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“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
This famous line from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the theme of “The Fairy Queen,” an opera by Henry Purcell brought to the Visalia Fox Theatre by the Sequoia Symphony in conjunction with UC Santa Cruz Opera Program on June 18.
The bard’s most popular comedy, which pokes fun at the torments and afflictions suffered by those in love, is a “semi-opera,” which adds music between acts of a play.
The UC Santa Cruz Opera Company annually puts on a year-end opera. Sequoia Symphony music director Bruce Kiesling teaches their college orchestra and is the conductor for the opera each year.
During the pandemic last year, Kiesling had symphony members record the opera music because it was too hard to get the university orchestra to do it virtually. This year, many of the symphony musicians joined the opera orchestra for their performance in Santa Cruz. Kiesling wanted to see if they could then pack up the scenery, luscious costumes, and performers to recreate the opera in Visalia.
"This is kind of a dry run to see if this is something we could bring to Visalia each year,” he said.
Why a semi-opera?
Designed to be performed along with a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the opera with the complete play and Purcell’s music is estimated to have run just over four hours. Kiesling assures everyone that this production is half that length.
After restoring the monarchy in 17th-century England, theaters reopened after being shut down for nearly 18 years. New theatrical styles developed during the English Baroque period, including the semi-opera.
Purcell was the most important English composer of his time. The original 1692 production was lavish and expensive. Shakespeare's play was almost 100 years old by that time, so an unknown librettist refashioned the original text quite a bit to suit modern taste.
"A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a tale of lovers, fairies, and townsmen who all find themselves in the woods outside of Athens on the same night. It’s about mixed-up love affairs because of a magic potion that the fairy Puck gives to the wrong person.
The opera includes favorite Shakespeare characters, such as the mischievous Puck, who also places a spell on Bottom, turning his head into that of a donkey.
And the lavish costumes add to the magic.
“We will bring some of the sets and our wonderful costumes and wigs, including Bottom's beautiful ass head, which was created especially for this production,” said Sheila Willey, director/producer. “All of our designers are professionals hired for this production, except for the costume designers who are graduate students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.”
Kiesling says the work is closer to a modern musical than a traditional opera.
"Opera is musical theater. Sheila has done a great job bringing out the comedy. It’s really fun. The music is in the Baroque style, which we don’t get to hear that often,” said Kiesling.
"Purcell’s gift is two-fold. On the one hand, he is a brilliant dramatist, illustrating narrative through music that captures the essence of character and setting. More subtly, his second great gift is text painting: his ability to help a text jump off of the musical page.”
Altogether there are 18 principal actors/singers and a chorus coming from Santa Cruz. All are UCSC music students or graduates, many well-seasoned in opera. At least one plans to go on to a professional career after this summer.
"We are thrilled to be joined by members of the Sequoia Symphony for this production,” said Willey. “It is an incredible joy and unparalleled learning experience for these singers to perform with a professional orchestra.”
How to attend
“The Fairy Queen” Performed by the UC Santa Cruz Opera Program and the Sequoia Symphony at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18, at the Visalia Fox Theatre. 300 W. Main St. $35 general admission, $10 students 18 & under Information: www.sequoiasymphonyorchestra.com/season or 559 732-8600
This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: Sequoia Symphony expands repertoire to present opera with UC Santa Cruz