Anchorage Opera makes big plans

Mike Dunham

Anchorage Opera's new executive director, Kevin Patterson, isn't hogging credit for the company's upcoming "Tosca."

"I kind of inherited the cast," he said.

But the adoptive parent of the production -- and the season, for that matter -- is bullish on both the show and the future of the organization. He recently announced an ambitious fundraising campaign and will soon announce a no less ambitious 2013-14 season that will, he said, expand the number of productions and refocus the company on opera repertoire.

That repertoire will include some new work, like Victoria Bond's "Mrs. President," which had a surprisingly successful world premiere here last fall. And the monuments of operatic literature, like "Tosca."

Puccini's melodramatic hit, based on a French play that became a wildly successful vehicle for actress Sarah Bernhardt, revolves around a fatal clash of three intense wills. The title character (an opera soprano, go figure) is in love with a painter who has ties to the political opposition; the chief of police sees an opportunity to use their relationship to squeeze information from the painter and coerce sex from the soprano at the same time. It ends badly after two hours of music that is by turns intoxicatingly romantic and brutally edgy, and always precisely hewed to keep the emotional action roiling.

"It's convenient to say that Puccini was writing verismo," Patterson said, referring to a school of opera that emphasized real life over mythology or fictionalized history. "But I don't think so."

"Verismo gets hung with a moniker of violence and heated emotion," he explained. "But 'Tosca' is verismo in it's literary sense, meaning 'truth,' not 'realism.'"

To an extent unusual in opera, "Tosca" is about everyday people, Patterson said. "They make what they think are good situational decisions that turn out to be a disaster. It's like Puccini is saying, 'Look what can happen to your life in just one day.' "

"La Boheme" and "Madama Butterfly," the operas Puccini wrote just before and after "Tosca," are more popular, he noted, and generally guarantee full houses. "On the other hand, 'Tosca' rarely sells out. I think it makes people a little bit uncomfortable in ways that 'Boheme' and 'Butterfly' don't."

Of the three, it is the only one that tends to get moved to different times and locales from what's specified in the libretto -- Rome in 1800 -- with much success. A previous Anchorage Opera production placed the action in Central America in the 1960s.

This time around, director Marc Astafan and set designer Anulfo Maldonado take no such liberties, Patterson said. "It's not a detailed historic replica," he said. "You could go broke just recreating Act Two. Instead, Anulfo is stripping the set down to what you need to get the story."

The cast will include Marie Plette in the title role, tenor Michael Hayes as her lover and bass Luis Lesdema as the villain. (Despite Patterson's quip about inheriting the cast, he acknowledged that Lesdema was brought in during his watch.)

Anchorage Opera is somewhat unique in its field, Patterson said. "We don't rent or recycle productions. Everything is new."

The remoteness of Alaska would make it difficult to swap shows and sets, a common practice in the Lower 48. But the same remoteness also creates an unusual synergy among arts groups, what Patterson calls the "arts ecology" of the community.

"When Alaska Dance Theatre did 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' our shop built the sets," he said. "We make the platforms for the Anchorage Symphony's pops performances, store the dance floor used by the Anchorage Concert Association. Cyrano's borrows props and costumes from us for their plays. When Perseverance Theatre is in town they use our offices."

Anchorage Opera has been in business for more than half a century, staging several memorable productions over the years, but often hanging on by the skin of its teeth in the boom-and-bust economic cycles of the city.

Patterson hopes to stabilize that situation. Last Tuesday the company announced a fundraising campaign that, if successful, will put $500,000 in its coffers.

"Max the Match" is fueled by a group of donors who have pledged to match donations up to $250,000, Patterson said. The money will go to pay off debts, replenish cash reserves and built up an endowment fund. The drive will kick off with the opening night of "Tosca" and, Patterson hopes, be completed by the start of next season.

That season will be announced on opening night. Details remain under wraps until then, but Patterson promises "more opportunities" for opera-goers with new collaborations and shows in other venues in addition to the company's usual stage in the Discovery Theatre. Plans also call for an increase in the number of lower-priced seats available at performances.

The company has sometimes turned to musicals, particularly in the past few years. "My Fair Lady" was scheduled for this spring but had to be pulled due to licensing issues. It will be replaced by "The Pirates of Penzance," which is in the public domain and, Patterson said, doesn't require expensive microphones or sound systems.

Musicals will not be part of the upcoming seasons, he stressed. "We need to return to our brand -- and that's opera."


Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.