Feature

Broadway World Opera, 2016

 
 Photo by Kristin Hoebermann

Photo by Kristin Hoebermann

 

The world premiere production of a new work, I AM ANNE HUTCHINSON /I AM HARVEY MILK--what the creators call "a concept opera"--takes place next Saturday, April 23, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, MD, a Metro ride from Washington, DC. It stars Kristin Chenoweth, the Broadway star with operatic training, and the work's composer-librettist, Broadway's Andrew Lippa, backed by the National Philharmonic and the Alexandria Harmonizers.

When Lippa was commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus to write I AM HARVEY MILK for its 35th anniversary in 2013, the hour-long work about the assassinated gay rights activist was called an oratorio--and while it was a success from the start, people involved already thought it was ready to move on to something bigger.

That "something," created by Lippa, was the pairing of MILK with the story of another firebrand, 17th-century midwife Anne Hutchinson--who, according to Lippa, was, in many ways, the forebear to Harvey Milk. Her story became I AM ANNE HUTCHINSON. Blended together into a single, cohesive work, ANNE/HARVEY (as the production team calls the work) links two chapters in American history that highlight the ideals of freedom and justice, their perils and rewards, even though they are separated by hundreds of years.

The event's executive producer is Rolando Sanz, Producing Artistic Director of Young Artists of America at Strathmore (NB: also an opera singer, stage performer and teacher), and a Rockville, MD native.

We spoke to Sanz about ANNE/HARVEY and how it came together.

Tell me about the genesis of ANNE/HARVEY.

After seeing I AM HARVEY MILK at Lincoln Center, I reached out to the director, Noah Himmelstein, out of the blue, mentioning that I thought it might be a good idea to bring HARVEY to D.C., and continued to correspond with him. On Christmas Day, I received a phone call from Andrew and, after a chat about Strathmore, his music and a variety of other subjects, we hit it off. (Since then, we not only became colleagues but also good friends.)

A month later, Andrew called and mentioned his idea about Anne Hutchinson as a companion piece for HARVEY. Though it was just an idea at this point, he asked if Strathmore and I would be interested in producing the premiere. The answer, of course, was a resounding YES. As I told the cast on the first day of rehearsal, it was the easiest yes I've ever had the honor to say!

I've heard ANNE/HARVEY called a "concept opera." What does that mean to you?

After Andrew Lippa added the I AM ANNE HUTCHINSON portion of the new work, it became clear to us that this was no longer an oratorio--meant to be fully staged, fully costumed and performed in a concert hall, as we are doing.

But Andrew and I, along with Noah, found ourselves describing it by what it wasn't-- not an opera, or a musical, not a symphony or a choral work, and no longer simply an oratorio. Obviously, that wasn't a solution--so we decided we had to take a leap of faith and give it a name.

How did that happen?

I had a sit-up-in-bed-at-3-a.m. flash of inspiration to build on the idea of a "concept musical"--the non-linear, non-book musicals that had been in existence since Brecht and Sondheim--because the stories of Harvey and Anne fit that non-linear mold. But a concept what? Andrew has always seen ANNE/HARVEY as operatic in scale because of the full symphony being used, the virtuosic singing from the principals and 120-voice chorus, and the epic sweep of the work. So "concept opera" just fell into place--and it was cemented when Kristin Chenoweth started saying, from the stage at her concerts, "I'm so thrilled to be taking part in this new concept opera."

What do the two stories in the new work bring to one another?

When HARVEY MILK was a 60-minute oratorio, theaters and companies asked Andrew if he could expand it to make it an entire evening. In exploring that idea, he stumbled on the story of Anne Hutchinson and immediately saw similarities -which inspired him to expand the story, tying together these two characters that spanned 350 years, and make it into one complete work by design.

His creation of the ANNE HUTCHINSON score has always been intimately intertwined with the existing Harvey Milk score, and was created from the ground up to be a part of a greater tale of both characters. There is thematic musical material that ties the stories together and, without giving too much away, Anne and Harvey appear in each other's stories. These two pieces can't live apart - the scores depend on each other to tell one complete story of two reluctant prophets who stood up for oppressed peoples.

Does the evening cross the line between "opera" and "musical theater"--or are those labels even meaningful today?

The labels are still meaningful, but the exciting part of where we are today is that there are both creators and artists crossing over, and a lot of boundaries are being expanded. This work has one foot in both worlds - in scope and forces required, it is absolutely operatic. However, the artists in it come from the world of musical theater, and they're diving into a world that is new for many them.

It's been fascinating to be in rehearsals, to watch artists like Andrew and Kristin, at the top of their field, giving so much of themselves to these roles. I believe this the first non-comedic role that's been written for Kristin, whose characters are usually cute and bubbly. Anne is not that; she's profoundly moving.

You can feel that the entire company is invested in the work going on in the rehearsal room and that the score resonates with everybody. We expect the score to resonate with audiences as well, as this new genre brings the best of both worlds. We're seeing a trend across the industry - at Lyric Opera of Chicago, for example, 56% of audience members at their American Musical Theater Initiative productions had never been to the opera. I often call musical theater the "gateway drug of opera" and I think works like ANNE/HARVEY can absolutely bring new audiences to the purely operatic side as well.

As a singer yourself, how would you describe the music?

The music is lush and epic. I was originally attracted to HARVEY MILK because of its operatic sweep - that encompassing feeling of the full chorus, orchestra, and virtuosic voices is so gratifying, and of course it's the world I live in as an opera singer. The lyrics are very poignant - Andrew's the lyricist as well, of course - and you can hear that he has the luxury of writing music for Kristin, his muse, who is a trained opera singer. The music is melodically very accessible to any listener, but also intelligent and well-crafted, so it can really catch the ear of a connoisseur.

For most people, just working at being an opera singer, an educator or a producer is more than enough of a "job"--and you're working at all three simultaneously. How do you manage it?

The roles, thankfully, aren't entirely separate - each feeds into the other. Much like ANNE/HARVEY itself, what may seem like worlds colliding is actually different artistic angles that go hand in hand. (NB: In addition, Sanz just had his second child, who is four months old and not sleeping through the night yet!)

When I trained as an opera singer, I was mentored by some of the world's greatest musicians, who really inspired me to give back once I was working myself. One of the ways I do that is through Young Artists of America at Strathmore (YAA), which is a group I co-founded in 2011. It's the region's premier training organization for young collaborative performing artists--the only program in the nation where gifted and committed students receive mentorship and individualized instruction from renowned artists (including composer Jason Robert Brown and Stephen Schwartz ) while training to perform fully orchestrated works of music-theater in state-of-the-art venues, with full orchestra, singers, and chorus.

I get to take what I learn on the road as a performer and bring it back to these kids in an educational setting. By exposing them to musical theater at such a high level, I like to think we're fostering tomorrow's artists and audiences - for classical music as well. YAA's goal is to provide students unique performance and educational opportunities in a professional, nurturing and collaborative environment.

And the producing side?

The producing side has been a natural outgrowth of that work, putting on those large-scale productions with YAA. What I've learned is that the #1 responsibility of a producer is to problem-solve, and it turns out I'm very good at that. Through a combination of working with these great artists and quickly gaining their trust by getting things done, I fell into this role as a producer.

Each role fuels the others. This week, which I spent running back and forth between rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera (NB: He has been covering the role of Roderigo in OTELLO) and rehearsals for ANNE/HARVEY at Opera America, is a perfect example. My work as a singer at the Met, working with musicians at the highest level, informs my producing philosophy of collaborating with the highest quality artists, which also informs my educational work of giving young people experiences with artists of the highest caliber.

How do you imagine the future life of ANNE/HARVEY?

The music and drama of Anne's and Harvey's stories are inextricably intertwined, in a single unified work, rather than two separate pieces. With so many forces involved, it's a large-scale work not suited for a Broadway stage, but I'm confident that once people see this new masterwork, it will go on to a fruitful life. I'm honored to have been in on the ground floor to usher it to its world premiere.