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La Vie Bohème

[whitespace] Jennifer Der Torossian Bohemian Rhapsody: Soprano Jennifer Der Torossian reprises her role as Mimi in Bay Shore Lyric Opera's 'La Bohème.'

A local girl makes good in Bay Shore Lyric Opera's 'La Bohème'

By Michael J. Vaughn

WHEN CAPITOLA'S Bay Shore Lyric Opera brings Puccini's La Bohème to Saratoga's Mountain Winery this weekend, it will have on its side a whole string of historical connections. The tale of Parisian artists will be presented at the home of one of California's most famed Frenchmen (Paul Masson), in an arts program founded by San Francisco's most opera-mad mayor (Villa Montalvo founder James D. Phelan), under the direction of a man who once worked with Puccini himself, Maestro Salvatore D'Aura.

A fourth connection is the singer playing the role of Mimi, Jennifer Der Torossian, a startlingly talented soprano who has lived for a quarter century virtually in the Mountain Winery's backyard. On a mild summer morning, Der Torossian stands on the back deck of her family's home, pointing out the grass-covered hill that serves as the winery's parking lot, and recalls childhood horse rides when she would pluck fruit right off the trees--and, yes, even snitch a few of Monsieur Masson's grapes.

"You can hear the concerts from here," she says. "It used to be louder, but someone complained and they turned it down. On foggy nights, you can hear it better. Performing there gives me this false sense of relaxation. You think, 'Oh, it's right here'--but in a very highly publicized, very famous place. It's very odd."

It was 1996 when Der Torossian's parents, Silicon Valley Group CEO Papken Der Torossian and his arts activist wife, Claire, purchased a former movie house in Capitola and founded Bay Shore Lyric Opera. The company opened with La Bohème in March 1997 and immediately sold out all of its shows; the show was revived in October 1998 just to satisfy the demand. As with many young companies, the production values have often been spare but the singing--under the tutelage of 94-year-old bel canto traditionalist D'Aura--has often been superb.

For Jennifer Der Torossian, an unsettling aspect of the venture has been attacks of the "rich daddy buys daughter her own opera" variety. One singer even took the liberty of trashing her singing on his website--without actually attending a performance.

"I don't think it's unusual for someone to have that kind of professional jealousy," Der Torossian says. "But in singing it's more personal--it's like telling someone they're ugly. Your singing voice has been with you for 15 to 20 years. It's an attachment, like your eyes or your hair."

If her talent weren't enough to refute the rumors--she will appear this October as a winner of New York City's vaunted Puccini Competition--her backstage efforts would certainly turn the tide. In addition to scouting talent and handling the company's books and contracts, Der Torossian indulges in a DeNiro-esque streak of method acting, creating all four of her outfits for La Bohème to get a better feeling for Mimi, who works as a seamstress.

If any further vindication were required, it came this spring when Villa Montalvo programmer Bruce Labadie saw Bay Shore's production of La Traviata and immediately booked the company for the 1,700-seat Mountain Winery. Labadie pointed to the quality of Bay Shore's production, as well as its solid Silicon Valley membership base and Montalvo's well-established opera following, a result of a longtime association with San Francisco's Merola Opera Program.

As for Der Torossian, her appearance at the Puccini Competition and her association with former Metropolitan diva Licia Albanese may yet lead to the major-house career she has been seeking. Regardless, Bay Shore will continue producing operas. If the company were just a means to an end, she says, she could just as easily have gone the route of popular opera singers like Cecilia Bartoli and Andrea Bocelli.

"We sit down and think about these things," she says. "And we say if we really wanted to buy me a career, we could sink half a million into an agent and a marketing guy, and I could be in a major house today. But then look at what we've done for Capitola! There's so much joy in bringing something like that to an area that didn't have it before."

Bay Shore Lyric Opera performs 'La Bohème' at the Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga, Saturday, Aug. 21, at 8pm and Sunday, Aug. 22, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $28-$38, plus $5 parking. 408.961.5858.

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From the August 19-25, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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