Longtime Omaha musician and conductor Hal France wants to give people something extra to chew on when it comes to arts events.
For the last few months, he has been moderating “Food for the Soul,” a new series for people who enjoy learning more about concerts, operas, theater shows and other programs.
France brings a long background in the arts to the sessions. He is the former artistic director of Opera Omaha and has been a guest conductor for opera companies across the country.
He did something similar to “Food for the Soul” as the executive director of Kaneko, an Omaha nonprofit that promotes creativity through education, lectures, exhibits and performances.
“I did this out of a need to make sense of what’s happening in the world,” he said. “Culture can be a source of sanity to help us understand ourselves. There’s a lot of confusion out there right now.”
For “Food for the Soul,” France chooses a coming performance or other event and creates a “menu” of information over three “courses”: In the first, he helps patrons discover what the program is about; in the second, he interviews someone who is involved in the event; and in the third, people actually experience the performance.
So far, menus have included two Omaha Symphony concerts featuring works by Leonard Bernstein, Maurice Ravel and Jules Massenet.
Last week, he embarked on a new menu: “Indecent,” which opened Thursday at the Blue Barn Theatre. Paula Vogel’s play, winner of two Tony Awards in 2017, is about the controversy surrounding a real-life play, “God of Vengeance” by Sholem Asch, which was produced on Broadway in 1923. Asch’s script was so provocative that the cast was arrested on obscenity charges.
“Each menu covers a masterpiece,” France said.
Course one for “Indecent” took place last Tuesday at the Omaha Conservatory of Music. That night, France helped the audience get to know the piece, which details a lesbian relationship between two actresses who have a similar relationship in Asch’s play. A critic from the Washington Post says “Indecent” is an “eloquent account of art happening against all odds.”
The second part of the “Indecent” menu in France’s series will be an in-depth interview with director Susan Clement Toberer at noon Tuesday. Violinist Olga Smola, who’s in the play, also will perform. That day, real food will also be on the menu, from students in the Institute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College. Tickets are still available.
If you missed the first course, the second still will be valuable, both France and Toberer said.
“You can order a la carte,” France joked, but added that he will provide context for newcomers on Tuesday.
Sign up for the Go newsletter
This complete guide of local music, movies, dining and entertainment will have you weekend ready.
Music is a big part of the play — three musicians are part of the cast. France was intrigued by the play’s plot and themes, and the musical aspects made it even more interesting.
He saw it at the Victory Garden Theater in Chicago.
“I was blown away by it,” he said.
He helped Toberer cast musicians — Smola, accordionist Kate Williams and clarinetist Sam Bertino — and found himself helping with musical rehearsals. The show has songs by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, who were in the original production. It also features several Jewish folk songs and historic songs, such as “Bei Mir Bis du Schön,” made popular by the Andrews Sisters.
“Indecent,” France said, “has a substantial amount of music for a play. It’s a few steps shy of being a musical.”
Toberer said the musicians are an integral part of the show, and she’s been impressed with each of them.
Bertino, for example, “is game to try anything,” she said.
At first, he wanted to stay in the same place onstage, but when she asked him to walk across the stage while playing, he was game, Toberer said.
“Then I said, ‘Can you do this laying down?’ ” she said, and he did.
After “Indecent,” there’s one more “Food for the Soul” session this arts season. It will examine “Faust,” an opera by Charles Gounod that’s part of Opera Omaha’s upcoming ONE Festival. The first course, discovery, is April 1, followed by the second on April 2 and the performance on April 12.
France hopes to continue the series next season.
“The idea is to enhance how people experience art,” he said.