About Face: Experience the New Face of Opera

Stephanie Jones on November 19, 2012
<em>About Face</em> With Heidi Moss
About Face With Heidi Moss

From the well-bred aficionado and the endangered opera critic to the greenest classical music lover, the words “face” and “opera” evoke iconic images in the tradition. But the leading lady of Festival Opera’s About Face: An Opera Experience is no phantom. Neither is the dire position of the Walnut Creek–based opera company.

Soprano Heidi Moss, whose face was partially paralyzed by Bell’s palsy in 2007, has inspired many and is the impetus behind a production that began with Henry Mollicone’s opera The Face on the Barroom Floor.

“I had seen The Face on the Barroom Floor back when I was in Oberlin, and I was in love with the opera. I loved the concept of how this one face that was painted on the floor solicited so much emotion, so much operatic emotion. It was love, it was jealousy, it was murder!” said the New Jersey native. “Then when I got the paralysis and I was trying to think of things to do on my own because I wasn’t being hired, I came up with the idea of — ‘How cool would it be to do Face on the Barroom Floor and have that face show this new face, this morphing between the face that was remembered and the new face of paralysis?”

At the time, Moss only had a Kickstarter campaign and participation from a couple of colleagues. She pitched the idea to Sara Nealy, the executive director of Festival Opera as of 2011. Although the idea of doing the one-act work in an actual barroom was interesting, Nealy saw something deeper in the play.

“Heidi and I were talking, and she had actually approached me about producing it with Henry [Mollicone] and doing [that opera],” said Nealy. “And I said, ‘Let me think about it’ because something was nagging at me that there was more there, more possibility. And I realized that we all are judged by our face, by our appearance. There’s no one alive who has not experienced being evaluated, judged, decisions being made about you based on nothing more than how you look,” she continued.

“We had an opportunity to do something deeper than just a fund-raiser attached to a wonderful, iconic opera which really wasn’t about the topic.” – Sara Nealy

“So I thought, In some ways, this isn’t just about people with a visible, physical disability or affliction. It’s really about us all.’ It’s really about judgment and how we can be cruel to each other sometimes. And then as I got to know Heidi a little more and she told me about her experiences with people — everything from the cruel to the amazing people who could see her through her physical presence and hear her — it became clear to me that we had an opportunity to do something deeper than just a fund-raiser attached to a wonderful, iconic opera which really wasn’t about the topic.”

Embracing a Risk

Yet Festival Opera has more than just a new audience on the line. Of course, About Face, which is essentially two one-acts linked by three principals — Moss, tenor Jorge Garza, and baritone Eugene Brancoveanu — and the weighty context of what we see on the outside versus who we are inside, is risky. But the possibility of what the company, and other arts organizations, would be if they don’t take more risks and change their approach is a scary thought.

“We’re doing About Face as a part of our artistic strategy of bridging to communities that we’ve not yet reached out to, and in this case it would be people who are dealing with visible, physical disabilities,” Nealy related. “That might reach people who maybe aren’t interested particularly in standard opera, or people who are interested in opera and want to try something a little different. But we’re trying to do things that are of a different scale, not always a fully staged opera in a large expensive venue. And that’s part of the exploration that we had mapped out in the two-year plan, which still included fully staged opera. But what I was starting to say was, we’re fighting hard but right now we are at the point where we can’t do it without people who believe in this company and the work that we’ve done over the years. We’re really at a critical juncture that will determine pretty much whether we can continue next season.”

“The only way we can keep opera alive is to sort of reinvent it, in a way.” –Heidi Moss

Like many opera companies — more than some might let on — Festival Opera staff realized that their ticket sales were not enough to cover their expenses, even for big sellers like La traviata. In fact, by the end of their 2011 production The Most Happy Fella, it had the lowest ticket sales in the history of the company. That has sparked the company’s change. Going forward, they claim that their standard of artistry will be the same — “artistically excellent, interesting, beautiful, exciting; [productions] must have the components of great art” — but the company wants to find new ways to relate to, retain, and expand their audience.

“That was also a big signal to us that something’s not right,” said Nealy. “We need to examine what we’re doing, who we’re doing it for, where we’re doing it, how we budget, how we account for things, and, really, our reason for being. We started from scratch. We said, ‘Should this company go on? And if so, why?’ ... We’re trying to operate off a model which is revenue based. That’s the change.”

Rolling Stone at Work

One part of that change is Heidi Moss herself. But, being true to her nature, Moss didn’t want it to be all about her.

“Keith [Nealy] really wanted to write a libretto and include my story in it and make it about me, and I said, ‘I really don’t want that.’ I want this to be for everybody and not about me, because otherwise it’s going to be too preachy,” said Moss. “I wanted it to be a ‘general-affliction journey,’ because that’s the only way. Everyone goes through something, whether it be physical or mental. So I wanted it to be an experience that people could sort of see themselves, in a way, see what they go through. I realized actually going through this that I went through this in a very different way than other people did. Some people give up. Some people go to religion. So everyone has a different way of accepting what they’ve experienced. And so we really wanted it to be a neutral painting so everyone could get something from it, rather than preaching about how you need to go through your affliction.”

Another change involves experimenting with various venues and locations. The company will perform in Oakland for the first time and offer workshops, as well as two internships for the production.

“We do have patrons from all around the area. We have people who come from Oakland. We have people who come from Richmond, Antioch, all over. But we have always performed in Walnut Creek,” said Nealy. “Nothing has prevented us from not doing that [from performing in Oakland], but now we have an incentive to reach out and explore whether or not we have a potential new audience if we establish ourselves in some other geographic areas in addition to Walnut Creek. Again, we’re a regional opera company. It’s just a strategic exploration of what it would mean to have a geographic presence beyond Walnut Creek.”

No version of Erik Destler or Dorian Gray will appear in the performance. However, Moss will be in good company with characters like Rigoletto and Mr. Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, and performing new music by Kurt Erickson (and Face on the Barroom Floor’s Mollicone, of course).

About Face: An Opera Experience, which will be performed place on Dec. 5 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek and at Oakland Technical High School’s Performing Arts Center on Dec. 7, consists of more than simply two acts in the company of an Adler Fellow or a personal journey. For Moss, who recently attended a function with Mary Jo Buttafuoco (because facial paralysis can have many starting points), it’s an ongoing battle taking place, and opera is the backdrop. Moss sings for thousands who didn’t know they had a voice, while Festival Opera fights for its very existence.

“I think one of the struggles I also see is, obviously, opera funding for the arts has gone way down,” Moss notes. “It’s very sad to see these amazing companies struggle to get audiences, struggling to get people in the seats and to donate, and I think the only way we can keep it alive is to sort of reinvent it, in a way. We can’t do Aida with elephants. But for people who’ve never seen opera before, they’re going to get a taste of the classics.

“And for people who are opera aficionados, I feel we’re offering them a different spin. We’re giving them contemporary opera and we’re giving them opera that they have seen before, and we’re wrapping it in a bow of awareness of a different message they haven’t already experienced. I really think if we can get the word out that this is worth seeing and this is what we need to do for the future to keep opera alive, I think that’s the message I want to get out.”