Mobile Opera Director Scott Wright has a lot to look forward to. Some is simple economics.
“Our timing for traveling couldn’t be better as far as exchange rates,” Wright chuckled, in reference to the post-Brexit fall of European Union currency.
Wright will serve as general director of the International Performing Arts Institute, which operates a program for aspiring singers in Germany each July. He’ll be abroad for the entire month.
Then there’s the first work of Mobile Opera’s recently announced 2016-2017 season, something of particular interest for Wright. On Oct. 21 and 23 the company will bring “The Devil and Daniel Webster” to the area for the first time.
“We were looking for one-act works when we came across it. I knew about it for decades thanks to this wonderful aria by the Webster character that stuck with me,” Wright said.
The tale involves Jabez Stone, a downtrodden 19th century New Hampshire farmer who betters his luck through Satanic bargain. When Ol’ Scratch shows up to collect a soul, Stone employs legal titan Webster to defend a disputed contract.
The 1936 Saturday Evening Post short story by Steven Vincent Benet is awash in early American concepts of national identity. It struck a chord as the Great Depression tested the country, so popular it became a book a year later.
Benet adapted it to a one-act stage play. Composer Douglas Stuart Moore turned it into a folk opera, something akin to his and Benet’s earlier operetta of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman tale.
“Moore is one of my favorite composers. I love ‘The Ballad of Baby Doe,’” Wright said.
Both the fall production and March’s rendition of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” take place in The Temple Downtown on Claiborne. They will employ the thrust stage, lighting trusses and towers, padded theater seats and table seating that delighted last year’s sold-out houses.
February’s Winter Gala moves a couple of blocks eastward to utilize The Steeple. The new performance space in the old St. Francis Street Methodist Church is ideal for the more minimal concert.
Season tickets are currently available by calling 251-432-6772 or going to mobileopera.org. Wright said sales are already brisk.
This columnist feels the season opener is well suited for this market. A town as rich in history as Mobile relates well to nuanced cultural legends.
“There’s this great exchange where Daniel Webster tells Ol’ Scratch ‘No American citizen dares bow to a foreign potentate’ and the Devil responds, ‘How dare you call me foreign, my name is older in this country than yours,’” Wright said.
Benet used the story to touch upon the idea of America’s trials as a nation. He draws attention to barbarism in our own past but then uses Webster to voice the eventual good possible when we learn to value freedom for all.
The tale involves a trial conjured by Lucifer, where the jury box is filled with villainous historic figures such as various Tories, Native American warriors, a rival of the Plymouth pilgrims and the pirate Blackbeard. The bench is occupied by John Hathorne, the judge who presided over the Salem witch trials.
“We’ll have some effects to complete the atmosphere, especially the entrance of the jury,” Wright said. There will be some other stage magic involving a possessed fiddle and a plaintive soul in the form of a moth.
For the Satanic tenor, Wright knew just where to go. He called Thomas Rowell and told him the opera.
“I started to say ‘would you play —‘ and before I could finish he interrupted with ‘The Devil?!’ He was ready,” Wright said. Actors love the role of the heavy.
The central casting is complete while casting for townspeople and jury still awaits. Hopefuls, stay tuned.
There isn’t a wealth of early 19th century American attire in opera storage so work in that area has started. That means the seven women in Mobile Opera’s relatively new costuming guild are busy.
“Sarah Wright [Scott’s wife] does the research for the costuming and consults with Paul Houghtaling in Tuscaloosa, who is our stage director. From there it goes to the guild,” Wright said.
Wright said other American-based work like this could be an untapped vein for Mobile Opera. The stories are out there but just need to be implemented.
“Alabama native Gran Wilson, who has performed with us and is at the University of Maryland, has written about and studied Sidney Lanier, a poet and musician with a wonderful story,” Wright said. A Civil War veteran who became an acclaimed poet and musician, Lanier lived in Montgomery for a while, where a high school still bears his name.
“Then there’s that Mobile lawyer that had some shady dealings in the oil business who moved to Switzerland,” Wright said, referencing Mobile’s notorious “Black” Bart Chamberlain. “The stories are there, we just need to use them.”
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