Opera Parallèle founder Nicole Paiement has added general director to her title of artistic director | Credit: SF Conservatory of Music

Opera Parallèle is emerging from the pandemic with its moxie intact and oversized ambitions still growing. The proof is in the announcement of the repertory, casting, and creative teams for the company’s 12th season.

General and Artistic Director Nicole Paiement has announced a season that will include:

— the premiere of Marcus Shelby’s Harriets Spirit (Nov. 13–14)
— the West Coast premiere of Lembit Beecher’s Sophias Forest (Feb. 24–26)
— Philip Glass’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the beast) (July 15–17)

This last is offered with the claim that it “distinguish[es] OP as the only U.S. company to have presented Glass’s entire trilogy of operas that are an homage to Jean Cocteau.” That excludes the Philip Glass Ensemble, of course, which has performed all three operas in Zellerbach Hall and elsewhere.

Vanessa Becerra
Vanessa Becerra will appear in La Belle et la Bête | Credit: Coco Jourdana

Paiement says of the season, “In the spirit of Opera Parallèle’s commitment to bringing relevant stories to the stage, we are thrilled to present this season, stories that celebrate human-rights hero Harriet Tubman with Harriet’s Spirit; the power of memories as catharsis and lasting effects of immigration with Sophia’s Forest; and the importance of seeing beyond the eye with Philip Glass’s La Belle et la Bête.

The company has done well with the Glass operas before, and Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel tells of preparations for this one:

“This new production of La Belle et la Bête blurs the boundaries of film and opera, transforming Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 film into an onstage immersive experience. The film will sometimes play as a normal film, but always with live singers and ensemble — a kind of reverse lip-synching-singing and play.

“What is new about our version is that we will put our singers into the film — à la Forest Gump — and at specific times, we will be projecting the film on the entire stage area, having removed [scrubbed out] the original characters from the film, so the film can be projected as a live set. Our singer will then be inside the live projected film as an immersive set.”

Glass commented: “What I like about Opera Parallèle is that there is an interesting personality about the company. We have similar ideas about theater, and I’m always happy with the works they create.”

Harriet’s Spirit, with music by jazz bassist Marcus Shelby and a libretto by Roma Olvera, tells a story of a young girl’s empowerment, inspired by her hero, the celebrated 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Opera Parallèle will present Harriet’s Spirit Nov. 13 and 14 in collaboration with San Francisco’s historic Bayview Opera House, the hub of the city’s African-American Arts and Cultural District.

The cast will feature Tiffany Austin as Harriet Tubman, Christabel Nunoo as Modesty, Bradley Kynard as Montgomery, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, led by Valérie Sainte-Agathe. Actor-director L. Peter Callender will direct.

Tiffany Austin and Torlef Borsting in a workshop production of Harriet’s Spirit | Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo

Of Sophia’s Forest, the composer says:

I have worked with Opera Parallèle, and specifically with Nicole and Brian Staufenbiel for many years and have deeply admired their unwavering commitment to new work, their artistic inventiveness, and their support of composers, both emerging and established.

Opera Parallèle was an essential partner in developing my chamber opera Sophia’s Forest, written with librettist Hannah Moscovitch. This was a personal piece about the experience of immigration for children, inspired by stories from both Hannah’s and my families.

I began developing this project in Philadelphia in 2017 and I was blown away by Nicole and Brian’s generosity of time and spirit, their commitment to a complicated project that involved the creation of electronically controlled sound-sculptures that were both musical instruments and part of the opera’s set, as well as their creatively challenging but always supportive feedback that deeply shaped Hannah’s and my thinking about the piece. Brian and Nicole helped me produce an initial workshop premiere of the piece and this season, we will see the work fully realized.”

The score will feature the Del Sol Quartet, percussion by Divesh Karamchandani, and sound sculpture electronics by Lembit Beecher.

Nicole Paiement and Brian Staufenbiel: the wife and husband leadership of Opera Parallèle | Credit: Jon Finck

The opera’s story is about a young girl, Sophia, who has recently immigrated to the United States, having survived a traumatic journey through the chaos of a civil war in her homeland. During the course of the one-act opera, we see Sophia as an adult remembering her childhood, as a nine-year old recent immigrant to the U.S., and in flashback to a couple of years earlier, as a child escaping her homeland with her mother and sister.

A central part of the production is nine electronically-controlled sound sculptures placed across the stage. These were built in collaboration with the ExCITe Center at Drexel University, an interdisciplinary center for research and innovation that combines arts and engineering. The sound sculptures featured in Sophia’s Forest form part of the opera’s set as well as functioning as an instrumental chorus, blending with the string quartet and percussion to create the fantastical and dream-like musical landscape of the piece.