It’s been three years since the Long Beach Opera has secured a hit quite like the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Central Park Five” by Anthony Davis, but this weekend LBO will be opening its 2023 season with a new and highly anticipated opera that could reach a similar level of acclaim.
Coming from a composer known for creating clever, thought-provoking musical works from the unlikeliest of sources, the world premiere of “Romance of the Rose” will debut at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro Feb. 18, followed by showings on Feb. 19 and 25. The opera is an adaptation of the eponymous allegorical French love poem from the 13th century about love and reason and identity.
It tells the tale of a man who dreams he enters a high-walled garden, and in the same fountain Greek figure Narcissus drowned himself, the man sees a reflection of a beautiful rosebud and is engulfed with a desire to possess it. Nearly encyclopedic in scope, the Medieval poem aims to disclose the whole art of romantic love encompassed in some 22,000 lines of Old French couplets. It’s dense and convoluted and has long remained in the purview of literature scholars and critics—until composer Kate Soper came across the poem in 2011.
“It’s such a messy, complicated, infuriating, fascinating, boring book,” Soper said. “It’s just—there are so many strange things happening and so many vivid, but totally unreliable characters….and so that sort of seemed like such an operatic idea.”
It’s not the first time Soper has endeavored to create musical art from unusual source material. Her 2016 opera “Ipsa Dixit” is a witty, philosophical masterwork adapting texts into song from Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles and many other thinkers, which earned her spot as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017. Her 2012 album, “Voices from the Killing Jar,” staged with Long Beach Opera in 2021, dynamically explored the ways women are portrayed in literature, with female characters from works by Shakespeare, Flaubert and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others.
Notably within these works, critics have lauded Soper’s use of humor, described her work as both “brilliant and funny—a combination that is always in short supply,” wrote Alex Ross in a review for “Ispa Dixit” for the New Yorker. “Romance of the Rose” is likely to carry that same charm.
“I do tend to find things funny that maybe most people don’t, and then try to bring out the humor in a way that’s more accessible,” Soper said. “I do think that there are funny moments in this opera, at least I hope so.”
Soper said she began working on “Romance of the Rose” in earnest in 2017 in what would become her most complex work yet, with seven singers, a chamber ensemble and electronic instruments.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said. “My other operas and larger theatrical pieces—either I’m the only singer or there are a couple others…I haven’t done something like this where there are really specific characters in all these multi-dimensional musical ways.”
In the “Romance of the Rose,” the dreamer, performed by Lucas Steele, encounters a variety of allegorical characters that help or hinder him on his quest to attain the rose, a symbol of love. In a vibrant contrast to the text, Soper has written many of the allegorical characters in distinct musical styles and, as she frequently employs within her works, with electronic effects.
Lady Reason, performed by Anna Schubert, is written in the style of 18th-century tonal music and with the use of a vocoder. She chides the naïve dreamer with metallic-sounding logic.
The shrieking and wailing soprano of Shame, sung by Laurel Irene, is a swirling disruptor backed by distorted tones of electric guitar. And the coiling lines of the God of Love, performed by Phillip Bullock, are characterized with an intentionally tacky reverb and sensuous tones of clarinet and saxophone.
“And then what happens in the course of the opera, is they start to change, and they start to transform into each other” Soper explains, “which is something I was interested in exploring conceptually.”
In “Romance of the Rose,” audiences can also expect a conceptually striking set that upholds Long Beach Opera’s reputation for creative innovation and abstraction within the art form. LBO has reimagined the high-walled garden scene within the poem’s text to “feel like an ‘80s living room,” LBO’s Artistic Director James Darrah said, fit with stark white tiles from stage floor to ceiling, a sunken seating area and a bar.
“I joke that it looks like a lost (Stanley) Kubrick film,” Darrah said.
Potted plants dotted throughout the set are designed to emulate the garden effect, with more plants to appear during the show as they might in a dream, Darrah continued. Completing the set will be a special installation built into the audience that will be activated by performers throughout the show. Envisioned by scenic designer Prarie T. Trivuth, the installation continues the white-tile motif with a square pool featuring a 7-foot rose sculpture.
Placing the rose in the audience was both a creative means of symbolizing the challenge of attaining the coveted rose and a way to emphasize Soper’s intentional breaking of the fourth wall within the opera, Darrah said.
“I really wanted the audience to be immersed,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve worked on a premiere that has felt as unique as this one.”
Tickets for Romance of the Rose, with performances on Feb. 18, 29 and 25, are on sale now and range from $55-$165. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.