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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
TREE SITTER: Adina (Khori Dastoor) surveys old San Jose in 'The Elixir of Love.'

San Jose's Potion

Opera San José's 'Elixir of Love' updates Donizetti to Valley of Heart's Delight era'

By Michael S. Gant

PITY POOR Gen. Henry Morris Naglee, who led a brigade in the Civil War, studied viticulture in Europe and grew grapes near downtown San Jose. He was also a man of strong urges. When he curtly terminated his steamy epistolary affair with one Mary Schell, she retaliated, in 1865, by publishing his love letters for all to peruse and to feign shock at his ardor. "Gen. Naglee was a real lady killer and quite full of himself," explains Larry Hancock, general manager of Opera San José. Naglee's tabloid fame made him a perfect choice, right down to the florid muttonchops, for a local version of the conniving Sgt. Belcore character in The Elixir of Love. For its latest production, Opera San José has moved Donizetti's popular comic tale from 1830s Italy to late-1890s San Jose.

"It was my fault," Hancock says, feigning modest guilt at time-travel idea. In his defense, radical changes are commonly rung on Elixir: "I saw a production about 20 years ago that was set in Texas, and I thought it was a charming idea." Hancock, hoping to give audiences an immediately recognizable hook, started reading histories of this area from the days when it was proclaimed the Valley of the Heart's Delight. As Hancock notes, the Italian wine-growing regions of Donizetti's tale aren't all that different from California's.

In addition to the Naglee/Belcore connection, Opera San José has transformed "sweet" heroine Adina into an O'Brien, as in the O'Brien's Candy Store, a replica of which can be seen at History San José. Nemorino, whose clumsy attempts to woo Adina propel the plot, is "working on Coleman Younger Ranch, so he's a cowpoke," Hancock says. "Adina's sidekick is a Peralta, so we can go back to the Spanish times," he adds, referring to the family that built the Peralta Adobe in San Jose and worked the Rancho San Antonio land grant. Dulcamara, who passes off a bottle of wine as a love potion to Nemorino, will become a traveling wine merchant named Mirassou. "We had to call Gallo, which owns the name, for permission," Hancock explains.

Hancock passed the brainstorming baton to director Dianna Schuster. Although she now takes care of the business side of things for Pocket Opera in San Francisco, Schuster knows the way to, and around, San Jose, having served as the artistic director for American Musical Theatre from 1979 to 2002. Schuster picks up the thread: "Larry Hancock called me and said, 'Dianna, I have this crazed idea.' It sounded like a fun way to go, and I agreed immediately. It's always appealing when you're able to set something in your own community about a hundred years back." Schuster worked with Opera San José designers, poring over century-old materials in the California Room at the main library.

The action is set on a market day around harvest time in Market Street Park, which we know today as Plaza de César Chávez. "We were able to use some of the city's markers in the scenic design," Schuster says. "We will have the light tower," meaning, of course, the famous beacon erected in 1881 at Santa Clara and Market streets, that announced San Jose's early electrification. "It will light up and do some tricks for us," she promises. "St. Joseph's will be quite visible," Schuster continues, "and you'll see parts of the old post office," which now serves as the entrance to the San Jose Museum of Art. "The whole thing has a kind of festival environment and feel to it."

THE ELIXIR OF LOVE, an Opera San José production, plays Nov. 8, 13, 15, 18 and 21 at 8pm and Nov. 9, 16 and 23 at 3pm at the California Theatre in San Jose. Tickets are $69–$91. (408.437.4450)

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