Like Morgan Freeman with his bucket list, Indianapolis Opera is getting more adventuresome as it grows older. It has something to do with the economy: The company is figuring out ways to use the much smaller performance space in its Basile Opera Center, the former church at 40th and Pennsylvania streets which it was bequeathed a few years back. Smaller shows are somewhat cheaper shows, to be sure, but they're also alternatives to the old warhorses, which require a big space like Clowes Hall and big, expensive voices.
But this newfound wanderlust also has something to do with the Opera's longtime artistic director, James Caraher, who has taken on even more responsibilities this summer following the departure of the company's executive director. "I started out liking all the traditional things - the Butterflies, the Magic Flutes - just because that's the way you get started, learning the classics," he says. "The older I get, the more I like venturing into not only contemporary things, but pieces I haven't done before."
Pieces like The Threepenny Opera, a 1928 product of Weimar Germany which gave us "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" and which opens the Opera's season in early October at the Basile Opera Center. Like Albert Herring, British composer Benjamin Britten's 1947 comic chamber opera, which will likewise be presented in the Opera's intimate Basile Opera Center beginning in late April. And Puccini's American opera, The Girl of the Golden West, the Opera's sole Clowes Hall production on the season, slated for late March. Caraher says it was an accident that this season ended up featuring only 20th century productions (it also includes a repeat of its holiday production, Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was written for television in the '50s).
In just a few years, the Basile Opera Center has gradually become the center for all things Indy Opera. Caraher says the company hopes to move its offices into the Center by the end of August: "We can't wait to get the offices in there so that when people come for meetings and to visit, they'll actually see people practicing and hear rehearsals going on." Nor can Caraher wait to try out new pieces in the performance space: "We've never done a baroque piece here, and that's on an appropriate scale for the Opera Center. Smaller contemporary pieces are all over the place once you start opening that door. And there are fun ways of relooking at traditional pieces that are being reorganized and done in more intimate, chamber ways. You don't get the big orchestra sweep, but you pay attention to what the people are saying and get wrapped up in the story. Some of these traditional operas were, I think, intended to be that intimate, but as soon as you put a 60-piece orchestra down there and put it in a big room, you lose a lot of that." And Caraher assures that Indianapolis Opera, which was forced to cancel a production of The Mikado in 2010 because of financial difficulties, is on solid financial footing - perhaps more solid than ever, he says.
And Caraher hopes that The Threepenny Opera will launch the season on the right foot. It should be crowd-pleaser, in part because it's both funny and in English: "For me, comedy works better, if you're going to do it at all, in the language in the people watching the piece. And in this country, doing it in English is not only accepted but common." Plus, it'll be more intimate than "traditional" opera: "You don't have to stand at the foot of Clowes Hall where you have to cut loose to be heard out back and where if you did something small and intimate, it wouldn't be seen over the orchestra pit. But in the Basile Opera Center, with people sitting right under your nose, every little twitch of your eye and every facial expression gets noticed, and to fill the room vocally doesn't take a fraction of the effort it does to fill a hall like Clowes with a big orchestra."
And, hey, it's sexy and crude and dark and politically engaged, too: "It's not a pretty piece," Caraher says. "It's about thieves and whores, and you can make the language as vulgar as you want and still be appropriate. In the version we're using, the English is very close to the German. And I think they spiced it up a little bit for New York and Broadway when they did it there. So ours will give some of that, but there's not as much cursing or just being crude, although I understand the director's going to have some pretty suggestive dancing and carrying on with some of the whores when MacHeath shows up the brothel."