Gold rush opera? 'Fanciulla' shows how the West was sung

Scottish soprano Lee Bisset as lead character Minnie and Dinyar Vania as Dick Johnson in Opera Omaha's "La Fanciulla del West."


Some people might wonder how an opera by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini could be set during the American gold rush.

That's the case with "La Fanciulla del West," the next Opera Omaha production, opening Friday at the Orpheum Theater.

It's the story of Minnie, a female barkeep in an 1850s California mining town. She becomes a surrogate mom and sister to the men who have left their families to travel cross-country seeking fortune.

The show features rough miners, guns and lots of fights — and it's all sung in Italian.

Director Lillian Groag said that's easier to get your head around if you remember a 1960s film phenomenon: the spaghetti Western.

"Sergio Leone movies are all done in Italian," she said, referring to the iconic director who made Westerns such as "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" with Clint Eastwood. "It's no different than that."

Groag, based in Los Angeles, is in Omaha preparing for the opening. She has created other productions of "La Fanciulla" and says they're different everywhere she goes.

And — along with cast members and Opera Omaha officials — she thinks that Nebraska, sometimes called the gateway to the West, is a perfect place to present the show.

Puccini based "La Fanciulla" on David Belasco's wildly successful play "The Girl of the Golden West." The opera premiered in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. It has traditionally been one of Puccini's lesser-performed pieces — he's better known for such works as "La Boheme" and "Madama Butterfly" — and this is its Omaha premiere.

Opera Omaha General Manager Roger Weitz said he has wanted to offer "La Fanciulla" for a long time because of the community's interest in Western heritage. He found his opportunity when the Joslyn Art Museum announced plans for its current "Go West!" exhibit. Jack Becker, executive director and CEO of Joslyn, wanted to collaborate with other arts groups, so Weitz suggested that "Fanciulla" coincide with the Joslyn show. Several other groups joined in for "Westward O," a series of Western-themed arts events through this spring.

People here are more familiar with the Old West than people in, say, New York, Groag said. She first did "La Fanciulla" at the Glimmerglass Festival near Cooperstown, about 200 miles from New York City.

"We're trying to make 'Fanciulla' as authentic as possible," she said.

For example, she said, she and the cast are determined that characters must hold their guns correctly. Local chorus members who have gun experience have helped, she said.

So has Michael Mayes, who's from the town of Cut and Shoot, Texas, and plays the sheriff, said soprano Lee Bisset, who came here from Scotland to sing the lead role of Minnie. She had a little learning curve when it came to firearms.

"I was fooling around with a gun," she said, laughing, "and he looked at me with such contempt. 'I've never seen anyone hold a gun like that,' he told me."

Bisset, who arrived in Omaha about three weeks ago, said she's been busy with Google, studying everything she can about the Old West, the Gold Rush and Nebraska to assure that her portrayal is as real as possible. On a walk, she came across the snow-covered First National Bank sculptures of buffaloes and the pioneers.

"That was the starkest image of what they went through," she said of the people who traveled across plains and mountains to reach California. "It made me more aware than ever of the cultural difference between our nations."

The set, too, illustrates that desire for authenticity. Though abstract, it's built on an angle as if it were a mine in a mountain, with all the rough edges that entails.

Groag also added a Sheltie-black Labrador retriever mix to the mine scene to make it more real, though the dog is essentially a prop.

"That makes it all very human, to have a dog walking around and being doggy," she said. "He's not trained, he doesn't do tricks, he just walks around."

For years, Groag didn't like "Fanciulla." She thought it was too modern — it has some of the earliest jazz chords, she said. Her opinion changed at Glimmerglass in 2004, when a tightknit cast created an emotional production that made her really hear it for the first time.

She now finds "Fanciulla" irresistible and even adorable.

"Thank God I changed my mind," she said.

Weitz said many singers and conductors have told him "Fanciulla" is their favorite Puccini opera. It's a touching story of love and redemption as much as it is a rough-hewn tale of miners and mayhem, he said.

Groag promises that this version will be every bit as great for Omaha audiences — especially fight and kissing scenes. She directs her singer/actors to "go for it" to make those moments appear as real as possible. No namby-pamby pushing or shoving or what she calls "tent kissing," when the actors stand several inches apart.

"I want to get the audience so involved that they can go to a bar and argue about it until 2 in the morning," she said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1267, elizabeth.freeman@owh.com

LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST

What:Opera Omaha production

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where:Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St.

Tickets:$19 to $99

Information: ticketomaha.com or 402-345-0606

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