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Interview: British Composer Adam Gorb on his sex trafficking opera, “Anya17,” which has its American premiere with Opera Parallèle Friday

British composer Adam Gorb says that he was “completely swept up and in love with the characters” he was writing for in “Anya17,” his first stab at opera. "Anya 17" is the story of a young woman from an unnamed Eastern European country who's lured by love to the West and forced into prostitution.  The one-act chamber opera, set to a libretto by Ben Kaye, has its North American premiere in an Opera Parallèle production June 20-22, 2104 at Marines' Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. Photo: courtesy Adam Gorb

British composer Adam Gorb says that he was “completely swept up and in love with the characters” he was writing for in “Anya17,” his first stab at opera. “Anya 17” is the story of a young woman from an unnamed Eastern European country who’s lured by love to the West and forced into prostitution. The one-act chamber opera, set to a libretto by Ben Kaye, has its North American premiere in an Opera Parallèle production June 20-22, 2104 at Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. Photo: courtesy Adam Gorb

Amidst a summer opera season offering Francesca Zambello’s production of “Show Boat” at San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged production of Brittan’s “Peter Grimes;” Opera Parallèle hopes to put British composer  Adam Gorb firmly on the Bay Area map, presenting the North American premiere of his first opera, “Anya17,” at Marines Memorial Theatre this Friday through Sunday.  “Anya 17” is a dark chamber opera that is Gorb’s third collaboration with Dorset-based librettist Ben Kaye.   The opera unfolds through the eyes of Anya, a naïve young girl (sung by soprano Anna Noggle) who falls in love with the wrong guy who persuades her to follow him to the West. Instead of a better life, she is betrayed and coerced into sexual slavery. In order to survive, Anya must find an ultimate inner strength as she struggles to adapt to the humiliation and brutality of her brothel existence.

Adam Gorb was born in Cardiff in 1958 and started composing at the age of ten.  His first work to be broadcast on the BBC was written when he was fifteen.  He studied at Cambridge University (1977-1980) and at the Royal Academy of Music (1991-1993), where he graduated with the highest honors.  He has been on the staff at the London College of Music and Media, the junior Academy of the Royal Academy of Music and, since 2000 he has been the Head of School of Composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music.  He is acclaimed for his wind ensemble works.  His 2007 “protest cantata,” “Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall,” a collaboration with Dorset-based librettist Ben Kaye, was based on the experiences of the British journalist and broadcaster, John McCarthy, Britain’s longest held hostage in the Lebanon hostage crisis.  Then working for UPI, McCarthy was abducted in Beirut in 1986 and held for five years before his release.  Gorb and Kaye’s mutual interest in current affairs led them to collaborate again in 2010 when they created “Eternal Voices,” a commission from the Royal Marines Service Band about contemporary war.  The 30 minute long choral work told the story of a Royal Marine who loses his life in Afghanistan and the effect it has on his family. BBC newscaster Trevor McDonald acted as a narrator and interjected by reading current news headlines relevant to the story.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Adam Gorb at his home in the UK, as he was preparing to travel to the Bay Area for this week’s series of “Anya17” events and performances. He was excited about the opera’s relevancy as well as the fun he had in composing its music, which contains passages inspired by his family’s ancestral roots in the Ukraine.  (To read ARThound’s previous coverage, an overview of “Anya17,” click here.)

Here is our conversation—

 

When did you first become aware of and interested in the trafficking topic and whose idea was it to use that as a basis of an opera?

Adam Gorb:   It was the librettist, Ben Kaye’s idea.  We had worked together on two previous pieces—one of them (“Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall,” 2007) about a political hostage from the UK and the other (“Eternal Voices” 2010) about war in the 21st century—and we both realized that we get on quite well and that we like working with up-to-date subjects.  We both really wanted to do an opera. I was very interested in displaced peoples and wanted to do something that addressed the concept of people moving from one country to another because that has so many musical possibilities. We batted about the idea of the sex trade and Ben did a lot of research and he came up with the story.

What is the significance of the number 17 in the title “Anya17?

Adam Gorb:   She could be 17, of course. But the reality is that there are these actual places that offer girls’ photos on a menu and clients look that menu over and order— ‘I want number 17.’   The actual title “Anya17” was taken from an episode of an award-winning British-Canadian TV miniseries, “Sex Traffic” (2004).  There was a character, Anya, in it who was 17.  We went with the name, Anya, because it’s a generic name associated with any Eastern European girl.

There’s good and bad in everyone…Have you gone the route of completely demonizing the pimps, or, do we also see the desperation in their situation as well, even some humanity? Likewise, do we see any unappealing traits in the girls?  

Adam Gorb:  The opera is very much through Anya’s eyes and she’s a sweet, innocent, young girl but she’s also naïve. She likes money and she loves people buying things for her and goes into raptures about meeting this guy who is taking her shopping.  You sometimes want to shake her and say ‘Come on, you’re crazy, don’t you realize you’re going to have to pay a high price for this later on.’   And Victor, her pimp, is certainly an awful character but he sees himself as a businessman who is providing a valuable service.  This comes out in his aria, “I only give you what you want,” and there’s a certain truth in that.  He’s charming in the beginning—to get what he wants—but he’s completely amoral at his core.  One of the crucial characters is Natalia, who is very friendly at the beginning but she’s actually someone who has come full circle from being trafficked herself to working for Victor, her lover.  So she’s this cabaret jazz singer who gradually loses all of her warmth to becoming cold and calculating.  Her tragic history comes out in this Sondheim-like song about how she was raped by her father.  I felt the only way to handle those horrific words she was singing was with a cheerful upbeat song that dehumanized the entire experience and showed her dissociation from her history.

How are brutalization, violence and sex handled?

Adam Gorb:   Parts of the music are quite brutal and there is a harsh dissonance to the music that builds.  At the climax, where one of the characters is beaten to death, there’s a long remorseful melody with the whole orchestra playing that’s extremely moving.  Of course, those very harsh parts are foreshadowed by the music of seduction that goes along with building sexual tension.

Some things were difficult to be too graphic about.  There’s more than one rape scene and quite a lot of grotesquery.  The music that accompanies this becomes almost like noise with certain instruments out of their registers.  In the German production, when the rape occurred, the curtain came down and there were no projections and it was carried out in the dark.

Beyond raising awareness about the topic, do you want the audience to do something with their experience?

Adam Gorb:   My awareness is less political and more artistic. Yes, I do want to raise awareness but the thing that I do well is write music.  Without ducking responsibility, if someone came to see “Anya17” and afterwards said ‘That’s a really interesting story’ and could tell me something about it, I’d be pleased.  There are so many causes completing for people’s attention these days. I hope people are drawn along by the story and can relate to the characters and, frankly, aren’t bored. I try and keep up with new opera and have a problem with a lot of the operas that I attend holding my attention. I’m asking myself a lot of whys—Why is this taking so long? Why are they singing that?   I wanted to do something that I wouldn’t get annoyed by and that would tell a story that makes an important and lasting impression. At its core, this is a story statement about a young girl who comes to a new country and falls in love for the first time and it all falls apart and she is tricked and humiliated and her spirit is almost broken but still there is hope for the future.

Were changes made after the last (German) production that will be in play for the first time in San Francisco?

Adam Gorb:   I fiddle with little things but tend to do one big brain surgery and then leave it.  The opera was semi-staged in Liverpool and Manchester in March 2012 and the first performance outside the UK was in Romania in October 2013 at the National Opera of Timişoara, with a mixed UK and Romanian cast.  I made the big changes for the fully staged German production, at the Meininger Theater in October 2013. By then, I had a recording and was able to go through the opera and make more sense of the feel and continuity of it overall as well as determine whether the singers themselves were clear enough.  I made some cuts to some of Anya’s arias that had to do with her interaction with one of characters because it didn’t feel dramatically right the way it was.  I haven’t made any changes since then and don’t intend to do any more tinkering, otherwise I’d never move on to something new.

I read that you had been particularly moved by Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” which will be performed by San Francisco Symphony later this month. What in particular about that opera moved you?

Adam Gorb:   I saw “Peter Grimes” when I was a kid, when Britten was still alive—he was quite ill by then— and he was in the audience. It was a very moving experience that caught me at a very impressionable age. The subject matter—the lone fisherman fighting alone against everyone—gripped me. What I admire in opera and what I admire in composers like Britten and Puccini is that sense is that they are really writing for the theatre. They’re not writing comfort pieces—they’re getting to the core of these deeply human tendencies that fascinate us all and I respect that. I’ve wanted to write an opera for years, because, before I was working in the conservatory, I was worked in musical theatre and I’m very interested in what you can do with music on the stage.

What’s next?

Adam Gorb:   Well, I’d love to do another opera and am very keen to write the music. “Anya’s” probably the biggest thing I’ve done and I was completely swept up and in love with the characters I was writing for. I also really enjoyed the collaborative aspects of it—it can get quite lonely sitting at home and writing music alone. I’m most interested in recent history—something that people are close enough to that they can really identify with. I’m glad that it’s come together the way it has but, next time, I’d want it to be commissioned. I’ll also write a lot for wind ensemble. I travel to the US a lot for that because it’s so big there.

Performance Details:

Cast: The role of Anya will be sung by soprano Anna Noggle, whose portrayals have been described as “sensitively drawn and heart-achingly sung” (Opera News). Viktor is baritone Victor Benedetti, lauded by the Chicago Tribune for his “confident and commanding stage presence and strong, dark baritone.” Local favorites are mezzo-sopranos Catherine Cook (who sang Julia Child in OP’s La Bonne Cuisine) and Laura Krumm, soprano Shawnette Sulker, and tenor Andres Ramirez (whom OP audiences enjoyed in Trouble in Tahiti and Ainadamar).

Creative Team: Directed by Brian Staufenbiel; Conducted by Nicole Paiment; Composed by Adam Gorb; Libretto by Ben Kaye; Media Design by David Murakami

Free Stage Rehearsal, Friday, June 20: An open stage rehearsal, after which Opera Parallèle Artistic Director and Conductor, Nicole Paiement, and stage director Brian Staufenbiel (Paiement’s husband) will lead the cast and audience in a Q & A question-and-answer session, takes place at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street (at Mason) second floor, San Francisco. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.

Dates, Tickets: “Anya17” is at 8 p.m. in Friday, June 20, 2014 and Saturday, June 21, 2014 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street (at Mason) second floor, San Francisco. Tickets: $80 to $30, are available online here or phone City Box Office at 415-392-4400. For more information, visit www.operaparallele.org.

 

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June 19, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Show Boat” opens San Francisco Opera’s summer season—discounted tickets options

San Francisco Opera takes the dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” its summer season opener produced by Francesca Zambello.  Photo  ©Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

San Francisco Opera takes the dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” its summer season opener produced by Francesca Zambello. Photo ©Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

It’s going to be a memorable summer at San Francisco Opera (SFO) as the company opens its Summer Season with a dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” a performance that promises to be a uniquely American hybrid of opera and rousing Broadway musical. Both a poignant love story and a powerful reminder of the bitter legacy of racism, “Show Boat” was a theatre landmark that contributed such now standard songs as “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”  “Show Boat” holds a special spot in the history of musical theater in that it was the one of first musicals with a believable story where the songs existed to move the tale forward.  Under the baton of music theatre-maestro John DeMain, these songs will come to life.   Based on the 1926 novel Show Boat by Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the story focuses on a performing troupe aboard the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River showboat in the late 1880s, and follows their turbulent lives over 40 years.  Captain Andy Hawks (Bill Irwin, Tony Award winning actor, with fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the NEA, Guggenheim and Fullbright,  and a Bay Area favorite at A.C.T. ) and his bossy wife, Parthy (Harriet Harris, Tony Award winning actress), steer this floating company through its ragtag existence. But they cannot protect their stage-struck daughter, Magnolia (the ebullient soprano Heidi Stober), from falling for a dashing stranger, Gaylord Ravenal (baritone Michael Todd Simson), a riverboat gambler.  And then there’s mixed-race Juli, the emotional core of the story (Patricia Racette, SFO’s go-to soprano who has dominated the past season with several impressive title roles).  Illegally married to a white man, she is posing as white and just bound for trouble.

Acclaimed stage director and production designer Francesca Zambello’s scale production opened at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in 2012 and the Chicago Classical Review declared it “a triumph—a stylish, fast-paced and colorful show that had the capacity audience on its feet, cheering loud and long.”  A co-production of four major American opera companies, “Show Boat” has already sailed to the Houston Grand Opera in January 2013 and the Washington National Opera in May 2013, gathering accolades long the way.

Dance is the fabric of life on the show boat and the production will feature a lot of high-energy, high kicking punchy dance routines by choreographer, Michelle Lynch, who also worked on “Hairspray” on Broadway.  “Show Boat” spans some 50 years and Lynch has integrated popular social dances from the period into the production, which ought to be dazzling with Paul Tazewell’s plush period costumes.

The first edition of Edna Ferber's Show Boat which established the popular author as a first rate story-teller.  The story chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater that travels between small towns on the banks of the Mississippi, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The story moves from the Reconstruction-Era river boat to Gilded-Age Chicago to Roaring-Twenties New York, and finally returns to the Mississippi River.

The first edition of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat which catapulted the popular Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (for “So Big” (1924), short story writer and playwright to further fame. The story chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater that travels between small towns on the banks of the Mississippi, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The story moves from the Reconstruction-Era river boat to Gilded-Age Chicago to Roaring-Twenties New York, and finally returns to the Mississippi River. The opera closely follows the book.

SFO General Director David Gockley is proudly awaiting “Show Boat’s” arrival:  “Show Boat” will be done in grand opera fashion in the way the creators conceived. The Opera House is—I believe—the appropriate venue for these great classic musicals that require full-voiced, ‘legit’ singing.”

Approximate running time is two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission.  Sung in English with English supertitles.

Ten performances are scheduled from June 1 to July 2, 2014.

What were Show Boats?   Show boats or showboats were floating theaters that traveled along the major rivers of the United States from the 1870s to the 1930s. The performers lived aboard the vessels. With song, dance, and dramatic productions, show boats provided song, dance, and dramatic productions for small riverside towns that were otherwise quite isolated. Edna Ferber, who had never heard of show boats, was immediately intrigued when she learned about them in 1924 from one of a producer of one of her earlier plays.

Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way. It was not only the theater—it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself… I spent a year hunting down every available scrap of show-boat material; reading, interviewing, taking notes and making outlines. (Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure, Doubleday, 1960, pp 297-304.)

NOT a steamboat: In order to move down the river, a show boat was pushed by a small tugboat, which was attached to it. It would have been impossible to put a steam engine on it, since it would have had to be placed right in the auditorium. Ever since the box-office success of MGM’s 1951 motion picture musical Showboat, in which the boat was inaccurately redesigned as a deluxe, self-propelled steamboat, the image of a showboat as a large twin-stacked vessel with a huge paddle wheel at the rear has taken hold in popular culture.

In the spring of 1925, Ferber traveled to Bath, North Carolina and spent four days aboard one of last show boats in the country, the James Addams Floating Theatre, which plied the Pamlico River and Great Dismal Swamp Canal. The material she gathered fueled her novel which she spent the next year writing in France and New York.

 

2 Awesome SFO Ticket Deals:

SPECIAL TWO-DAY SALE Enjoy 40% Off Summer Operas!

Whether you’re still working on your tax return or your refund is burning a hole in your pocket, now is the time to treat yourself and your friends to this world-class opera and others from SFO’s summer season!  For two days only, San Francisco Opera is offering its biggest sale of the summer—40% off select performances of Show Boat, La Traviata and Madame Butterfly.  This offer is only available online and valid until Wednesday, April 16, 2014.    BUY TICKETS   Enter Code: TAX40

Save up to 30% when you buy tickets to all three of SFO’s summer operas.

Can’t make a decision by April 16th?  Call the Box Office at 415 864-3330 to select your own dates for all three Summer 2014 operas and save 30% on tickets.  This discount offer is not available online.

 

 

 

April 14, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment