.

The orchestra is not an established opera orchestra, as the configuration and number of musicians changes with the opera being performed, the director said. Puccini operas require a large theater and a large orchestra.

Many of the musicians play in the San Luis Obispo Symphony and some have played with the opera for many years. Clif Swanson, founder of Festival Mosaic (formerly the Mozart Festival) and his wife, Jane, play in the orchestra.

The 24 members of the adult chorus, 14 youth chorus singers, and the 35 musicians in the orchestra are from the Central Coast. Beth Klemm is chorus master of the youth chorus, and Rouvaishyana is the choirmaster, as well as a tenor in the adult chorus. His day job is park ranger in Morro Bay.

The chorus includes local doctors, dentists, teachers and other singers from the community. Chorus members Katrin Colamarino, John Frey and Jerry Vest are members of the board of directors of Opera San Luis Obispo. Soprano Katelyn Holliday is a Cal Poly student, a first-year music major and SLO native. She will sing in the opera chorus for the sixth time. The Cal Poly music department includes an opera class, and Ashens said he has taught master classes there and is always looking for students to join the opera chorus.

“The chorus is great training for the people here.”

Opera San Luis Obispo is developing a resident artist program, Ashens noted, comparing it to apprentice programs in England in the Middle Ages

“Opera is an art form that can be handed down and apprenticed to learn interpretation and style.”

The program can develop high-level students on a track toward professionalism, he said, “if not as singers, as educators.”

Opera San Luis Obispo’s outreach programs include a matinee program for fifth-and sixth-graders, a summer Opera Day Camp, and vocal scholarships for high school and college students.

Director Ashens will give a pre-opera talk one hour before the performances of “La bohème.”