Pacific Opera Project — a.k.a. POP — has defied the COVID-19 pandemic again, ramping up its game from presenting drive-in opera in Camarillo last November to performing before a real, seated, socially distanced audience outdoors. And it was worth jumping through a bunch of hoops to hear live music again.
After enduring Los Angeles freeway traffic — now back to its pre-COVID level of soul-sucking madness — you parallel-parked your car on a dusty dirt path barely wide enough to accommodate other slowly passing cars. Then you had to make your way slowly through the weeds or on a narrow sidewalk on the other side of Homer St. near Highland Park, all the way to the end. It was a chilly Saturday evening, and traffic was roaring through the ancient Arroyo Seco Parkway several yards to the west. Eventually you found the gated entrance to the Heritage Square Museum, the final resting place of a collection of eight, lovingly restored buildings from the Victorian Age, carted here from different neighborhoods of Los Angeles to avoid the wrecking ball.
An offbeat place to see a live opera, for sure. And it turned out to be a perfectly fine place to see this live opera, Leonard Bernstein’s half-serious, half mischievous one-act skewering of the American Dream circa 1952, Trouble in Tahiti.
All my life’s a circle, as Harry Chapin used to sing — and so it was with POP Apr. 24, for Trouble in Tahiti was its very first production in 2011 at Vitello’s in Studio City. Company. Artistic director Josh Shaw had been planning on “sneaking in” this production to commemorate POP’s 10th anniversary even before the pandemic struck, and it turned out to be a terrific, natural fit for a small-scale emergence from hibernation. The choice of this opera was also (deliberately?) appropriate to the locale, for Bernstein’s original libretto name-checks several real and imaginary suburban towns across the USA — and one of them happens to be Highland Park! (Lenny probably meant the Highland Park near Chicago, but no matter.)
Tahiti is only 45 minutes long with no intermission, requiring just two lead voices and a trio of pop singers serving as a jazzy Greek chorus satirizing early-1950s television commercials and commenting on the action. To the strains of a nifty, instantly memorable tune as a prelude, the trio offers a rosy recitation of the pleasures of suburbia and progress in the USA after World War II and then immediately segues to a suburban couple, Sam and Dinah, arguing with each other (Sam was Bernstein’s father’s name, and you can read into that what you will). He is a muscular, alpha-male striver in the business world; she is a bored, unhappy housewife seeking an analyst’s help. Their relationship has gone stale, though it’s hard to put your finger on why, and they do whatever it takes to avoid working out their problems — like attending a movie (Trouble in Tahiti) in which Bernstein gleefully parodies horrible Hollywood escapist musicals of the period.
It’s a marvelous piece, straddling the intersection between Broadway, 52nd Street, and the Met, while probing the unease beneath the prosperous surface of the 1950s that would trigger a countercultural rebellion in the 1960s. Perhaps due to its hybrid nature, Tahiti doesn’t get as much attention as Bernstein’s more easily defined musicals and concert pieces. Three decades later, Bernstein would write an angst-ridden sequel on what became of Sam and Dinah down the road in A Quiet Place, yet in order to make that opera a palatable success, Tahiti was eventually folded into Act II as a flashback.
Vitello’s production reportedly used just a piano for the music, whereas at Heritage Square, the instrumentation expanded to a jazz piano trio (Kyle Naig, digital piano; Jon Keenan, bass; Geoff Mann, drums). That was all they needed to give the score its zing, zeroing in on and bringing to the fore the piece’s jazz base and Bernstein’s idiosyncratic yet swinging feeling for the idiom. I didn’t regret the absence of a pit orchestra at all.
POP is notorious for updating operas, but here, there was no need to. The sets were cardboard backdrops on a modest-sized stage with cartoon drawings of a “little white house” in Suburbia USA, a business office downtown, a psychiatrist’s office, a gym — all very reminiscent of a television production of Tahiti I recall from the 1970s. The costumes were right out of the 1950s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit milieu that still resonates today.
Sam and Dinah were entrusted to the able voices and smart physical casting of Andrew and Megan Potter — he with a virile bass-baritone in his swaggering gym scene, she with a darkish mezzo finding poignance in her session with her analyst and some degree of abandon reliving that “terrible, awful movie.” The jazz-pop-flavored trio — Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt, Robert Norman, and Ryan Reithmeier — doubled as stage hands folding and unfolding the sets and acting as mute characters opposite the squabbling couple. Stage director Shaw played the comedy and the pathos mostly straight, while having the trio humorously mime the movie’s “plot.”
There were two seating sections divided by a gravel path, with some getting to sit on the front porches of the colorful old mansions to the rear. The socially distanced pairs of seats up front were staggered in a way that made for great sight lines (see, the pandemic is good for something), and the amplification rose just above the noise floor of the whizzing parkway so that nothing was lost and no one’s ears were blown out.
It was announced that there will be another POP production at Heritage Square around the beginning of June. Just what it will be, they didn’t know, or wouldn’t tell. But at least we know that live music is creeping back into our lives in dribs and drabs — along with the ordeal of getting there.