Ben Robinson doesn’t mince words when he recollects reading “Little Women” years ago for a middle school English class. “I remember hating it,” he admits.
And it’s fairly likely he never would have returned to the story about the Civil War-era sisters of Concord had he not been cast as young male hero Theodore “Laurie” Laurence in this weekend’s Opera del West production of composer Mark Adamo’s operatic interpretation of “Little Women.” But singing the part has given the tenor a new appreciation for Louisa May Alcott’s semiautobiographical novel — not only as a young man but as a singer.
“In opera especially, men are seldom the jilted lover,” Robinson said. “The pain of Jo’s rejection and the subsequent reconciliation as platonic friends really gives me a chance to explore an entirely different kind of character. In the post-Civil War setting, the conceit going in is that the man is the one in control of his life and his lovers. Alcott, and later Adamo, shatters that notion. The scene where Jo rejects Laurie is really fantastic!”
Though Adamo’s “Little Women,” written in 1998, may still be relatively unknown even in musical circles, staging it was a fairly easy choice for Eve Budnick, music director of Natick’s Opera del West, once she noticed the festive commotion with which nearby Concord was celebrating the centennial of Orchard House, a museum that pays homage to the life of author Louisa May Alcott and her famous family.
The Concord Players did their own staging of “Little Women” earlier this year, and the community’s many other cultural institutions were quick to pick up on the theme.
To Budnick, it was an opportunity waiting to happen. “I like to do operas that highlight women because we have so many talented women coming out of conservatories around here, and ‘Little Women’ has the roles for them,” Budnick said. “It is one of our more challenging operas to put together. We needed to feel we were ready to do something this big.”
Robinson concurs that it’s a challenge even for an experienced singer. “It’s a difficult piece, musically speaking. Mark Adamo puts a strong emphasis on rhythms that flow on a speech-like level and, at times, contradict the natural inflection of the text to create emphasis. I think that the special quality of this piece lies in the fact that it comes across to the listener as very seamless and surprisingly tonal. . . There is a great balance achieved between the frothy ensembles and the more dramatic outbursts. This opera is unique in that it embraces its moments of lyricism. There are many hummable melodies that emerge out of the complex atonal fabric.”
Mezzo-soprano Anne Byrne is delighted with her role as main character Jo. “As a young woman going through that transition period in life, leaving school and entering the real world, I’ve found that connecting with the story is as easy as breathing, especially becoming Jo, a young woman trying to find the balance between family, love, and career,” Byrne said. “The story of ‘Little Women’ itself is timeless, and Adamo brings a modern style to it with his music — but he also writes some of the most beautiful, classic music I’ve ever heard.”
Budnick would like to see the familiar story lure some new audience members to the production. “I am really hopeful that people who love the book will come in and see what it’s like to hear it all performed,” she said. “Some people have the idea that opera is always stodgy and old-fashioned, and that operas are always based on obscure stories they don’t know. I like the fact that in this case we’re taking something people recognize and showing how it can work as an opera.”
New York-based composer Adamo visited Orchard House in 2002.
“I remember thinking then how beautiful it would be if the score could be produced in the region in which the source novel was set and its author was born,” he commented by e-mail, “so I couldn’t be happier that ‘Little Women’ is being produced so close to Concord! Somewhere, Louisa May is smiling.”
Opera del West will perform “Little Women” Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Center for Arts in Natick, 14 Summer St. Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for members, and $15 for students and seniors. For tickets or more information, call 508-647-0097 or go to www.natickarts.org.
CATCH A “DREAM”: Pack a picnic, bring a blanket, and enjoy a night of Shakespeare under the stars as Enter Stage Left Theater presents one of the bard’s most beloved comedies, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The performances will be held Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at the Hopkinton Center for the Arts Amphitheater, 98 Hayden Rowe St., Hopkinton. The free performances begin at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go to www.hopartscenter.org.
CONCERT BY THE CHARLES: Hemlock Gorge Reservation is hosting its annual summer concert and picnic Tuesday from 6 p.m. to dusk (rain date is Wednesday) at Hamilton Place in Needham.
The 23-acre preserve extends along the Charles River in Needham, Newton, and Wellesley, and includes Echo Bridge, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982. It is managed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. For details, go to www.hemlockgorge.org.
EMOTIONS CAPTURED IN ART: Contemporary Arts International announces the opening of “Passions,” a show featuring the works of Hungarian-born painter Steven Balogh. “Passions” will open Sunday with an artist’s reception from 1 to 4 p.m., and remain on display through Oct. 14.
Contemporary Arts International is an indoor/outdoor facility in a 12.9-acre stone quarry at 68 Quarry Road in Acton. For more information, call 617-699-6401 or go to www.contemporaryartsinternational.org.
TEEN THESPIANS: New Repertory Theatre is opening its production of “Working,” featuring teens from Summer Studio 2012, an intensive program for high school students, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
“Working” will continue
Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday
at 2 p.m. at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal
Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students and seniors; call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.