By Ken Trainor
Local opera is a longshot. Brad Schuller learned that with Verismo, which managed to mount a creditable staging of La Traviata at the Oak Park Art Center in 2012 with piano accompaniment. A full orchestra, after all, just adds to the expense of an already expensive art form — big casts, big costumes, big sets, big talent. Not easy to fund, much less pull off.
Oak Parker Christine Steyer, who has been keeping Bellissima, another small opera company, alive for years with her husband, Paul Geiger, knows better than anyone how high the odds are stacked.
Steyer, who played the lead role of Violetta in Schuller's production of La Traviata in August of 2012, isn't balking in the face of such long odds, however. In fact, Bellissima is upping the ante with the triply ambitious Transcendence Triptych, three original short operas in one production, united by the theme of reconciliation.
And if that weren't challenging enough, the first of the three is an opera about professional boxing.
An opera about professional boxers? Well, if director Martin Scorsese could successfully incorporate operatic elements in his classic film Raging Bull, then opera can incorporate a boxing ring (which is, after all, a stage —perhaps the ultimate stage).
At any rate that's the plan announced by local arts group Bellissima Opera, which is launching the Transcendence Triptych project, an operatic triple-bill that celebrates extraordinary individuals seeking to transcend the racial divide. A production date in 2016 hasn't been set yet.
First they have to do some serious fundraising, so they're trying to get the word out. And when you hear about the three stories, the idea doesn't seem so far-fetched.
The first opera in the triptych, "Outside the Ring," is based on the famous fights between German Max Schmeling and American heavyweight champion Joe Louis in the 1930s.
The second, "Reconciliation," highlights Nelson Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid. The final opera, "Future Perfect," draws its inspiration from the testimonials of high school students attending Senn High School — one of Chicago's most racially diverse schools.
The Schmeling-Louis rivalry, for those unfamiliar with boxing history, was made even more compelling by racial tension in this country and the rise of Nazi Germany's myth of Aryan supremacy. Just as Jesse Owens and Chicago's Ralph Abernathy undermined that myth in the 1936 Olympics by blowing away the competition in the 100 meter dash, so Americans rooted for Louis to do the same when he and Schmeling first fought in 1936. Louis, of course, as an African American, had to overcome plenty of racism in this country, but the "Brown Bomber" achieved an unprecedented level of acceptance, perhaps magnified by the geopolitical climate.
But Schmeling won (in a controversial decision) in 12 rounds, setting up a highly charged rematch, which Louis won handily (a first-round knockout).
Not the kind of scenario you would expect to inspire racial reconciliation, but Schmeling did not embrace his "role" as the Great Aryan Hope and in later years, he and Louis became close friends.
According to Wikipedia, when Louis ran into financial difficulty in later years, Schmeling, who visited him in Las Vegas every year, sent money and also covered a portion of the funeral costs when Louis died in 1981. Schmeling was a pallbearer at the service.
The idea for the opera developed after Steyer and Geiger produced their successful "Music of the Universe" concert at Unity Temple last spring, and friends started asking, "What's next?"
Steyer had just seen a WGBH Boston/NPR documentary on the fight, which made an impression, along with Nelson Mandela's death the previous December. So racial reconciliation was on her mind as they considered their next artistic collaboration with David Shenton, who composed "Music of the Universe," the centerpiece of their concert.
Shenton was up for the challenge.
"We had never written a libretto before," Steyer said, "but Paul and I are opera singers, so we know librettos." They had also written several songs together, including the comic tour de force, "So You Want to be a Diva?" so they, too, were up for a challenge.
"Outside the Ring" will be the lead, and longest, story in the triad, lasting about an hour. The other two will run about 25 minutes each. Steyer thinks shorter operas will appeal to a wider audience, some of whom may be giving the art form a first try.
"I'm also a huge fan of Twilight Zone," she added. "I've seen them all, 24 minutes in length — perfection."
"If it's too long," she noted, "It's hard to maintain the tension."
Story number two is similarly compelling in another inherently dramatic setting: the courtroom of the Truth & Reconciliation hearings in post-Apartheid South Africa, which, more than any other single factor, have been credited with smoothing the transition and helping to create a nation.
"The hearings offer a clear narrative device," said Steyer. "They allowed people to tell their stories."
She found one particularly moving.
"A woman asked only three things" of her family's murderer, Steyer recalled. "'Where are my husband and son buried?' 'Come and visit me twice a month,' and 'Let me give you a hug.' The man passed out."
Steyer said she was drawn to racial stories partly because she has a number of black friends in the opera community. "It's hard to find roles outside of Porgy & Bess," she said. "It's an opportunity for work."
The third story's high school angle emerged from Bellissima Opera's active school outreach program, which involves visiting classrooms to promote an art form that many young people have never been exposed to. For this project, she is working with Senn social studies teacher Diane Piette, an Oak Park resident.
In the class, they asked students to discuss themes such as diversity, interconnectedness and transcendence. The students' words will provide the text of the third story.
"That's the X factor," Steyer said. "I'm not sure what form this will take yet. Maybe an oratorio." But not knowing is part of the fun.
"I enjoy a controlled X factor," she said.
Funding, of course, is the biggest X factor, which is why she's hoping to get a lot of volunteers on board to help organize fundraisers. These are "big chorus" operas, she noted. "All have crowd scenes with up to 50 people onstage." The fight scenes will require working with a choreographer. South African and 1930s-era costumes will be needed.
Why opera as opposed to musical theater?
"Operas are about heightened emotion," she said. "Passion. The long high notes. Goosebumps. That's opera."
And she thinks each of these stories will generate goosebumps.
"We want people to be moved and inspired," she said.
If all goes well, they hope to workshop the opera in early 2016 in a small theater space with small audiences to "see what works." Then the show will go on later that year.
Just in time for the 80th anniversary of the first Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight — which led to a lifelong friendship.
Email Christine Steyer, firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about helping with fundraisers for the Transcendence Triptych project.
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