It's no secret among those who know me: I don't generally like opera. But I'll make exceptions and venture out to a performance of just about anything when a friend makes a personal recommendation.
Thus it was that I headed to Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto last weekend to see Beethoven's Fidelio, presented by West Bay Opera.
To my utter surprise, I cried at the end.
Beethoven only wrote one opera, and what a tragedy for opera it is that he never wrote another. (Though some close students of his work, like Nicholas McGegan of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, argue the great composer re-tooled Fidelio so extensively he essentially did write more than one opera.)
The story is fairly simple for an opera: a woman named Leonora goes undercover as a male prison guard to locate her husband and rescue him from certain death. The set design by stage director Ragnar Conde, a native of Mexico, provocatively updates the scene to something more akin to American prisons today than Vienna in the early 1800s, during the Napoleonic occupation.
"All of a sudden, all the institutions are questioned, there’s complete censorship of the press, no assurances exist about anything, the courts don’t function," says West Bay Opera's General Director José Luis Moscovich. "It’s a time of uncertainty. Sound familiar?"
It sure does. Execution is everything in performance, of course, and the singers, choir and musicians of West Bay Opera delivered on the music's potential — and on the personal questions raised by the libretto's story.
"How would you cope if your husband, girlfriend or loved one was taken away and you didn’t know where to find them?" says Moscovich. "In an extreme situation like that, when a society is in the grip of injustice and fear, every single person counts, and everyone should be doing something about it."
After the program I attended, there was a Q&A with the principals, and despite the packed seats, the very first question from the audience was about the production's lack of promotion and press coverage.
Moscovich pointed to the full house and remarked that, clearly, people know about West Bay Opera. But the ladies next to me shook their heads and whispered "No, we had no idea." As Peninsula locals who normally go north to San Francisco for their opera fix, Fidelio was their first encounter with West Bay Opera.
So I asked Moscovich how his company is such a well-kept secret. He replied, "Our operating budget is 140 times smaller than the SF Opera. We can only afford modest advertising, so we tend to target it to the local audience, through print ads in the local papers. To be sure, we could be doing more with social media, but even for that we need more resources."
Perhaps no one was more surprised than he that word-of-mouth spread the way it did for this particular production. "It is astounding that a piece like Fidelio, which is not a top 20, perhaps not even a top 40 among opera lovers in this country, can get this much interest," he said. "However, true opera lovers will jump at the chance to see Fidelio even if they have to travel a few miles out of their comfort zone, because the score is so fantastic and the next best thing might be to travel to another part of the country, or to Europe, to see it."
There's one more weekend. Intrigued? Fidelio runs through Feb. 25 at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Details here.