SASO Musicians Present Highlights from 2015 Oaxaca Opera Festival

Twenty-five musicians from the Tucson-based Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra returned recently from Oaxaca, Mexico, where they performed in the Oaxaca Opera Festival for the third consecutive year.

The full orchestra will perform highlights of the festival on Sept. 15 in a special Mexican Independence Day concert featuring vocalists from the festival and Mariachi Sol Azteca. Sponsored by the Mexican Consulate in Tucson and the Instituto Cultural Mexicano de Tucson, the concert is free at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W Congress St.

The SASO musicians, together with several players from Oaxaca and one from Brazil, made up the Festival Orchestra. They were joined by about 100 singers in four performances of operas and operatic arias.

SASO Music Director Linus Lerner is artistic director of the festival and its co-founder with Maribel Sanchez of Oaxaca, general director. An internationally known vocal coach, Lerner auditioned and coached the singers who came from many parts of Mexico, plus Brazil and Italy. They were attracted by the opportunity of expert training and to perform opera with a live orchestra in the historic Teatro Macedonia Alcala, which opened in 1909. Lerner said. “The Teatro Alcala resembles a mix of Carnegie Hall of New York and Teatro La Scala of Milan.” Oaxaca is about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City.

The first two editions of the festival, in 2013 and 2014, featured concert performances of arias from many composers including Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Bizet and Puccini.

Cast of "The Marriage of Figaro" at the 2015 Oaxaca Opera Festival

Cast of “The Marriage of Figaro” at the 2015 Oaxaca Opera Festival

This year, the format of the festival was expanded to include fully staged performances of two operas—Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)—plus two concerts featuring a diverse range of opera arias. Both operas were sung in the original Italian, with surtitles in Spanish projected above the stage. In The Marriage of Figaro, an actor gave humorous commentary in Spanish at several points during the opera, making sure the audience followed the many twists and turns of the plot.

All four concerts were presented at no charge. This was possible because of generous contributions from Tucson supporters Dorothy Vanek, Irving Olson and Tim Secomb, as well as contributors in Oaxaca. The SASO musicians donated their services and the singers paid a small fee to participate.

Secomb, principal viola and personnel manager of SASO who has played in all three opera festivals in Oaxaca, said, “Before every event, crowds of concertgoers stretched down the street from the theater. The performances were given to capacity crowds and some people had to be turned away. Some farmers from surrounding villages were in the audience. Many had never experienced a classical opera performance before. Every performance received a warm and enthusiastic reception from the audience.”

Oaxaca has been officially designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an important cultural center in Mexico. Speaking to the audiences, Lerner proposed that Oaxaca should also become a center for opera in Mexico, a suggestion that obviously pleased the concertgoers.

Cast of "Gianni Schicchi" at the 2015 Oaxaca Opera Festival

Cast of “Gianni Schicchi” at the 2015 Oaxaca Opera Festival

Secomb said, “Both operas that we performed are masterpieces in their own ways. Gianni Schicchi has a single act and lasts just over an hour. It tells the story of a group of conniving relatives who pretend to grieve after an old man’s death—but who are really just after a piece of his wealth. It is full of dark humor. Puccini’s music is rich and colorful, vividly painting the moods and actions of the opera. Mozart was a genius as a composer, and that genius is particularly evident in his operas. The Marriage of Figaro is a wonderful piece of entertainment, as fresh and original as when it was written. The plot could be a modern soap opera, loaded with comedy and innuendo, yet with sensitive depictions of the main characters.”

Secomb added, “I think that the Oaxaca Opera Festival has a great future. It has so much going for it. There are many wonderful young singers in Mexico who are looking for opportunities to perform. We were constantly amazed by the strength and richness of their voices. This festival gives them a great opportunity to develop and to show off their talents. And Lerner is a natural opera conductor, with his deep understanding of the technique and art of singing, as well as orchestral conducting.

“In addition, Oaxaca is delightful and historic Spanish colonial city, famous for its historic central district, its outstanding cuisine, exceptional artisans and surrounding archeological sites such as Monte Albán. The people are relaxed and friendly. Oaxaca will be a wonderful destination for opera enthusiasts from anywhere in the world.

“Before we convened for rehearsals, I really wondered whether we were stretching too far with this year’s ambitious festival. Preparing four evenings worth of music is a very challenging task—and our rehearsal time was quite limited.

“An opera festival has a lot of moving parts. The musicians worked hard to get to Oaxaca and prepare our parts for all the performances. But many others worked equally hard, including the singers, vocal coaches, accompanists, stage directors and action coaches, surtitle presenters, lighting and scenery designers,” he said.

“Lerner provided amazing vision and leadership to make it all happen, and worked even harder than all the rest of us. With the foundation we’ve laid and the donors and audiences we’ve attracted, this festival really does have a great future.”

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SASO’s Story

The largest event SASO has produced was Berlioz Te Deum, presented at the Tucson Community Center Music Hall with the Tucson Civic Orchestra, Tucson Masterworks Chorale, Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and Pima College Singers.
Brazilian-born Linus Lerner, in his first year as music director, challenged the orchestra to learn his native Latin rhythms by playing Villa-Lobos. This proved surprisingly hard to do. We finally got it, but not until the week of the concert.
Our most famous alumnus is Rico Saccani, associate conductor of SASO our inaugural year and piano soloist for the second concert. He later conducted opera companies and orchestras around the world and was music director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 to 2005.
The visionary founders of SASO were Barbara and Bill Chinworth, Scott Bracher and Janet Lombard. Barbara has played with SASO through its entire history, originally in the horn section, now on bass.
Alan Schultz became music director in Year 2 and continued leading SASO for 15 seasons. He frequently conducted from the keyboard—organ or harpsichord. He also composed several works premiered by SASO.
The most colorful performance was a Halloween concert in Nogales—a ghoulish event where the conductor was a clown and all the musicians were in costume.
Adam Boyles was the music director for three seasons, bringing bountiful youthful energy and a passion to serve the music. Then the Tucson native moved East to brave the snow and conduct the orchestra at MIT in Boston.
Composer, pianist and conductor Warren Cohen served as music director for eight seasons, routinely commuting from his home in Phoenix, but one year all the way from Hawaii. His wife, coloratura Carolyn Whitacre, was a favorite soloist.
In December 1995 SASO was the first to present a concert at SaddleBrooke. This was the brainstorm of concertmaster Sam Kreiling. The concert sold out, as did a four-concert series the following year. SASO has performed there ever since.
Turkish maestro Orhan Salliel, after guest-conducting SASO in the fall of 2012, wrote to us, "The time in Tucson I shared with you in SASO for me was so special. I felt the real love of music from the bottom of everyone's hearts. It was something I do not feel often—never, ever in the professional world anymore. Please keep it, save it, try to build everything from this power of love for music."
The first concert was Oct. 28, 1979, conducted by former University of Arizona music professor Henry Johnson, featuring Jonathan Kramer in a Boccherini cello concerto.
Early audiences had to be loyal followers of this itinerant orchestra, which performed all over the city, frequently in churches. In the 1980s SASO rented the Temple of Music and Art for a concert. The City of Tucson condemned the building the morning of the dress rehearsal and the concert was canceled.
SaddleBrooke is home to many of our loyal donors and the place where we’ve held our gala celebrations—first a black-tie dinner with music from "Phantom of the Opera" and later our annual StarStruck Gala evenings from 2008 through 2013.
One spring SASO proved it has animal attraction. When it played at the Reid Park Zoo, some of the critters sang along with the music