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Cedar Rapids Opera putting soap opera twist on Mozart
‘Cosi fan tutte’ moving from the 18th century into 20th century soap opera realm
CEDAR RAPIDS — How do you get people to put down their remotes, get off the couch, change out of their sweats and come to an opera?
For Cedar Rapids Opera guest stage director Benjamin Robinson of Philadelphia, the answer lies in turning an 18th century work into something relatable for a 21st century audience, with a nod to the 20th century.
His goal is to take a classical work and give it a pop culture update. So he has created “a show within a show,” setting Mozart’s comic opera “Cosi fan tutte” in the soap opera dynasty of the 1980s, with the action playing out in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
Pronounced “coZY fahn TOO-tay,” according to a Facebook tutorial from Maestro Daniel Kleinknecht, the production will be presented Jan. 20 and 22 at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The company features opera professionals and a community chorus onstage, in collaboration with Orchestra Iowa instrumentalists under Kleinknecht’s baton.
It’s a fidelity/infidelity temptation story where two men betrothed to sisters accept a dare to see if the women will stray when told their men have been sent into war — only to have the men disguise themselves and do their best to turn the women’s big-haired heads.
“I love this idea of setting something in an era that to me, is sort of in our Zeitgeist that we recognize, but that also plays to the same sort of conceits that Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist, originally established with this thing,” said Robinson, artistic director of Opera Ithaca in New York and Raylynmor Opera in New Hampshire, as well as managing director of Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest.
If you go
What: Opera Iowa presents Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte: The Soap Opera” with Orchestra Iowa musicians
Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20 and 2 p.m. Jan. 22, 2023
Tickets: $19 to $69, cropera.org/cosi-fan-tutte
Preshow: 45 minutes before curtain, join University of Iowa Professor Anna Barker in the Encore Lounge for a look at Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the women he loved and the operatic secrets of “Cosi fan tutte.” Don your glad rags — the paparazzi is ready to snap your photo as you walk the Red Carpet in the Hall of Mirrors and rub shoulders with soap opera stars vying for fame. (The photos will be free and accessible online.)
“I have to admit that when I was first asked to direct this, I thought, ooh, because it's such a misogynistic work, and where we are in the news cycle and with life and awareness right now, how can we make this piece something that speaks to the values of equality and diversity and inclusion?”
That’s where the 1980s soap opera/Reagan era idea turned his head.
“Everybody is obsessed with what they can buy, and are obsessed with classing up,” he said. “And there is this great sense of men can get away with nearly anything — much more so on the set of a soap opera, where it's male-dominated and there are male executive producers that are calling the shots.”
He noted another concern for today’s audiences is that the men are supposed to be poorly disguised as Albanians, intended as a comedic angle.
“That’s something that is no longer culturally appropriate or relevant,” Robinson said. “The idea of setting this within a scripted world where the women would be playing the part of something — they’re not stupid — they’re playing these roles that have been written for them by men who want women to be portrayed in a certain light.
“This gives the women in the show an element of control. It also allows them to grow increasingly disgusted with the system that is completely built against them. Of course, without giving anything away, they take action to make sure that the tide changes a little bit.
“The end of this opera, which is what I love about Mozart, is that it's really flexible theater,” Robinson said. “You can do a lot of different things, and interpret the plot and the music in many different ways, and it still holds its own because it's so exquisitely constructed. And that this opera, which many directors interpret differently at the end, has a special surprise for those who are expecting the worst when it comes to how the women are being treated.”
Behind the scenes
Robinson calls his role with Cedar Rapids Opera “kismet.” He knew Cedar Rapids native Janara Kellerman, a much-lauded mezzo-soprano. When she found out Kleinknecht was searching for a director for “Cosi fan tutte,” she connected the dots.
That was 18 months ago.
COVID-19 cases shut down last year’s intended production, but rehearsals have resumed this year with intense pandemic precautions, including masking and COVID testing for everyone, hand sanitizer on deck and understudies for the main roles.
“We’re being very cautious and very upfront about testing, and we’re taking it quite seriously — just because we should,” said Kleinknecht of Coralville, the opera company’s founder and conductor for this show. “It’s a really pleasure to have everyone here and working on the piece.”
Cedar Rapids Opera mounted “Cosi fan tutte” with its Young Artists in June 2009 at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.
“I remember it being sort of pleasurable … but it’s tough,” Kleinknecht said.
He decided to return to the work a decade later because “there’s something about Mozart that just feels real, and it feels like something you can touch and carve your way through in a positive way,” he said.
”And really, the update was just icing on the cake. It was a wonderful idea that Ben brought to the project. I have to say though, after one day of rehearsal, I forgot how hard Mozart is.”
“Mozart’s like a sorbet,” Robinson added. “It’s so balanced. It’s never heavy on the palate. It knows how to be substantive, but it also knows to not take itself too seriously. He writes dramatically. I think what makes this opera so special is that there are these moments of real dramatic stakes. It’s not all fluff, even inside of this 'Guiding Light’ Mozart that we’re doing.
“There are moments where the emotions are very real and people’s feelings get hurt,” Robinson noted. “And Mozart has this ability to — in one second and just with one chord — make you feel deep into what these characters are feeling, sort of like getting to look directly into the soul of these characters. And then a second later, you’re laughing.
“That ability to be so nimble with his composing is what makes this piece a winner. And people keep coming back to it. It's fun to come back to some of these problem pieces and try to figure (them) out. That’s what’s keeping opera alive,” he said.
It also keeps the piece fresh and alive for cast members.
“Cosi fan tutte” has an alternate title that translates to “School for Lovers,” but mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote, who is playing Dorabella, one of the sisters, prefers “Things Done By Everyone.” That’s the translation suggested by her local housing host — musician, composer and professor emeritus Jerry Owen — who taught a course on “Cosi fan tutte” at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
Vote likes that translation much better than the alternates, “Women are Like That” or “All Women Do It,” which place the emphasis on the women.
“We all do these things. We all play games,” said Vote, 38, a Maryland native now based in New York City. “And I think in a way, people change, but they don't, because we're all going to be going through these changes all the time. So it’s like constantly changing, constantly dealing with the thing in front of you. (Dorabella) has to change, because she went from feeling one way about one person to (feeling) something about somebody else (who) came into her life.”
This is the first time Vote has sung this leading role — and her first experience with Cedar Rapids Opera — and she’s relishing the opportunities.
“Dorabella is one of those women that is always up for an adventure, for a good time,” Vote said. “She goes into things without always thinking about them, compared to (her sister) Fiordiligi, who I think is more in her head and more thoughtful, and she is careful. Dorabella is like, ‘Well, let's just try it.’ …
“I think you can hear it in the music because her music is much more direct. It's kind of chirpy and wordy and high, and Fiordiligi gets these long, luscious lines that are thoughtful and serious. Dorabella is more like, ‘I’m mad right now,’ a temper tantrum. But I enjoy that about her because I personally relate more to Fiordiligi in real life. So you get to play something else on stage, and be just full of energy (and) go into things full force.”
Ziwen Xiang is relishing his first time playing the role of Dorabella’s fiance, Ferrando. He describes his character as a young, romantic guy with “lots of energy” and “really positive.”
“I think he’s pure, he believes things really simply, and he's a charming, charming guy,” said Xiang, 37, a tenor who grew up in China’s Hunan province, but came to New York “years ago” to study at the Manhattan School of Music.
So is he a charming guy in real life?
“My wife says it, my friends say it,” he said with a laugh. “I do love people. I really engage my heart in terms of friendship, or marriage, or to my kids, to my parents. I believe loving is the most important thing in our planet.
“And I believe everything has both sides — bad and good. It’s like in the opera, in the end, they said, ‘A man who looks up to things always in the good side will get very lucky.’ ”
He likens his character “being smarter, being calm,” as keys to surviving in today’s pandemic.
“In the opera it says, ‘You’ve survived in a tornado, suffering crazy circumstances. You won’t be surprised. You’re the one (who will) survive.’ ”
He’s also thrilled to be in Cedar Rapids, after the production was postponed last year.
“I'm just so lucky, and I'm so happy they’re redoing this again and asked us to come back,” he said.
He’s also enjoying the challenge of adding this role to his repertoire.
“I did a lot of romantic roles, and Mozart requires a delicacy — styling clean with everything, being precise. … But now I’m living it.”
He added that the experience here is “refreshing.”
“Everything's new to me, and I’m enjoying every process, every step of it. I always can feel something new — new energy from my colleagues, from the maestro, from the director, from the music itself, from my character.
“I’m discovering every day, every moment,” he said. “I’m so excited for this.”
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