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Open Aria

Claire der Torossian
Robert Scheer

Next Stage of Life: Bay Shore Lyric Opera head honcho Claire der Torossian renovated the old Capitola Theatre into the perfect setting for Friday and Sunday's performances of Puccini's "La Boheme."

Carrying a torch for the performing arts, the Der Torossian impresarios bring more than a night at the opera to Capitola Village

By Christina Waters

IT TOOK GIACOMO PUCCINI three tries to get it right. But when the Italian composer finally did break into the international big time in 1896, it was with an opera so sensuous, so melodic and so overflowing with romance that it is still considered the paradigm of the term "operatic." The opera, of course, is La Bohème, and a new production opens this Friday at the Bay Shore Lyric Opera Company in downtown Capitola.

A tale of love and heartbreak, sung in Italian, suddenly flowering in our own Mediterranean climate--that all makes sense. But opera? Isn't it all much too complicated and overwrought for audiences more at home with MTV and digital scenarios? Isn't opera that boring stuff that no one can understand and it goes on forever?

No, indeedy. Because the beauty of Puccini is that he wasn't Richard Wagner. No wailing matrons in oversized metal corsets carrying on inscrutably for hours and hours.

This is opera at its most accessible. Puccini believed that in the case of big human emotions, like love, more was better. And he pitched his point with melodies so defiantly, relentlessly gorgeous that (for better or worse) they are among the most recognized--and borrowed--compositions on the planet. You'd have to have been raised underwater not to be able to hum along with the tragic climax from the maestro's Madame Butterfly, and even schoolchildren in Boise recognize the yearning, burning aria "Nessun Dorma!" (the aria that made Pavarotti a very rich tenor) from another Puccini hit, Turandot. Point being, Puccini knew his way around powerful melody lines and backed them up with plenty of lush orchestral accompaniment. Puccini operas are like big, curvaceous swimming pools--once you dive in, you're immersed, bathing in glorious sound.

Studying with Puccini

CLAIRE DER TOROSSIAN knew all this even before she and husband Papken purchased the recently orphaned Capitola Theater and began transforming it from vintage movie theater into intimate performing arts stage. She knew this partly from her many years working with opera in Santa Clara County, and from being proud mother to soprano Jennifer Der Torossian, who stars in the upcoming production of La Bohème as doomed heroine Mimi.

The selection of Puccini's beloved opera as the new company's debut vehicle was also influenced by the guiding genius of artistic director Salvatore D'Aura, who, as a young tenor many years ago, studied with none other than Giacomo Puccini himself.

"We chose La Bohème because our artistic director worked with Puccini for three years, back when the professor was a young man," explains Claire Der Torossian, putting down her paintbrush. In the midst of finishing a set for the show, she's happy to take a break and show off the new theater.

Bay Shore Lyric Opera players
Robert Scheer

Reacher's Pet: Bay Shore Lyric Opera players (back row from left) Timothy Power, Daniel Morris, Andrew Brumana, Delmar McComb, Jennifer der Terossian, (front) Sandra Rubalcava and Micah Freedman ham it up in preparation for the opening of "La Boheme."

"Originally it was a 476-seat movie theater," she says, striding down the central aisle of an intimate space that might be at home in any metropolitan theater district. "It was the acoustics that really turned me on to its potential," she says, freely acknowledging that it will take a combination of opera company productions as well as rentals to other community shows to make the venture work.

"We'll have a 26-piece orchestra," Der Torossian smiles, pointing to the space where several rows of seats were removed. Behind the "pit," a thrust stage now occupies the spot where the movie screen used to show first-run flicks decade after decade.

Tempt a Wider Crowd

AS WE PEEK into the former projection booth, now serving as dressing rooms, Der Torossian emphasizes that D'Aura's personal knowledge of Puccini's intentions will give this opera production complete authenticity. "And even if you're not fluent in the language," she laughs, "you will immediately understand what's going on." (The Capitola company will sing La Bohéme in French, rather than the original Italian.)

Puccini saw to that himself by giving us a first act offering not only cascades of melody powered by liquid-voweled lyrics, but an astonishingly clever series of close romantic encounters. La Bohème is set in the Latin Quarter of Paris around mid-19th century. Yes, that is the same Latin Quarter that was home to starving artists, poets, philosophers and women of questionable repute--hence the name, La Bohème.

In Act 1, Rodolfo, starving poet/tenor, meets Mimi, beauty/soprano. They talk, they sing, they flirt, they fall hopelessly in love to 12 minutes of nonstop, chew-the-scenery, breathtaking music. In Act 2, we get Musetta's famous waltz, in which a girl-about-town moans about her love for the painter/baritone Marcello. In Act 3, Mimi and Rodolfo tearfully part. In Act 4, there's some stunning singing by the guys, and then Mimi dies.

Huge emotions and huge music, all in a small theater empowered by the magic of make-believe. This is the sort of opera Bay Shore Lyric founders hope will tempt a wide audience. "Opera is just not something for the high-minded," Der Torossian says, cheerfully acknowledging her personal role as "executive director, custodian, set designer, sometime pianist if they're desperate enough."

Waving her hand in the direction of an expensive computerized dimmer board, which will control the lighting changes for the upcoming production, Der Torossian is every inch a woman with a mission. "I told my husband when I saw that the theater was available, 'This is the perfect place.' There are galleries, shops, restaurants--the one thing still missing was a performing arts theater. We complete a circle here," she grins, retrieving her paintbrush.

On the way out, I briefly meet the young soprano who will love, sing and die to the sumptuous melodies of Puccini. It's true, I think to myself. Jennifer Der Torossian has a face we would follow to the grave.

All that's left now is to hear her sing.

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini is performed in Italian by Bay Shore Lyric Opera Company March 7 (8pm), March 9 (3pm), March 14 (8pm) and March 16 (3pm) at the Capitola Theater, 120 Monterey Ave., Capitola, 475-3518. Tickets ($15, no reserved seating) are available at Panache in the Capitola Mercantile.

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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