Most often, as much as it is about big voices and beautiful music, opera is about spectacle -- big sets, big costumes, everything elaborate.
So Tulsa Opera's 2009-2010 season closer will be a surprise to frequent opera-goers; it is decidedly stripped down -- bare bones, almost abstract production. What began as a budget crisis that forced TO's directors to scrap its original spring production quickly turned into an opportunity to do something different, to present an Oklahoma premier and to create an original production -- the first time in 10 years the company has done so.
"Opera companies have addressed the financial problem (in different ways)," said TO's Artistic Director Kostis Protopapas. "Some companies have dropped productions, some companies have cut performances of their productions, some companies have changed their repertoire, and some companies have been doing concerts instead of stage productions.
"Pretty quickly we said we can't do a concert. We can do something a little different, something a little bit more cost-effective, but we're not going to go down to a concert."
Protopapas began searching for an opera suitable for minimalist production, something Tulsa audiences have likely not seen before.
"I like to have a piece in each season that Tulsa Opera has never presented because a lot of our subscribers ask for that," Protopapas said. "They've been attending the opera for a long time, and they want to see something they have never seen before. And also it has to be something that balances out the rest of the season."
What quickly came to mind was Jules Massenet's Don Quichotte, written in 1910 and based on Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
"I knew of Don Quichotte, and it's a piece that has not been done very much," Protopapas said. "It gets done every once in a while but not very often. It's a very familiar story, a fun piece. It has some beautiful music, and it's a comedy, so it has a little bit of everything."
Still, most of the productions of the opera have elaborate sets and costuming. Knowing that was out of the question for TO's version of the show, Protopapas, who will conduct the show, had to find a director who could bring to fruition the company's aspiration.
"Early on, I thought the most critical thing here is to find a director who can envision this project, who understands the music -- which is not something every director has done -- who is the right match for the project," Protopapas said. "And Michael has worked here a couple of times; I know him from Chicago, and somehow I just thought Michael was the right match for the project."
Director Michael Ehrman jumped at the chance.
"It was an opera I've always loved and always dreamt of doing," Ehrman said. "When people ask me, 'What's on your list of shows you still want to do?' I've been doing this for 30 years, and I feel pretty lucky that I've gotten to direct most of the shows I've always wanted. There aren't that many left that I'm dying to do, but that was always one I regretted I could never get a chance to do."
And doing it with a small budget and minimal set and costumes proved "an exciting challenge," the director said.
"It's a story in which the main character has a distorted view of reality and lives in his own imagination, so you didn't have to depict things literally," Ehrman said.
"And I always have this image from the (Gustave) Doré illustrations, the famous engravings, where there was an image of this man sitting in a large chair, reading a book, with all these fantastic figures around him: knights and dwarves and ogres and dragons," Ehrman said. "And it was an illustration of the start of the story. And they don't show that in the opera; it starts when he's already Don Quichotte. I thought, what if we start the show and, in the overture, we show this man, Alonso Quixano, becoming Don Quixote, and we set up the fact these things are in his imagination.
"And knowing that Cervantes, in the 16th Century, was a member of a theatre troupe that traveled around and performed in town squares, where they basically had a platform. They didn't have real sets, they didn't have lighting; they performed by daylight, and they involved the audience in imagining things. I thought, let's try using those techniques to tell this story."
The set is a construct of five panels and a platform. The panels get moved around the stage, and the elaborate lighting -- the only elaborate element of the production; Ehrman reported there are more lights hanging in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Chapman Music Hall than have ever been used for a TO production -- shine images onto the panels, change the scenes and mood.
The lighting designer for the production is Broadway lighting designer Charlie Morrison.
The costumes have been pieced together from rentals from other operas of the same time period.
Ehrman uses words like "charming," whimsical" and "intimate" to describe both the story and its incarnation on the Tulsa Opera stage.
"I thought, let's use techniques of children's theatre and story theatre and, going back to Cervantes time, introduce the show during the overture as if a troupe of players is coming on stage at Performing Arts Center in Tulsa," he said. "This troupe from the 19th Century has magically sort of traveled to Tulsa, and they let us know that they're going to tell us the story of Don Quichotte. We establish right away it's not realistic.
"To me, part of the strength of the piece is there's a real charm to it. (We) take the emphasis off the spectacle."
Alfred Walker, a bass most recently seen on TO's stage in 2005's Faust, sings the title role. Mezzo soprano Dana Beth Miller, seen in last season's Hansel and Gretel, sings the role of Dulcinee, and bass-baritone Eduardo Chama, last seen with TO in 1999, sings his signature role Sancho Panza.
Ehrman said his direction of the singers hasn't been much different than it would have been had they been dressed in elaborate costumes and been surrounded by a bulky set.
"It seems to me it's a little bit liberating and empowering to the performers not to have a lot of stuff," Protopapas said. "Because they have more responsibility; they command the space in a different way. It seems they have a better sense they are the performance; rather than having all this stuff on the stage."
Tulsa Opera presents Don Quichotte at the PAC's Chapman Music Hall, 110 E. Second St., Saturday, April 17 and Friday, April 23 at 7:30pm and Sunday, April 25 at 2:30pm. Tickets are available at www.tulsapac.com and at 587-4811.
Share this article: