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Ariadne of Naxos

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It’s hardly surprising that the Pacific Opera Project (POP) would want to bring their uniquely cheeky perspective to Ariadne auf Naxos. Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s libretto offers a witty and satiric look at the never-ending battle between the ideals of the “pure” artist and the practical reality of putting on a show. And, of course, Richard Strauss’ score lifts the proceedings beyond the petty egos of performers and producers.

The opera’s structure is simplicity itself: a prologue reveals the backstage machinations surrounding the premiere of a new opera; after an intermission, the opera is performed. Stephen Karr’s admirable adaptation uses the conceit that the opera has been commissioned for the 1913 opening of the actual venue in Highland Park in which the audience sits. As the dates for the opera’s premiere and the opening of the Ebell Club are roughly simultaneous, this makes for a comfortable modernization.

The naïve and idealistic Composer (Claire Shackleton) comes backstage to give final notes to her leads, Ariadne (Tracy Cox) and Bacchus (Brendan Sliger). The probably pretentious opus she’s written is a treatment of the mythical Ariadne, after she has been abandoned on the desert island of Naxos by Theseus. The Composer’s music teacher (Ryan Thorn) approaches with some bad news. Apparently the opera is sharing the bill with a lowly vaudeville troupe.  But scarcely has that shock registered before even worse news arrives. Mr. H. H. Meyer (Timothy Campbell) explains that, as the production must end in time for the fireworks display, the opera and the vaudeville act need to be performed simultaneously. Zerbinetta (Sara Duchovnay), the troupe’s leader, is philosophical about the directive, but the Composer is horrified. That is, until Zerbinetta points out the possibility of never hearing her work performed. At that point, like so many before her, she learns the art of compromise. The opera/vaudeville mashup proves to be a delightfully incongruous production.

As usual, Director Josh Shaw has some fresh ideas for the production. Capitalizing on the location and era, he uses hints of old Hollywood, like the intertitles for the opera and the silent comedy antics of Zerbinetta’s boys. (Note the Harold Lloyd glasses on Robert Norman’s Brighella.) He also incorporates period theatrical devices like the olio at the top of the second act in which Campbell and Thorn sing a decidedly non-period appropriate song. As Stephen Karr’s libretto places all but the opera in English, Shaw dispenses with the now ubiquitous supertitles. But his most audacious stroke is to make the composer a woman. Of course, the role is always sung by a woman, but it is written as a “trouser” role (when a female singer plays the part of a young man). The sex change works quite well. Musical Composition remains a primarily male occupation, so the desperation of a female Composer makes more sense than a male might in a time when composers were less dependent on patrons. The change also reveals a normally subliminal Sapphic element in trouser roles. The Composer readily appreciates Zerbinetta’s physical charms and she, in return, presses that advantage when needed.

Like most Strauss operas, Ariadne is really about the ladies, and Karr and Shaw have cast them well. Shackleton is a convincingly passionate Composer who sings with an easy grace that captivates. And her English diction is commendable. Tracy Cox proves a commanding Ariadne, whether bemoaning her lonely fate on the island or spoofing diva conventions. Her powerful soprano incorporates enough steel to fill the hall and enough cream to capture the rapture in Strauss’ score. As usual, Zerbinetta is an audience favorite, and Duchovnay earns their affection. Flirty and fun-loving Duchovany’s Zerbinetta is also the smartest person in every room. Zerbinetta’s extended aria in the second act is one of the most treacherous in the coloratura repertoire. Duchovnay’s silvery tone and dexterity make the vocal fireworks seem easy—trickier than usual as the staging incorporates the three Nymphs and audience volunteers.

Brendan Sliger’s Bacchus is appropriately stentorian. The role’s tessitura is harrowingly cruel, and while Silger didn’t completely conquer its vocal demands, he did better than most of the singers I’ve seen tackle the role in major opera houses. Ryan Thorn’s Music Teacher and Timothy Campbell’s H. H. Meyer (a speaking role) are essentially narrative devices, but they bring some humanity to the characters. Maria Elena Altany, Kelci Hahn, and Sarah Beaty make lovely music as the island Nymphs. The members of Zerbitnetta’s troupe, Nicholas LaGesse, Jon Lee Keenan, Robert Norman, and Keith Colclough do a splendid job of executing their madcap action while not stinting on their musical obligations.

The company’s Music Director, Stephen Karr leads his orchestra in a sensitive reading of the score.

Ebell Club of Highland Park   May 14 – 23, 2015    323 739-6122



Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.