Emperor's New Rules

Oberlin Opera Theater presents a surrealist work by Mollicone and a comedy by Menotti July 29-August 2.

July 23, 2021

Erich Burnett

Two actors performing on a stage.
Photo credit: courtesy Oberlin Opera Theater

When life turned toward the surreal in 2020 and ’21, Oberlin Opera Theater followed suit.

Its first of two productions recorded during the spring semester, Henry Mollicone’s surrealist one-act opera Emperor Norton will be presented for four days on Oberlin Stage Left, Oberlin Conservatory’s virtual programming platform, beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 29.

It will be broadcast as a double feature with Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act comedy Amelia al Ballo (“Amelia Goes to the Ball”), also filmed in the spring. Both operas will be available for viewing on demand through August 2.

After a fall semester spent recording operas in unconventional settings on campus, Emperor Norton (pictured above) drops its cast and crew back on its home stage in Hall Auditorium, with the spring semester’s social distancing measures still in place. Instead of performing for an audience of hundreds, the masked, four-person cast lip-synched the English song text for a video camera. Each singer’s vocal tracks and the instrumental score—featuring piano, violin, and cello—were recorded in studios across campus, led by vocal coach and accompanist Daniel Michalak.

Emperor Norton’s action revolves around two actors who find themselves backstage at a theatrical production, where they encounter a playwright who asks them to read her script about the real-life “emperor” of the title, a fabled, eccentric champion of the people in 19th-century San Francisco. As the actors go about their work, a similarly eccentric intruder barges in—with a script of his own—and objects to the playwright’s material, claiming that he knows the true story of Emperor Norton.

“With Henry, there’s always a sort of artistic school of magic realism,” director Jonathon Field says of Mollicone, who composed the 1981 opera with librettist John S. Bowman. “There’s a fantastical atmosphere about his pieces, and they sort of come and go back and forth in time. There are always fanciful characters rooted in some degree of reality, and with really accessible melodic lines.”

Singer emerging through a doorway.
Daniela Machado portrays Amelia in Menotti's comic opera. Each performer wears a mask created to mirror their actual face, sometimes with tongue-in-cheek—or tongue-on-cheek—expressions. (photo courtesy Oberlin Opera Theater)

One of Menotti’s first fully formed operas, Amelia al Ballo (1937) delights in the challenges faced by a young socialite as she prepares for the first ball of the season. It was filmed,  using the same COVID-19 precautions, on location in an Oberlin apartment complex, with direction from Field and musical direction again supplied by Michalak. It is sung in Italian—with a libretto by Menotti—and presented with subtitles.

Tentative plans are in place for a return to live opera performances—with live audiences—in the upcoming fall 2021 and spring 2022 semesters. Fall will feature Handel’s Acis and Galatea, followed by Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto in spring.

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