Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Articles

Merola Opera World Premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's Opera, Hotel Casablanca

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for August 3, 2007

Richard Kagey, the stage director for the Merola Opera Program's upcoming world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's new opera, Hotel Casablanca, was hand-picked for the job by the composer himself. Nice distinction.

But then it seems that the same distinction also applies to the opera's conductor, Joseph Illick. All three of these creative gentlemen just finished working together on the critically acclaimed premiere of Pasatieri's Frau Margot for the Fort Worth Opera. During the last few weeks the trio has been applying its serendipitous chemistry toward guiding the nine-member cast of the Merola Opera Program's production of Hotel Casablanca, scheduled at 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday at Cowell Theater in San Francisco.

Tonight's production marks a milestone in Merola's illustrious 50-year history. It is the program's first world premiere — and what a choice: Not only is the name "Hotel Casablanca" rife with connotations of romance and drama, but its libretto is based on the riotous 19th-century French play, A Flea in her Ear, written by the La Belle Epoch master of wit and farce, Georges Feydeau. In Pasatieri's hands, however, the original Parisian bedroom farce, jollied up with mistaken identities and multiple misunderstandings, is transferred to a hot summer at the Double T Ranch in Texas in 1948, where a wealthy couple determines to "toughen up" their 25-year-old visiting nephew from New York. What in the Feydeau original was a disreputable Parisian hotel becomes the seedy Hotel Casablanca near the ranch in Pasatieri's version.

In the production, Maestro Illick will conduct nine singers and a 17-member chamber orchestra. The singers are selected members of the 2007 Merola Opera Training Program, which began June 4 and will culminate with the annual Merola Grand Finale Concert at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 18 at the San Francisco Opera House.

Leading the cast as Charles Carter, the bedeviled nephew, is tenor Andrew Bidlack from Chambersburg, Pa. Bidlack's previous operatic roles have included Rudolfo in La Boheme and Bastien in Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne. Uncle Tom Carter will be sung by bass-baritone Tom Corbeil of San Diego; Auntie Tallulah Carter by soprano Tamara Wapinsky from Pottsville, Pa.; and Burton the Butler by baritone Jason Plourde of Caribou, Maine. Other roles in this mildly racy romp will be Raul Perez, the bull breeder, by baritone Nathaniel Hackmann of Phoenix; Lucy Perez, Raul's wife, by mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy of Tralee, Ireland; Tobias, the Double T's manager, by bass Kenneth Kellogg of Washington, D.C.; Miss Pooder, the proprietor of Hotel Casablanca, by mezzo-soprano Meredith Woodend of Kissimmee, Fla.; and Veronique, a hotel employee, by soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine of Peoria, Ill.

According to director Kagey, composer-librettist Pasatieri, who was born in New York in 1945, is not only musically ingenious but verbally clever as well. He entered the Juilliard School at age 16 and went on to become the prestigious music school's first recipient of a doctorate. In addition to his 19 operas and many other compositions, Pasatieri is a highly acclaimed orchestrator-arranger. He's composed the scores for movies such as The Good German, The Road to Perdition, American Beauty, The Little Mermaid, The Shawshank Redemption, Fried Green Tomatoes, Legends of the Fall and Scent of a Woman.

Kagey not only has a gift for stage and set design but he is thoroughly adept at leading and directing young people. Tall, affable and ever ready with his warm, baritone laugh, he has a natural affinity for gracefully bringing the quirks and subtleties of human nature to the stage. Long associated with the academic world (the faculty of the University of Maryland, plus other schools), he has spent summers for more than 40 years directing young people with operatic aspirations at the Seagle Music Colony in the Schroon Lake area of upper New York. His most recent endeavor has been directing Pasatieri's Frau Margot with the Fort Worth Opera. Upcoming engagements include The Merry Widow at the Seagle Music Colony; Hotel Casablanca for the University of Kentucky; Cold Sassy Tree for Atlanta Opera; and Of Mice and Men for Fort Worth Opera. He also will direct the soon-to-open Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta. He and his wife, Betsy, an epidemiologist, make their home in Atlanta.

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