Soaring voices drifted to the soaring ceilings of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels two nights last weekend, but it was not a church service. It was community opera: a combination of the powerful music of grand opera with the sweetness and fun of a school play. It was also the world premiere of “Jonah and the Whale,” a one-hour, single-act work, performed by more than 400 members of the arts community, some of them still in grade school. It was the eighth such program by Los Angeles Opera Off Grand.
These two performances drew two nearly sold out audiences that filled the 3,000-seat cathedral, many obviously friends and family members of the cast. The production was charming and the singing glorious. Matthew O’Neill as Jonah projected in strong tones the proper reluctance to leave Israel, where he was quite comfortable, to become a prophet in Assyria, an enemy nation. March 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Jonah and the Whale Dress Rehearsal LA Opera Education Department presents “Jonah and the Whale”. Photos taken in ‘Our Lady of the Angels’ cathedral, Los Angeles, CA, USA Mandatory Credit: Photo by Robert Millard (©) Copyright 2014 Robert Millard www.MillardPhotos.com
Despite urging from his mother (sung ably by Cassandra Zoe Velasco), and the fact that his former betrothed Sarah (an enthralling soprano, Hae Ji Chang) had been kidnapped and held in that country, Jonah flees in a ship bound for Spain, where he plans to begin a new life. An other-worldy storm at sea, however, leads the sailors to believe God was punishing Jonah for something, and despite the protestations of the captain (Valentin Aniken) they persuade him to jump to spare them. Most of us know what happens next: Jonah wakes up in the belly of a giant whale, but is allowed to escape when he sees the error of his ways and heads for Assyria.
The fanciful sets built around the altar were simple, yet clever, from the painted wooden waves that suggested the ocean, to the ribs inside the great whale. Dozens of children wearing full fish heads or costumes that transformed them into starfish and octopuses represented sea life. The triumph was the construction of a whale, done in pieces and carried around the stage and down the center aisle by human attendants, undulating perfectly, as a whale would.
The acoustics inside the cathedral were just fair: L.A. Opera’s Music Director James Conlon drew energy and vigor from the musicians who came from L.A. Opera, the Colburn School, Hamilton High School Academy of Music, and the Celebration Ringers of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena. The chorus — made up of the cathedral’s choir, Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley Children’s Choir, Sacred Heart School Choir and Schola Cantorum, Holy Family Childrens Concert Chorus and Filipino Chorale, and the Music Center Usher Choir — were tucked behind the stage, and seemed somewhat muffled; that was unfortunate since those singers represented the voice of God.
“Jonah and the Whale” was L.A. Opera’s first commissioned work for the Off Grand program. Composer Jack Perla and librettist Velina Hasu Houston delivered a gorgeous work that included songs to be sung by the Congregation (the audience) based in part on old American folk tunes. The direction by Eli Villanueva was spot-on.
Normally L.A. Opera productions are staged in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, which is on Grand Avenue downtown. The Off Grand events cover special performances in other venues, including the downtown cathedral. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance. “Opera was born in the church in medieval times,” Conlon told the audience on Saturday night. “Operas began as the theatrical realization of some of the passion plays and Bible stories.”
Opera has come a long way in developing as its own fine art, but Conlon wanted to return to its roots and open up the experience of beautiful music and engaging stories to families, as performers and audience. The first such production was Benjamin Britten’s “Noah’s Flood” in 2007, which was repeated several times over the last several years, in rotation with two other short operas.