Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Daughter of the Red Tzar,” a new chamber opera exploring Churchill and Stalin’s relationship through the eyes of Stalin’s teenaged daughter—starring Sebastopol Tenor John Duykers as Winston Churchill—has its world premiere tonight at San Francisco’s Thick House

Sebastopol tenor John Duykers is Winston Churchill and baritone Scott Graff is Stalin in the world premiere of Lisa Scola Prosek’s new opera “Daughter of the Red Tzar,” at Thick House is San Francisco through September 2, 2012. Photo: Natalie S. Moran

As Winston Churchill  prepared to meet Stalin face to face for the first time in the summer of 1942, he knew that their encounter would be tense.  Stalin was furious with the Western Allies.  He believed that they were doing little to help the Soviets, who faced the steady advance of Hitler’s army across the Russian steppes towards the oil rich Caucasus.  And although Churchill loathed the Communist state, and was aware of its mass murder, slave camps and starvation, he needed the tyrannical Stalin to hold off the Germans so that England would survive the war.  Probably as an icebreaker, Stalin’s 16-year-old daughter Svetlana, nicknamed “little sparrow,” was present for her father’s historic all-night meeting with Churchill where these two iconic leaders would cut the deal that sealed the fate of the world.   Set against this historic backdrop, another intrigue was unfolding—Svetlana Stalin had fallen in love that same summer with an older married man, Alexei Kapler, a dashing intellectual and screenwriter, whom her father despised.

Stalin promptly exiled Svetlana’s beloved Kapler to Siberia for 10 years, accuisn ghim of being a German spy, and Svetlana’s life took on a trajectory that was nothing short of operatic.  She suffered two failed marriages in Russia and then, when Satlin died in 1952, she lost her wealth and status.  She married a third time and defected to the West in 1967  where she survived an assassination plot, wrote a best-selling novel and became a powerful American propaganda tool in the Cold War, and married the noted American architect William Wesley Peters with whom she had a daughter.  She split from Peters and moved back to Moscow briefly and then on to Soviet Georgia and then back to the States where she lived in relative obscurity as Lana Peters and died from Colon cancer in a sleepy rest home in Wisconsin, in November 2011, at age 85.

Marin composer Lisa Scola-Prosek first envisioned Svetlana’s story as an opera while reading Churchill’s and Svetlana’s memoirs and decided to frame the story around the historic Stalin-Churchill meeting.  Working with director, Missy Weaver, the two drew from historical sources to fashion a libretto for “Daughter of the Red Tzar,” that is poetic, surreal and absurdly comic.  San Francisco’s Thick House Theater, in the Portreo District, will provide an intimate setting for this world premiere love story set amidst paranoid secrecy and wartime intrigue.

Acclaimed Sebastopol tenor John Duykers stars as Winston Churchill and baritone Scott Graff tackles the role Stalin.  Mezzo-soprano Crystal Phillippi is Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and bass-baritone Philip Skinner, a former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, plays Kapler, her married older lover.  Mezzo-soprano Valentina Osinskiportrays Nadya, the ghost of Svetlana’s dead mother, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who was found dead in her bed with a revolver in her hand.  Martha Stoddard conducts and Missy Weaver directs.

The modern yet lyrical musical score draws upon the rich cultures of Georgia, Britain and Russia, with folk classics from the Soviet era. A chamber ensemble features violin, cello, mandolin, accordion, piano and percussion.

“I have had a great time creating this role,” said John Duykers.  “It is well written by Lisa Scola Prosek, and exciting to perform with our excellent cast.  The research for this piece has been very eye-opening, learning more about what really happened during the second World War, and gaining a deeper understanding of Churchill and Stalin.  This is a very stimulating project”.

Dukers is well known for his role as Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in the 1987 world premiere of John Adam’s opera “Nixon in China.”  He also created and sang in the opera theatre production “Caliban Dreams,” which had a run at the El Cerrito Theatre for the Performing Arts and was performed twice last August at Sonoma State University’s Person Theatre (Read ARThound’s 8.10.2011 coverage of Duyker’s “Caliban Dreams” here.)  Duykers is respected for his fine acting ability.  When I interviewed him for “Caliban Dreams,” in August 2011, he spoke of opera as an art form in transition and referred to his production as opera theatre rather than traditional opera.  “It’s not about people standing around singing arias and more about theatre.”

Not only is Duykers a principal singer in the opera, he’s also a co-director, along with his wife producer/dramaturg, Missy Weaver, of First Look Sonoma, one of the opera’s presenting organizations.  First Look Sonoma is a new entertainment company devoted to developing new vocal works, especially by emerging composers.

Tiburon-based composer/writer Lisa Scola Prosek talks about the inspiration for her opera, “Daughter Of The Red Tzar,” which has its world premiere tonight in San Francisco.

Details:  “Daughter of the Red Tzar” has its world premiere, Friday, August 24, 2012 at 8 p.m. followed by five repeat performances: Saturday, August 25; Sunday, August 26; Friday, August 31; Saturday, September 1; and Sunday, September 2, 2012—all at 8 p.m.  Thick House Theatre is located at 1695 18th Street (between Carolina and Arkansas Streets) in San Francisco. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at For more information, check

August 24, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Caliban Dreams–a new opera music theatre piece supplies a missing link in Shakespeare, at Sonoma State this weekend

First Look Sonoma, a new entertainment program, launches with the music theatre performance “Caliban Dreams,” at Sonoma State University’s Evert B. Person Theatre this Friday, August 12, 2011, and Sunday. Image courtesy: First Look Sonoma

An exciting new entertainment program, First Look Sonoma,  launches in Sonoma County this Friday night, bringing the locally written music theatre performance Caliban Dreams to Sonoma State University’s Evert B. Person Theatre.  First Look Sonoma was created by singing actor John Duykers, of Sebastopol, and producer/dramaturg Missy Weaver, of Santa Rosa and its mission is to bring “opera theatre on the edge” to Sonoma County audiences.  Caliban Dreams had its world premiere to rave reviews last week at the El Cerrito Theatre for Performing Arts with tenor John Duykers in the title role.

The story seeks to solve a mystery in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, The Tempest, written circa 1610.  In Act IV, Caliban, a slave and monster, has conspired with a ruffian to kill the magician Prospero and then Caliban disappears only to remerge in Act V, seeking forgiveness and grace but it is unclear how this transformation occurred.  Caliban Dreams addresses what might have happened. 

The opera focuses on two characters: Caliban (Duykers), who longs for freedom and the love of Miranda, and the spirit Ariel (Laura Bohn), whose ability to shape-shift allows her to circumvent the full force of Caliban’s drive for vengeance.

The initial impetus for the piece came in 1999, when the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival approached composer Clark Suprynowicz to create a piece based on The Tempest.  Suprynowicz and his partner, Amanda Moody, a writer, began what  would become a 10 year gestation period for the piece and collaboration with Duykers and Missy Weaver, who produced it.  It was performed in concert in 2003 at The Magic Theater as part of the Z Space/Magic Theatre New Works Initiative.

While Caliban Dreams has been called an opera by some, Duykers, prefers to call it opera music theatre because the music writing is not as limited as it is in traditional opera.  “The roles of Caliban and Ariel are written for classically trained singers who have a lot of flexibility, explained Duykers.”   There’s lots of spoken text too, so it has a form similar to opera but not as limited.  Our experience in El Cerrito has been that they are loving it and it’s not about people standing around singing arias.  Of course, all of opera is evolving and it’s less about people standing and singing and more about theater.”

When asked what the overall message of the performance is, Duykers replied, “You find nothing from anger.  War doesn’t work.  You see so much anger in the culture today and we have to go and fight these people and ultimately it just doesn’t work—anger just breeds anger.  If you can forgive and let go, that’s the best way to exist.”

Caliban Dreams is a co-production of Berkeley West Edge Opera and First Look Sonoma. In collaboration with Cinnabar Theater and Quantum Opera SSU

Written by Clark Suprynowicz and Amanda Moody

Starring John Duykers and Laura Bohn, with Aimee Puentes, Alexis Jensen, and Scott Graff.  Ancora girls choir, conducted by Dr. Lynne Morrow

Details: August 12 at 8 p.m. and August 14 at 2 p.m. at Person Theater, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park  Advance Tickets: $15-$40 at or by phone  707.763.8920.  At the door $50/$20 checks and cash only. Proceeds go to the benefit of First Look Sonoma, Cinnabar Theater, and MainStageWest.

August 10, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment