Two sparkling one-act operas are delivered by professionals

Ben wants to pop the question. Lucy can't get off the phone. Can this relationship be saved?

That's the premise of "The Telephone," a sweet, little, one-act opera written in 1947 by Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian-American composer who wanted to make opera accessible and thus expand its audience. He's best known for "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

If you go

What: "The Telephone" and "The Old Maid and the Thief"

Who: Brava! Opera Theater

When: 3 p.m. today

Where: Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent

Information: bravaopera.com or 541-261-5776

As performed by Brava! Opera Theater Friday night at Camelot Theatre in Talent, the thin tale has been given a contemporary twist. The instrument that occupies Lucy (Emma McNairy) is a smartphone, giving her a whole new menu of activities to avoid flesh-and-blood interactions: texting, tweeting, checking email, visiting Facebook. All while Ben (Jose Rubio) cools his heels.

Brava! was created in 2010 by Rogue Opera and San Francisco Conservatory veteran Willene Gunn, now its artistic director, and Lorrie Hall, now general director, with a gift from longtime arts and Camelot benefactor James M. Collier.

"The Telephone" and another Menotti opera, "The Old Maid and the Thief," directed by Gunn, with a five-piece orchestra conducted by Laurie Ann Hunter, will repeat at 3 p.m. today at Camelot (see bravaopera.com or call 541-261-5776).

Gunn has updated Menotti's telephone, a large, heavy object with a rotary dial, to today's computer in your pocket. A large screen upstage flashes projections of texts, iPhone icons, Facebook pages and the like corresponding to Lucy's lines.

Soprano McNairy and baritone Rubio are talented young singers making names for themselves. McNairy, who has performed with opera companies in Austin, Texas, the San Francisco Bay Area and Salzberg, Austria, is a beautiful young singer whose vibrant soprano easily fills the back of the room. Rubio has a big, sonorous voice and a commanding, leading-man stage presence.

"The Telephone" gives the singers quite a bit of range to work in for a brief (20 minutes) comic sketch, from impassioned statements sung to each other all the way to little conversational phrases set to bits of melodies (Lucy, to friend on the phone: "How is the pussycat, how is the dog?").

McNairy, a 2011 graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, made her international debut in 2011 as Temple Dancer in "Mae Naak" with Bangkok Opera in Thailand, a role she reprised in London. She was among the first Western singers to perform in Mandarin in China when she sang in Beijing with the China National Symphony Orchestra.

Rubio, a product of the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, won a Metropolitan Opera competition in Oregon and was the Portland Opera's Studio Artist from 2008 to 2010. He has sung principal roles with opera companies in Portland, Cincinnati, Tacoma, Wash., and elsewhere, and spent three summers in Italy with the Opera Festival of Luca.

Menotti's "The Old Maid and the Thief" followed "The Telephone." It's a 75-minute piece with more characters, more plot and more great singing. It deals with two-dimensional characters in stock situations, but Menotti was trying to hang his music and libretto on something amusing and accessible, not become the next Wagner.

In 1949, Miss Todd (mezzo soprano Beth Madsen Bradford, of Portland) is an old maid living in anytown, USA, where everybody knows everybody else, and the main pastime is gossip. Her maid, pretty young Laetitia (McNairy), doesn't want to end up like her employer, whose last romance was 40 years ago. Miss Pinkerton (soprano Ellie Holt-Murray, who has performed widely in the Rogue Valley and the Bay Area) frequently visits for tea. A gossip, she functions like the messengers in Shakespeare plays.

When a young vagrant named Bob (Rubio) shows up, the women are enthralled. What's your name? they ask.

Man: Bob.

Todd, Laetitia (singing): What a beautiful name!

And so on. When Miss Pinkerton informs Miss Todd that a dangerous thief and convict has been seen in the area, the pot begins to boil, and the focus turns to the increasingly absurd reactions of the women, even as Laetitia's escalating flirtatiousness and Bob's slovenly nonchalance thread their way through the action.

The singing is first-rate throughout, and the able five-piece orchestra is led by pianist Laurie Anne Hunter, the Brava! music director. Hunter is a product of The Juilliard School who was just the fourth woman ever to conduct the New York City Opera. After conducting widely in the U.S. and Canada, she came to Southern Oregon when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival brought her to Ashland as music director and pianist for the OSF's 2001 production of "Enter the Guardsman."

This is two bubbling hours of high-spirited music. It's leavened by Menotti's light-hearted wit, and the whole thing is delivered with sparkle by professionals.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.


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