Intimate Opera

“Operetta is a lighter genre; it’s somewhat bubbly and occasionally frivolous and comedic in nature,” says Tom Oberjat, coordinator and tenor for the Solana Intimate Ensemble, an opera singing group. Eight members of the San Diego Opera Chorus formed the ensemble in July 2005. Now the group of nearly a dozen singers performs “intimate concerts” (for around 100 people) each month at Galerie D’Art International in Solana Beach. “What we do is sing selections — mostly from various operas — and sometimes we’ll focus on a theme or a genre. The last genre was operetta. This month we’re doing a broad array of Puccini’s selections from almost all of his known operas, and in May we’re focusing on works of Mozart.”

In terms of training, mezzo-soprano and singing teacher Kathleen O’Brien says different genres share the same foundation. “I use an analogy of dancers,” she explains. “If they are jazz dancers, or ballroom dancers like on Dancing with the Stars, they take their ballet lessons every day of the week — ballet is the classical technique, and it is all grounded in classical technique. [Similarly], all singing is grounded in classical Italian vowels and breathing techniques.”

Though singers of different genres have the same foundation, O’Brien says some voices lend themselves to specific genres. “If I have a student who walks in the door, and they have a bright sound, I know immediately they’re going musical. Brightness, a brighter edge [to the voice], lends itself more to musical theater.” Some contemporary artists are producing albums on which they perform songs from a variety of genres. “Crossover is a real big thing right now,” says O’Brien. “A lot of your classical artists, like Renée Fleming, do musical theater and jazz types to have [a broader] appeal. In Renée’s case, where her voice is most beautiful is when she’s singing opera. Then take someone like Bernadette Peters — she was born to sing musical theater.”

“Voice tends to be dominant in opera,” says Oberjat. When it comes to musicals, either for film or stage, he says, “Voice is less important than the show aspect. In musical comedy, you want nice and pleasant voices, but you want people who are good looking and sound nice and really tickle your fancy. In opera you can get away with folks who are not that good looking, but they really have to have a first-rate voice because the music is extremely difficult and taxing. To get through a major opera role is a feat, like being a gymnast — there’s an increasing degree of difficulty as you move from musical to operetta to opera.”

The difference between a musical and operetta, Oberjat explains, can also be found in the voice. “People who do musical comedy may not be able to sing operetta or opera because their training can be substantially different from that of a classically trained opera singer. They use a lot of chest voice and tend to bark a little bit. Although you do get wonderful singers doing musical comedy as well, like Robert Goulet.”

The operetta genre is most often attributed to French composer Jacques Offenbach, who penned humorous pieces with more dialogue than traditional opera, such as Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). In Offenbach’s pieces, says O’Brien, there was “always dialogue, all the can cans, all the fun French pieces rooted in the Viennese tradition.” During the same time period, Franz Lehár, an Austrian composer, wrote The Merry Widow (1861), in which, O’Brien explains, “there was dialogue and a lot of dance.” This, and other operettas, “called for certain characters that would appear, like a high soprano who was very classically trained but had a certain lyric and bright quality to her voice.”

O’Brien says notable American composers — such as Victor Herbert, who wrote Babes in Toyland (1903) and Naughty Marietta (1910) — were born of the operetta tradition. “Eventually that evolved into the American theater, and then Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 1940s and ’50s.” The duo cowrote South Pacific and The Sound of Music, among many other American classics. Operettas, says O’Brien, embrace the fun parts of life. “In an operetta, no one is going to tragically die. Opera is usually much heavier — a lot of people die in opera. In operettas, you don’t get into the real tragedies, or if they approach them, they do so not in the serious way that opera would.”

When selecting pieces for a concert, O’Brien is mindful of the tempo that is created. “We generally try to balance a program. We wouldn’t want a soprano doing all the well-known arias from well-known operettas. We also try to find ensembles, trios, duets, or quartets. An audience needs an ‘Oh!’ — there’s that big huge moment — but then they need a quieter piece as contrast.”

— Barbarella

Solana Intimate Ensemble
performs Puccin
Sunday, April 27
5 p.m.
Galerie D’Art International
320 S. Cedros Avenue, Suite 500
Solana Beach
Cost: $20 reserved seat, $23 at the door
Info: 858-793-0316

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