Opera San Antonio premiers its inaugural season at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts with a new rendering of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a family friendly production based on the Roald Dahl book of the same title. This piece originally debuted in 1998 at the Los Angeles Opera, commissioned by the Roald Dahl Foundation. It just so happens that it was written by Opera San Antonio Artistic Director and Co-founder Tobias Picker.
Performed in the black box setting of the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, there are three more performances in this run on Sept. 26, 27, and 28. In addition, Opera San Antonio culminates its summer campaign with a free, invitation-only, outdoor live simulcast screening at the Tobin Center River Walk Plaza on Saturday, Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. This outreach further introduces the community to the art form of opera.
There are themes of family and friends, the dangers of vices unchecked, romance discovered, and Mother Nature triumphing over the greedy and destructive tendencies of humans in the end. In order to best enjoy this production, it is necessary to suspend belief and put the realities of our technologically overwrought world behind us. Releasing one’s inner child in this instance results in walking out of the theater with a smile and the glow that a good romp brings.
The ensemble, led by award-winning performer John Brancy as Mr. Fox and Renée Rapier as Mrs. Fox, is delightful. Broad with base physicality, the performances were lively, engaging and performed without flaw. Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony were conducted by Andres Cladera, and The Children’s Chorus of San Antonio provided the Children’s Chorus of Trees as well as the four Fox Cubs. Jayson Pescasio of Ballet San Antonio contributed the choreography. In this intimate setting, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
In the grand tradition of such Dahl classics as “Matilda” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” there is plenty of humor and cautionary hi-jinks for the kids, but the darker undertones keep the material relevant for the adults with an excellent libretto by Donald Sturrock. This production runs a quick-paced 75 minutes with no intermission, which was not missed. The sold-out production kept the audience on the edge of their seats throughout.
A native New Yorker, Picker reflects fondly on his experiences with music as a child, such as attending Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” in 1963 or the debut of pianist André Watts.
“Like Roald Dahl, I firmly believe children deserve art that engages them and their whole imaginations without talking down to them,” he said. “As Lady Bird Johnson aptly put it: ‘Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.’ I wrote this to be a family opera – not to single out the children, but to be inclusive, to be a meeting ground for children and their parents, for the young and young at heart.”
The decision to premiere Opera San Antonio at The Tobin with this rather light-hearted fare was a carefully weighed move. In a marketing survey commissioned by the opera, “family oriented fare” was identified as the number one priority for San Antonio audiences. In addition, input was taken from Opera San Antonio’s international advisory board. David Gockley, at the helm of Houston Grand Opera for 30 years and currently General Director at the San Francisco Opera, felt strongly that this was a good choice.
“Doing something for families is a very important message to send,” Picker said.
Tobias Picker could be anywhere in the world. He has an international reputation, critical renown, and a prolific catalogue of music in addition to his operas, including three symphonies, four piano concertos, concertos for violin, viola, cello and oboe, numerous songs, string quartets, and chamber music for various combinations of instruments. One asks “Why San Antonio?”
The answer lies in one man: Mel Weingart, Chairman of Opera San Antonio. The two initially became acquainted while Picker was at the Santa Fe Opera. Weingart had seen “An American Tragedy“at The Met and was intrigued by the composer. A correspondence ensued, ultimately culminating in a desire to work together to create a new opera company.
As Picker and I chatted about the history of opera in San Antonio, one thing is for certain. There is a profound history and knowledge of opera in our city. In fact, San Antonio was the first city in Texas to have a resident opera company. Max Reiter, a young German émigré fleeing anti-semitic persecution, established the San Antonio Symphony in 1939. He expanded upon this endeavor with the establishment of the San Antonio Symphony Grand Opera Festival in 1945. This continued successfully until 1983. And then it ended. There are many stories traded in the salons of San Antonio about why and when things went so terribly awry, but what is truly important is that we have an opportunity here and now.
“We are interested in starting it right and making a new company here,” Picker said.
The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is that opportunity. The process has been five years in the making with support from the public, corporate and private sector. With close professional relationships built over four decades, Picker is keen to bring those internationally acclaimed talents to bear in San Antonio.
“There is a feeling of ‘THIS is the level we will get.’ A positive professional experience that will make these talents want to return again and again,” he said.
Picker is also enthusiastic about the art community in general in San Antonio. Beyond the very collaborative working relationship of the three core companies of The Tobin – opera, symphony, and ballet – he finds himself living in the historic Lavaca neighborhood. He has been introduced to artists and creatives beyond the scope of the opera.
“There is so much talent here to draw on for the opera company – a great base to build upon. We have found a very warm and welcoming community,” Picker said.
However, on a more serious note, it takes more than expressions of congratulations, good will and pats on the back to produce good opera. It takes money and plenty of it. Picker elaborates:
“The most important thing to understand about this opera company (is that) we are in a position to have a very distinguished opera company that can be a destination. A company that will allow us to participate in the opera culture. Opera is by far the most expensive of the performing arts to produce. If the people of San Antonio want our opera to stand next to the companies of Houston and Dallas, and even the international companies of the world, the people will have to pay for it. Not only money, but volunteers. It must be supported and nurtured. For example, ‘Salome’ will be of note throughout the country. People will travel to see it. It is my hope that people will support an important opera company here.”
The Opera is intent on creating a new business model, one that has funding in place before the production occurs and not just relying on ticket sales and running deficit budgets – an all too common situation. The support system that has been put in place for the resident companies at The Tobin is promising, coordinating grant writing staffs, marketing and ticket sales. The idea of a firm business plan in addition to heart, hard work and talent can bear the seeds of long-term success. Or it can crumble. It has happened before.
In addition to “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Picker has programmed Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which runs in January, starring American soprano Patricia Racette in the title role, and a double bill of the Italian comic opera “Il segreto di Susanna” by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and the French tragic opera “La voix humaine“ by Francis Poulenc, which runs in March, featuring Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci in both lead roles. For more information about upcoming performances and ticket sales, visit the Opera San Antonio website.
*Featured/top image: Fantastic Mr. Fox (John Brancy) makes a deal with Rita the Rat (Tynan Davis) as Burrowing Mole (Jonathan Blalock) and Badger the Miner (John Dooley) look on. Photo by Karen Almond.