Since the 2013 debut of Odyssey Opera, the upstart local company has had two mandates: to present neglected, unfamiliar repertoire, and to do so in the context of a small, streamlined operation with a minimum of overhead. Combining those is tricky business; offbeat repertoire doesn’t always draw the ticket revenue needed to subsidize such worthy ambitions.
So it’s heartening to have seen a steady growth in Odyssey’s footprint, and its newly announced spring productions show this trend continuing. Last year the company gave performances of Verdi’s early “Un giorno di Regno” and a Mascagni and Wolf-Ferrari double bill. This year, Odyssey has planned a mini-festival of British opera, with four very different programs spread over May and June.
The British invasion begins with three performances of “Sir John in Love,” Ralph Vaughan Williams’s operatic version of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” directed by Joshua Major (May 17, 20, 23). That’s followed by a double bill of comedies, William Walton’s “The Bear” and Arthur Sullivan’s “The Zoo,” directed by Lynn Torgove (May 22, 24). Perhaps the most unusual entry is an evening of five monodramas, opening with Benjamin Britten’s “Phaedra” and ending with Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King” (May 30). Closing the ambitious brace of offerings is Thomas Adès’s notorious early opera, “Powder Her Face,” in three performances designed and directed by Nic Muni (June 18-20).
Gil Rose, Odyssey’s general and artistic director, said in an interview that the keystone of the season is “Sir John in Love,” an opera Rose had originally proposed doing with his earlier company, the now-defunct Opera Boston. “I had always thought it was a really great opera and a really good opera for the company, being really off everyone’s radar,” he said. What held them back, he continued, was the fact that it calls for a cast “the size of a Cecil B. DeMille movie.”
That’s because “Sir John in Love” is known for, among other things, retaining many of Shakespeare’s romantic subplots and minor characters — in contrast to Verdi and his librettist Boito, who ruthlessly pared down the plot when they crafted “Falstaff.” In fact, “Sir John in Love” often carries the dubious distinction of being the opera about Falstaff that isn’t “Falstaff” — or, as Rose put it, “the Falstaff opera that’s actually ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ ”
He is, nevertheless, enthusiastic about the piece, with its intimations of British folksong and a flood of beautifully crafted melody. And, he added, Vaughan Williams “was a good theater man, he really knew what worked. He kept all the crazy little plot lines, and he makes them work on stage really well.”
Fleshing out the historical picture was the impulse behind the rest of the season. “The problem with all the people involved is that we’re all a little bit repertoire wonks,” Rose said. “We really wanted to fill out the kaleidoscope, show the entire gamut of British composers. And so all of a sudden, it’s how about this? What about that? This could go here. And then all of a sudden you have this big beast on your hands.”
He insisted, for example, that Sullivan be included — and not one of the composer’s collaborations with W. S. Gilbert, which occupy their own unique space in the repertoire. “Everybody talks about British music not existing between Purcell and Elgar, but Sullivan occupied a very big place in the British public mind,” he said. Having chosen “The Zoo,” Rose needed a comedy to pair it with — hence Walton’s “The Bear,” based on a Chekhov story.
How to fill the hole between Walton and Adès? There was talk of an evening of song. But Britten’s cantata “Phaedra” jumped out at Rose as a way to get Britten into the mix, another necessity. He looked into other monodramas by British composers; alongside the Britten and Maxwell Davies, he added works by two underrepresented composers who are among his favorites: Richard Rodney Bennett (“Ophelia,” for countertenor) and Lennox Berkeley (“Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila,” for alto). Judith Weir’s “King Harald’s Saga,” in which an unaccompanied soprano sings eight different roles in less than 10 minutes, fills out a collection of pieces with diverse scoring, musical syntax, and historical resonance.
That leaves “Powder Her Face,” Adès and Philip Hensher’s witty, grotesque, and haunting meditation on the spectacular downfall of Margaret Campbell, the “Dirty Duchess” of Argyll, in the 1960s. Among other things, its inclusion provides an important historical link to Opera Boston, whose 2003 production launched the young company into public consciousness.
“I’m repeating myself,” Rose deadpanned. “It’s all over for me. I might as well be doing ‘Carmen’ and ‘Bohème.’ ”
More seriously, he added, “I wanted to do it again. When people ask about the hardest piece I’ve ever done, conducting-wise, I say that ‘Powder Her Face’ is a nine. I’ve done some pieces that are 10s, but most of those are like 15 or 20 minutes. ‘Powder Her Face’ is a nine for two hours. It’s a tough piece — but I might have a few more tricks than when I did it last.”
Festival passes for all four programs go on sale Friday; single tickets will be available April 13.
New Lydian commission
The Lydian String Quartet, in residence at Brandeis University, has announced the recipient of its second commission prize. Steven Snowden, a composer from Austin, Texas, has been chosen to compose a new work for the quartet, to be premiered at Brandeis in spring 2016. The first commission prize went to composer Kurt Rohde, whose “Treatises for an Unrecovered Past” was premiered by the Lydian in April 2013.