San Diego Opera Prepares, Again, For Pandemic-Delayed West Coast Premiere Of ‘Aging Magician’


On the evening of March 8, 2020, local health authorities confirmed the first suspected case of COVID-19 in San Diego County. The next morning, the San Diego Opera became the first local arts organization to announce the cancellation of a major production due to what would become the global pandemic which may finally be coming to an end.

Today, two years and two months to the day after San Diego Opera’s originally scheduled production of “Aging Magician” was set for its local debut, the genre chamber opera will finally have its long-awaited premiere. for a long time on the west coast. It plays Friday and Saturday May 13 and 14 at the Balboa Theater in the Gaslamp Quarter.

David Bennett, general manager of the San Diego Opera, said he was happy that local audiences finally had the opportunity to experience the production.

“I was thrilled to bring ‘Aging Magician’ to San Diego two years ago, and I remain so today,” he said. “It is a unique work…beautiful, haunting, fascinating, charming and unlike anything our audience has seen before.”

The 2016 opera by composer Paola Prestini and librettist-performer Rinde Eckert is presented as part of the San Diego Opera’s Detour Series, which consists of more avant-garde and non-traditional works. The 90-minute piece – performed by Eckert, the 27-member Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Grammy-winning Attacca Quartet – blends song, choral music and singing, spoken text, puppetry and the artistry of performance as well as improvisational sounds on a giant handmade instrument. sculpture that fills most of the scene.

It’s the whimsical, fantastical, temporal story of a dying watchmaker-repairer who searches his memories and dreams to imagine a wise magician who must pass on his precious book of magical spells to a young protege before he dies. Eckert embodies the clockmaker-magician Harold, who travels between reality and fantasy, and the children represent the angels in Harold’s head who guide him and push him towards the afterlife.

Beth Morrison, whose production company Beth Morrison Projects is behind the piece, said she was grateful to the San Diego Opera for their continued commitment to the piece.

“‘Aging Magician’…is a balm for the wounds we’ve felt as a nation,” Morrison said. “I’ve admired the work San Diego Opera has done both pre-pandemic and during the pandemic with the outside-the-box lens they use to create and present work for our times.”

Actor-singer Rinde Eckert and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus perform “Aging Magician,” which will premiere on the West Coast May 13 at the Balboa Theater in San Diego.

(Jill Steinberg)

In a previous phone interview, Morrison said the play appeals to all ages because although it deals with the serious subject of death and dying, it involves child singer-actors who tease and guide Harold on his journey. to paradise.

“It’s very whimsical and joyful and also very deep,” said Morrison, whose company has pioneered contemporary American opera for the past 16 years. “It’s about legacy and wanting to leave behind something that will impact the world.”

Reviews for “Aging Magician” have been universally positive. At the opera’s world premiere six years ago, New York Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini described Prestini’s choral work as “ethereal, unfolding in long lines and lilting phrases.” Yet there are complex stretches of grouped chords that the choristers sing with precision.

“Aging Magician” is the result of an eight-year creative collaboration between Morrison, Prestini, Eckert, director Julian Crouch and instrument designer Mark Stewart. Prestini said she was proud of the piece because it’s the result of so many diverse creative voices working together as a team with the time and freedom to hone it to perfection.

“It’s always hard to put work into the world, so for this piece to hit a unanimous nerve was a big moment of validation for me,” Prestini said. “I was happy that people got to see a play where I was really involved in every aspect, from the drama to the unified team, and Beth (Morrison) and I have worked together for so long.”

Prestini, who was named an innovator on List of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year in 2016, she selected her “Aging Magician” team from a list of other New York artists who she says have inspired her the most, especially Eckert.

“I had seen Rinde perform in ‘And God Created Great Whales’ when I was a student at Juilliard 20 years ago,” she said. “I was so touched by his ability to be a composer, performer, improviser and actor all at the same time. This sense of multiplicity was something I struggled to grasp myself as an artist.

A scene from the chamber opera "Aging magician."

A scene from the chamber opera ‘Aging Magician,’ which the San Diego Opera presents at its May 13 West Coast premiere at the Balboa Theater.

(Jill Steinberg)

Prestini said she wanted to write a choral work for the accomplished Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and she was “devastated” by Brooklyn-based director-designer-puppeteer Crouch’s past design work in “Satyagraha” and “Akhenaton.” at the Metropolitan Opera. Its score is a 21-song cycle of solo and choral works interspersed with music for string quartet. Her favorite sections are the pieces she wrote for the esteemed invitation-only youth choir.

“The choir sometimes sings very complex chord clusters, but you can hear it because it’s so pure,” she said.

The original seed of the opera’s story was the short story “If the Aging Magician Should Start to Believe” by Brooklyn author Jonathan Safran Foer. In its earliest incarnation, the opera involved a dying magician contemplating his impending death while on a gondola ride on the River Styx. Dissatisfied with the libretto’s dramatic limitations, Eckert said he rewrote and expanded the story to make it more universal, more mysterious, and more elliptical. As librettist and star of the piece, he also personalizes it.

“I have an affinity for Harold, and I find there are a few things in there that relate to me,” Eckert said of his character. “My work has often revolved around a kind of isolated dreamer and a kind of marginalization. I’m always on the cutting edge of almost every genre. There is this notion of the right path and the boxes in which people want to put you. I could never stay in these boxes. Harold is also in this situation where he is supposed to be a clock repairer, but he is attracted by his passions which have no special place in this world.

In Eckert’s libretto, Harold is in a dreamlike state of transition between life and death as he recreates a favorite day from his childhood when he spent a blissful afternoon at Coney Island with his father. Harold’s father will suffer a fatal heart attack on the subway ride home that afternoon, so in Harold’s mind, Coney Island represents paradise. As he grows older, Harold’s sad profession of working with clocks becomes a metaphor for repetition, eternity and, ultimately, renewal.

The San Diego Opera Presents "aging magician" May 13 and 14 at the Balboa Theatre.

The San Diego Opera presents “Aging Magician” May 13-14 at the Balboa Theater.

(Jill Steinberg)

“There is a crisis that Harold faces for us. I think the reason it resonates with people is because they understand the deep metaphors and poetic gestalt of the piece,” Eckert said. “There is the sadness of the end of a life, but there is also the feeling of life being taken over by a younger, fresher self…the wonderful feeling that we are moving through our grief and finding a new life. .”

Once the score and libretto were put together, director Crouch brought a touch of whimsy and playfulness to the story with a concept that involves child choristers making shadow, hand and character puppets and moving up and around a set of bleacher-like steps that resemble the 19th-century operating theaters where medical students watched live operations.

The finishing touch was the giant instrument that Bang on a Can All-Stars co-founder Stewart made from found objects like bicycle wheels, zithers, hubcaps, cymbals and gears. which together look like a giant mechanical sculpture of Eckert’s face and hands. Eckert improvises on the giant instrument as Harold goes to death.

Morrison said she sees plays like “Aging Magician” as the future of American opera, and she said transformational companies like San Diego Opera are leading the way in producing these new works.

“Opera is a deeply difficult form,” Morrison said. “It’s so expensive. I think over time we will see fewer and fewer companies able to do the big “Aidas” or “Ring” cycles. What these smaller-scale pieces allow is for the audience to have an intimate experience with the performers. It’s so immediate. People find it very visceral, thrilling and exciting.

San Diego Opera: “Aging Magician”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday May 13. 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday May 14.

Or: Balboa Theater, 868 4th Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter

Tickets: 35$ and more

Call: (619) 533-7000

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