Opera in the 21st century isn’t exactly mass-audience entertainment. But Josh Shaw, who founded Pacific Opera Project (POP) in 2011 and serves as the company’s artistic director, is on a mission to make opera more affordable, accessible, and entertaining in order to build a broader audience.
Having mounted dozens of productions over the years, including Covid fan Tutte, an updating of Mozart’s classic Così fan tutte that was staged in the parking lot of Camarillo United Methodist Church during the first year of the pandemic, POP goes full-on Baroque with the U.S. premiere of a rare Antonio Vivaldi work, Ercole su’l Termodonte (Hercules on the Thermodon). Opening Jan. 6 and running for three weekends at the Highland Park Ebell Club, this staging may not feature seven castrati as the opera did during its 1723 premiere in Rome — there was a papal ban on women in opera then — but it does promise to be both a sonic and visual feast.
Indeed, the cast of two countertenors, one mezzo-soprano, two tenors, and three sopranos will be accompanied by a period orchestra in a venue that will be redesigned as an 18th-century Baroque opera house, complete with box seating. With Ercole only the second Baroque outing in POP’s history — its first was a production of La Calisto in 2014 — Shaw explained that this opera, unlike the earlier offering, has not been updated.
“We were very young, and Calisto was very dotty, very over the top,” recalled Shaw. “People walked out, but those people are now my board members. There’s not a joke in this show, which is odd for POP, to not have jokes. It’s also uber-traditional, and we’re doing that because it’s something new, something we’ve never done before. That’s what people love about us.”
Vivaldi’s 16th opera is based on the ninth labor of Hercules, in which he’s tasked with capturing the sword of Antiope, the queen of the Amazons. Recently rediscovered in libraries in Münster, Paris, and Turin, the work had originally been scheduled for POP in 2020. As to how Shaw came upon the score, he admitted that “people ask me all the time how I found it, but it’s been so long now I can’t remember.
“I think what happened,” he added, “was I was looking for interesting things that haven’t been done and probably heard Cecilia Bartoli sing an aria. Then I went down a rabbit hole and found this. It’s Hercules, so it’s got name recognition, and I loved the music. It’s so beautiful, it doesn’t really matter what the story is. I was just into it.”
Shaw, who has directed more than 80 productions at companies including New Orleans Opera, Opera Santa Barbara, and Opera Orlando, explained that this production is “really so little about the story, in my opinion. There will be a plot,” he acknowledged, “but it’s simple. And there will be swords, Amazon warriors, and Greek princes, but it’s also about scenic design.”
Shaw pointed out that “flipping the Ebell Club backward is going to be the ultimate creation. The build is enormous, and it’s [costing] around $100,000 or something like that. The hope is that this is super fun and that it works really well.”
Soprano Janet Todd, who sings the role of Ippolita, Antiope’s sister, moved to Los Angeles in 2018 and auditioned for POP a year later. Originally cast as Yum-Yum in The Mikado, the Australian-born musician then found herself stepping in on short notice to tackle Cio-Cio San in POP’s bilingual production of Madama Butterfly, with American characters singing in English and Japanese characters singing in Japanese.
“I had recently performed that role in Italian with Opera Columbus,” recalled Todd. “Josh was aware I’d done that, and it turned out that I went on in just a couple of days. Since that point, I’ve been involved with the company.”
And while Todd has sung quite a bit of Baroque opera in her career, she’s never sung anything by Vivaldi, and with Ercole decidedly aria-driven, she has her work cut out for her. “The music is gorgeous and was considered lost for centuries,” explained Todd. “It was only recently rediscovered within this century. The first time it had been performed was in 2006 during the Spoleto Festival in Italy [where it was recorded], and there was also a  recording with Joyce DiDonato and Rolando Villazón.”
Todd, who performs four arias, one duet, and is part of the ensemble at the opera’s conclusion, said she prepares for roles in the same way. “I start off by researching the general background of the piece, which in itself was a challenge because there wasn’t a lot to go on here. I looked into the story because I was unfamiliar with the legend, and I read what I could find.
“It seems to vary,” added Todd, “but in a lot of versions, [my character] was the queen of the Amazons, and they’re trying to capture a magic girdle as opposed to a sword. This production is much more of a love story than the original tales.”
Todd pointed out that after she researched the opera, she then dove into translating the score. “It’s a bit of a challenge because it’s difficult to translate ancient Italian, which is not as easy as more modern Italian operas. Then, at some point Josh sent out supertitles, so I could see what I got right and wrong.”
For Todd, also a singer with the Los Angeles Opera Chorus since 2019, learning the music and singing the role “into my voice is the fun part. It’s a good fit and some of it is challenging, but I really enjoy singing this music, and at the same time I’m thinking about the character.”
Shaw said that the orchestra consists of a string quartet along with an extra cello, plus oboe, flute, and trumpet, as well as a theorbo. The ensemble will be conducted by Kyle Naig from the harpsichord, with the musicians also clad in period costumes.
As for Shaw’s criteria for selecting operas and locations, he admits that “it’s all over the place. Some of it is what I want to do, but more is what we haven’t done. What do people want to see? What can we do in a special way, in a new way? But really, more and more and more, it’s coming down to venue. Our audiences want to go to new places and have new experiences.”
For that, of course, Los Angeles seems like fertile hunting grounds. While POP’s last outing, La bohème AKA “The Hipsters” AKA “La Brew’hème,” was performed at two breweries in December, the troupe’s season closes with The Pirates of Penzance at Heritage Square Museum in May. That venue has also been the site of several previous POP productions, including a 2021 staging of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti.
Looking back on POP’s history, Shaw said that he’s constantly surprised. “There was never a plan. It was more of ‘let’s put on a show.’ That’s how it was. Our first production was a five-person show with a budget of $3,500. I did not know that this was my dream [because] it’s become so much more than that, and now is the first time I feel a responsibility that we have something here that needs to live on.”