In the popular imagination, operas usually are extravagant affairs involving enormous sets, flashy costumes, lots of pomp and supersized voices. Since so many operas are presented in large halls, it's no wonder we assume they must be big. Those voices, almost always unamplified, must reach the highest balcony.
So the gestures are expansive, the movement deliberate, the singing bold, all in order to convey in broad strokes the primary emotions that inform the human experience: love, grief, joy, rage, envy.
While it's certainly true that much opera is the sort that makes your seat rattle, not all of it is writ so large. And this year's Spoleto Festival USA presents three works, each radically different, that explore some of life's subtler or tangential issues: shame and cultural injustice (Janacek's "Kat'a Kabanova"); social engineering, eugenics and genetic manipulation (Michael Nyman's "Facing Goya"); and a female perspective of the miracle of birth (John Adams' "El Nino").
Musically, the opera closest to the stereotype is Janacek's, but even "Kat'a Kabanova" provides audiences with a strong taste of evolving 20th-century style and sensibility.
The story, though, is pretty traditional, despite its modernist spin: The young Kat'a, a resident of a small Russian village, is suffocating in an unhappy marriage and fantasizes about having an affair. When her insensitive husband leaves on a trip, Kat'a's fantasy becomes reality. But rather than liberating her, the affair only tightens the belt of shame. There is nowhere for her to go but in the river.
"This is a woman overcome by tradition, but also a woman who achieves her freedom in a glorious and ultimate way," said Nigel Redden, the festival's general director. "She dies."
The water of the Volga River symbolizes liberty and safe passage," he said. It is always flowing.
Speaking of women, this production is directed by Garry Hynes, a Tony Award winner and co-founder of Ireland's Druid Theatre Company. It will be conducted by Anne Manson, who returns to the festival after a 2012 appearance.
The role of Kat'a will be sung by American soprano Betsy Horne, making her festival and U.S. professional debut. She sang the role in 2012 for the Landestheater Coburg in Bavaria, where she is a resident singer. Kat'a's husband Tichon is played by tenor Dennis Petersen; her lover Boris is played by tenor Rolando Sanz.
Politics takes center stage in "Facing Goya," which makes its American premiere at the festival. Composer Michael Nyman, who writes film scores as well as concert works, teamed up with librettist Victoria Hardie in 1987 to create a one-act opera called "Vital Statistics," which dealt with physiognomy.
In 2000, they expanded it into the current work.
Nyman has long been interested in ethical issues concerning genetics, neurology and pseudoscience, and this opera is the latest work to delve into this realm of ideas. Why would the artist Francisco de Goya's head have been removed from his body after death? And can the skull be used to revitalize genius?
The opera explores the creative impulse, as well as the nature-nurture dichotomy, Redden said.
"Facing Goya" is directed by Ong Keng Sen, and conducted by John Kennedy, the festival's resident conductor and director of orchestral activities.
It stars sopranos Anne-Carolyn Bird and Aundi Marie Moore, contralto Suzanna Guzman, tenor Thomas Michael Allen and baritone Museop Kim.
"El Nino" is a cross-cultural musical retelling of the Nativity story that employs the King James Bible, Latino poetry, non-canonic biblical Apocrypha, mystery plays of the Middle Ages and more.
Originally presented as an oratorio, it features a libretto adapted by John Adams and Peter Sellars. This production will be directed by John La Bouchardiere, who has worked extensively in opera, film and television.
La Bouchardiere is most known for "The Full Monteverdi," a narrative reimagining of Monteverdi's fourth book of madrigals that was first presented on stage, then on screen. Joe Miller, the festival's director of choral activities, will conduct.
The piece is scored for soprano (Caitlin Lynch), mezzo-soprano (Erica Brookhyser), baritone (Mark Walters), three countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Steven Rickards), chorus, children's chorus and an orchestra that includes two guitars and sampling keyboard.
Ultimately, "El Nino" is about failure and redemption, and it continues a centuries-long tradition of visual storytelling that benefitted the illiterate of ages past and was widely employed in Central and South America during the colonial period, Redden said.