The cast of Salastina’s OC fan tutte
Joanna Ceja, Ali Ewoldt, Kangmin Justin Kim, E. Scott Levin, David Castillo, and Chris Hunter (left to right) in Salastina’s OC fan tutte | Credit: Adan Alonso

In Mozart’s Così fan tutte, women are the butt of the joke. While Lorenzo Da Ponte’s story ultimately pokes fun at both sexes, jabs about flighty, unreliable, silly women pepper the 18th-century libretto.

Despite its inherent sexism, Così fan tutte remains popular with 21st-century audiences and for good reason: Mozart’s music is charming, the characters endearing, the plot entertaining. To enjoy all that, we grin and bear it, chuckling uncomfortably through outdated misogyny so that we can enjoy everything we love about this classic rom-com.

Today, it’s relatively common for opera companies to tweak supertitle translations of old works, updating them to reflect contemporary cultural mores and obscure expired racist or sexist language. That proves challenging with a piece like Così, in which sexism is so central to its plot it’s embedded in the title, which is often translated as “Women are like that.” Ridding this story of misogyny requires a total remodel, not just a fresh coat of paint.

Maia Jasper White and Vid Guerrerio
Salastina co-founder Maia Jasper White and librettist Vid Guerrerio | Credit: Adan Alonso

Librettist Vid Guerrerio’s solution to this problem is clever. Rather than attempting to whitewash Così of its sexism or work around it, he highlights and recontextualizes it in a reworking titled OC fan tutte. Set in conservative Orange County, Guerrerio replaces ladies of the court, military officers, and a chambermaid with Bible-toting, praise- and worship-singing evangelical Christians and a drag queen. Instead of laughing at women, we find ourselves laughing at the absurdity of purity culture and the idiocy of homophobia.

The dynamic and distinctive Los Angeles chamber group Salastina presented three performances of an unstaged chamber version of OC fan tutte over the weekend in Pasadena, downtown L.A., and Santa Monica. I caught the second performance, presented Saturday evening at the Colburn School’s small but acoustically alive Thayer Hall. The audience was also small  around three dozen by my count  perhaps because this weekend was packed with opportunities to hear opera in L.A. Those who did attend were treated to a sharp-witted, musically vibrant performance.

Founded in 2010 by violinists Maia Jasper White and Kevin Kumar, Salastina is composed of a core group of Hollywood studio musicians who are also members of groups like Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Pacific Symphony and professors of music at local universities. It’s a dynamic and engaging group known for presenting non-traditional concerts that draw the audience into the conversation to explore old and new music interactively.

Jasper White expertly led the small, conductor-less ensemble, which consisted of two violins, a viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, and piano. With three robust, energetic chords, the eight-piece band opened the performance with a glorious punch, instantly enveloping the audience in an intoxicating sonic embrace. From there they drew us into the action with an energetic tempo that delivered momentum and verve while never feeling rushed. Playing with the tight clarity of a well-rehearsed chamber group and, thanks to Thayer Hall’s size and acoustics, the broad warmth of a much larger ensemble, they delivered a remarkably pithy and charming performance.

Benjamin Smolen, Maia Jasper White, Chris Stoutenborough, and Kevin Kumar (left to right) | Credit: Adan Alonso

A great chamber group doesn’t need a conductor, but when singers enter the mix, tight cohesion is slightly more challenging. Still, Jasper White corralled the opera’s six person cast beautifully, handily juggling her roles as conductor, prompter, and concertmaster.

Ultimately, this performance was so musically delightful and theatrically lively that occasional miscoordinations between singers and orchestra (and the lack of staging) were easily ignored and quickly forgotten. Perhaps they even added to the accessible charm of the presentation, which at times felt like a table read for a well-written comedy, with singers playing off each other’s energies and fleshing out their characters seemingly in real time.

Members of the orchestra took turns introducing the setting of each scene (a mall food court, an In-N-Out Burger, a bridal shop) and props were minimal. As Felicia (Fiordiligi) and Briella (Dorabella) respectively, sopranos Joanna Ceja and Ali Ewoldt were by turns coy, demure, conflicted, and confident. Apart from a few shaky transitions between registers, Ceja showed off a powerful and nuanced voice I’d like to hear more of, while Ewoldt delivered more effervescent high notes.

David Castillo and Chris Hunter are Will (Guglielmo) and Frankie (Ferrando)
David Castillo and Chris Hunter as Will (Guglielmo) and Frankie (Ferrando) | Credit: Adan Alonso

Tenor Chris Hunter struggled a bit in his upper register as Frankie (Ferrando), while baritone David Castillo shone with strong vocals and acting chops as the more successful seducer Will (Guglielmo). Bass-baritone E. Scott Levin  a familiar face on smaller opera stages around Southern California  was characteristically reliable and funny. But it was countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim who stole scene after scene as Queen Thespina (Despina). In his upper register Kim has the power and tone of a great mezzo-soprano. Combine that with the charisma of a drag queen and you get a riveting, boundary-pushing performance.

Much like the original, but translated into contemporary Californian evangelical-ese, Guerrerio’s libretto is witty and silly and features tacky rhymes that, when delivered by this cast, pack a satirical punch. Take, for instance, Frankie’s description of his girlfriend, Felicia, in the opening scene:

“My bae, my Briella, she’s no freakin’ ho
Yeah, this much I know:
She’s true as the Bible and pure as the snow.”

Kangmin Justin Kim as Queen Thespina (Despina) and E. Scott Levin as Alonzo (Don Alfonso)
Kangmin Justin Kim as Queen Thespina (Despina) and E. Scott Levin as Alonzo (Don Alfonso) | Credit: Adan Alonso

Tongue-in-cheek throughout, Guererio dismantles the toxic misogyny and homophobia of megachurch conservative Christianity by pointing out the flimsy absurdity of its bigotry. When Will and Frankie head off to “the Army Corps for Christ,” they reassure their girlfriends they’re in no danger and it’s “all low-risk.” Alonzo (Don Alfonso), who is gay in this version of the story, clarifies as an aside: “There is fighting, but that portion is against gays and abortion.” 

The message at the end of this Così is clear: We’re all “like that” sometimes. So ditch the pearl-clutching and bigotry and instead include everyone and get kinky. As the final lines of the libretto read:

“We’re all right here,
Can’t we, somehow, 
Come together here and now?”