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Opera by the Auto Mall

September 4, 2007

From Oakland, drive 40 miles south on 880, that overcrowded, dangerous highway, paved like hell, and not with good intentions. Then, 10 miles north of San Jose, hang a left on Auto Mall Parkway, in search of Ohlone College. You are now in Fremont, formerly rural, now a mixed industrial-residential city of 200,000, with the largest number of expatriate Afghanistanis in the U.S. But Fremont’s latest distinction is that it is home to America's newest opera company.
That company, David Sloss' Fremont Opera, made a debut this weekend that boggled the mind and enraptured the heart. Those who made it to the Smith Center at Ohlone College experienced one of the most involving, emotional, entertaining, and enchanting La Bohème performances in years.

Harold Gray Meers (Rodolfo), NaGuanda Nobles (Mimi), Kirk Eichelberger (Colline), Marnie Breckenridge (Musetta)

Sloss, formerly with small, feisty, and often excellent West Bay Opera, has been music director of the Fremont Symphony for almost three decades. For Bohème, he put the entire orchestra on the stage, engaged thrilling young singers from the Bay Area, hired Jonathon Field to direct a delightful and effective semistaged performance, and even managed to squeeze the Oakland Symphony Chorus and Cantabile Youth Singers into the wings, upstage, and probably into spaces that barely exist, as well.

Against conventional rules of opera production, Sloss conducted the orchestra with his back to the soloists, leaving the young singers to perform in a narrow space downstage with a small monitor in the back of the auditorium to guide them. This is a setup that works with seasoned professionals who have performed together for a long, long time. It didn't seem to make sense in this situation.

An Ensemble Is Born
And now for the rapture: It all did work, splendidly so. There was balance, clarity, projection, and above all, a solid gestalt of Puccini at his most lyrical, fervent, abandoned, and sweeping. This was a wonderfully Italianate Bohème, and in Fremont, home of the General Motors/Toyota NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing), and the opera company’s sponsor, Fletcher Jones Motorcars.

The Sunday matinee was so much of an ensemble performance that I feel slightly reluctant to speak of individuals. But it's good to be able to report on such promising young talent. Mimi was NaGuanda Nobles, winner of Opera San José’s first Irene Dalis Competition. A tiny young woman, Nobles has a warm, beautiful voice, with secure, rich high notes. Sounding at times more mezzo than soprano, she projects the voice well, but not herself. She is an outstanding talent still in need of further coaching and experience to help her make better contact with the audience.

NaGuanda Nobles (Mimi), Harold Gray Meers (Rodolfo)

Towering over Nobles was Harold Gray Meers, the tallest Rodolfo to the smallest Mimi. He is a tenor with a fine, clear voice, and a sincere involvement in the drama, although both voice and actor went out of focus now and then.

Marnie Breckenridge, now apparently the busiest singer around, was the statuesque and stormy Musetta, and she gave a "big" performance that was a bit more stagey and less authentic than her usual standard. Musetta must be more than artifice, and I am sure Breckenridge knows that better than anyone, even if, in this case, knowledge was not translated into action. Baritone Jordan Shanahan was a vocally impressive Marcello with just a bit of awkwardness in his stage performance. He still needs to learn what to do with his hands. Igor Vieira's high and clear baritone made him a fine Schaunard.

At Café Momus: Igor Vieira (Schaunard), Kirk Eichelberger (Colline), Eric Wenburg (Benoit), Jordan Shanahan (Marcello), Harold Gray Meers (Rodolfo)

And finally, there was the one voice sure to be heard soon in major opera houses (or at least those headed by wise intendants). Kirk Eichelberger as Colline, displayed a majestic bass, deep and broad, with brilliant colors and thrilling power.

If you must do semistaged productions, be sure to get Field to direct them. Without sets, costumes, adequate lighting, or even sufficient space, using only a chair here and some props there, he created a Bohème that was dramatically clear and clean. There were some comic shticks (a good one was the Schaunard singing his invitation to Café Momus to women in the audience), but generally Field did as little as possible and served the story and the music. Bravi tutti!

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].