Amanda Santos introduces herself as a working musician, mom and teacher, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. She also is the founder and artistic director of Operallora, a new opera company that is passionate about its support of young, local talent.
Operallora will launch its inaugural season with Giacomo Puccini’s “Il tabarro” and “Suor Angelica” at the Kelsey Theatre in West Windsor, Aug. 18 and 20. The two performances will close out the Kelsey’s first Summer Opera Series, which opened in July with Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” presented by New Jersey Lyric Opera.
The double bill — sung in Italian with English supertitles — will be fully staged with piano accompaniment. “We have a pianist who’s a very good music director as well, and can give us prompts if we need it,” Santos says. There will be no conductor, orchestra or chorus. Scenography includes props, scenery, furniture and costumes.
“Logistically, the two operas work out pretty well for a first round because you’re not dealing with finding a large chorus,” Santos says. “You can get away with doing a piano reduction, and since it’s singer-driven, you can also get away without using a conductor, which is helpful for a smaller operation like us.”
The two works are the first and second parts of Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” a triptych of one-act operas that premiered in 1918. “Gianni Schicchi,” the third and most popular of the trio, will not be staged in this production.
Puccini originally composed the three scores to be performed as a triple bill, but his wishes are usually not followed outside of his native Italy. Opera organizations routinely cut the first and second acts and stage just the “Schicchi” finale, a dark comedy about an aristocratic Italian family scheming over an inheritance.
Director Alex Huddleston tailored the production to the smaller and more intimate Kelsey stage, creating cinematic tableaux to highlight the dramatic intensity of Puccini’s magnetic characters.
“Alex really likes these sorts of visual components, almost like it’s a painting,” Santos says. “So he’ll place the singers in interesting spots — especially in the ‘Tabarro,’ where it’s like they’re frozen in time — and it just creates this very picturesque moment. Seeing it from the other side of the stage as a singer, it almost comes across as film directing because he’s really into these smaller moments. And with the operas being staged in a smaller physical space, it gives him the total freedom to explore that.”
Huddleston remains faithful to the operas’ settings and locations. “Il tabarro” — set in 1927 on a barge on the banks of the Seine — is a gritty verismo about adulterous lovers written by librettist Giuseppe Adami. Giorgetta, the wife of the barge owner Michele, has an affair with the deckhand Luigi and is murdered by Michele in a jealous rage.
“For ‘Tabarro,’ Alex is actually making the stage very, very small,” Santos says. “It’s set on a barge and the theme of the opera is how suffocating this life is for Giorgetta. So he’s creating this very small space and everybody is kind of on top of each other. It’s a bit claustrophobic, which helps you as an actor because you physically feel a bit too close to everybody when you’re existing and singing in that space.”
Giovacchino Forzano’s solemn “Suor Angelica” libretto centers on Angelica, a noblewoman who is banished by her family to a Tuscany convent after having an illegitimate child. After learning her child is dead, she kills herself and is reunited with her child in Heaven.
“It’s a smaller cast, so it’s a bit intimate of a production of this opera,” Santos says. “The scene between Suor Angelica and Principessa [Angelica’s tyrannical aunt] is another instance of Alex creating a sort of visual picture on the stage. The Principessa is a very stern and sort of intimidating figure, and you’ve got Angelica opposed in these sort of subservient poses. It’s just so beautiful to look at.”
“Suor Angelica” is ripe for modern takes with its all-female cast and Puccini’s courageous, strong and selfless heroine. Does Huddleston’s direction delve into any “women supporting women” hashtag movements?
“I’d love to say there is!” Santos says. “I know our director believes strongly in the feminist agenda, for sure, and I think he always has that in the back of his mind. Though for me, I find the themes of ‘Tabarro’ a little more authentic to the female experience in terms of toxic relationships and dealing with personal loss and significant things like that, so I find a connection. But yes, I’d like to see that. My vision for the company is to have more of those contemporary themes infused into the staging and the production. We have a long road ahead of us!”
The lead soprano roles in the operas are double cast. “I had singers beating down my door to sing these roles,” Santos says. “So I thought, let’s double cast the lead roles and then we can have more opportunities for everybody to learn these roles.”
Santos will make her Giorgetta role debut in “Il tabarro” at the Aug. 20 performance and soprano Stacey Canterbury will sing the lead role on Aug. 18. Santos has sung opera roles both professionally and at the community level. She has undergrad and master’s degrees from Westminster Choir College in Princeton. “Puccini just writes so wonderfully for the voice that I love singing just about anything he wrote,” she says.
The abundance of smaller roles in both operas offers many opportunities to showcase the talents and skills of the youthful cast.
“The singers are mostly very young and there are a couple former students, so it’s a really great mix,” she says. “Some of them are trying to work and pay their bills, but they also really want to keep doing productions like this.”
One of Operallora’s main principles is to give up-and-coming artists from Central New Jersey the chance to perform.
“I started Operallora to provide performance opportunities for younger local singers,” Santos says. “We have a number of really great universities with great music programs nearby, a lot of these local opera companies contract singers from New York, Philly, other states and all over the world, and we have so much talent here in New Jersey.”
For “Suor Angelica,” Jessie Downs will sing the title role of Sister Angelica on Aug. 18 and Gwen Cartwright will sing the role on Aug. 20. “The two Angelicas are really beautiful actresses, and they’re wonderful to watch and work with,” says Santos. Sara Zerilli will sing Principessa and Laura Isabella will sing Genovieffa.
Santos’ daughter will play Angelica’s young child, who appears at the end of the opera to greet her in Heaven. “I already told my daughter I’m going to be offstage weeping in a corner somewhere,” she jokes.
“For ‘Tabarro,’ we have a wonderful young tenor, Jax Hassler, singing the role of Luigi,” she says. “He’s very young but so, so talented, and Daniel Rotshteyn is singing our Michele.”
Staging the neglected Puccini operas back-to-back — with their dark, somber themes — goes against the grain, especially for summer festival programming that typically sticks to lighthearted crowd-pleasers and popular warhorses, such as the productions that opened the series last month.
Santos believes the “Trittico” bookend is well suited to operagoers’ wishes of fresh, bold programming for Kelsey’s first opera series. Now in its 50th season, the theater offers a year-round season of musical comedies, plays and touring kids shows.
“Kelsey has their regular audience members who come out and support everything that it does, which is wonderful,” Santos says. “I really don’t think this audience is the kind that’s only going to come to the Bohèmes, Traviatas and Trovatores. I think this audience is an experimental audience. They like the shows that the Kelsey puts out, and they’re interested in new things, so I don’t think you need to play it safe. You can do something that’s a little more off the beaten path.”
The double-bill format is also good for opera novices. The one-act operas run for less than one hour each.
“I’ve done a program of these two operas before,” Santos says, “and I find that the two one-acts is sometimes a little more palatable for people who aren’t used to attending an opera. The Puccini operas are more like a collection, so you get one short story, take a little break, and there’s another one. You’re not asking an audience who might not be familiar with that experience to sit for a two-and-a-half to three-hour performance at one time.”
The idea for Operallora has been around for a while and was put on hold during the height of pandemic. “I had a number of students and colleagues who had struggled with finding rewarding performance opportunities,” Santos says. “So I thought, you know, maybe it’s a good time now that COVID is dying down a bit, and we’ve got the energy and the resources, so let’s try to rehash this and get some opportunities for everybody to perform.”
As artistic director of an organization just getting off the ground, she is a master of multitasking. “I do a little bit of everything with a focus on programming, logistics and most of the operations. I’m working on getting a team together for the fundraising aspect of it.” She recently organized a “Rock Put for Operallora” fundraising event in Princeton to raise funds for this production. It featured the Sordid Vibes band (a riff on the cult-classic movie “Sordid Lives”), in which she sings and plays violin and guitar.
Santos has longstanding ties to the Kelsey, having performed with some of its resident theater companies. She lives in Lawrenceville, a short distance from the theater, and works locally as a music teacher and a private voice teacher.
“It’s one of the few smaller, real theaters available in the area, so it was a nice opportunity to have a venue with a real stage and a great audience while being local and so close to home!” she says.
Operallora presents Puccini’s “Il tabarro” and “Suor Angelica” at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, Aug. 18 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 20 at 2 p.m. Visit operallora.com.
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