There’s something funny going on at Wichita Grand Opera. Humor and hijinks collide with love and romance for an original production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” next weekend.
The comic opera will be performed at Salina’s Stiefel Theatre on Friday and at the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita on Saturday. Set locally in the present day, the performance is a lighthearted family drama centering on intergenerational skirmishes between memorable, humorous characters. Organizers say its debut is ideally timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day.
“I want people to see opera that is charming, loving, comedic, full of great music, and has lots of intrigue,” said Parvan Bakardiev, president and CEO of WGO, which also offered “Don Pasquale” as part of last year’s lineup. “This is a love story. This has all of the elements that you would want to take a date to for a night at the opera.”
Comedic production, colloquial setting
Bakardiev said that after the darkly themed and grandiose production of “Otello,” which was performed last month, he wanted a lighter focus. He hopes this opera buffa (operatic comedy) will bring in new audiences who don’t typically think of humor when they think about going to an opera.
“For people who are not necessarily opera lovers, this is for them,” he said. “This is fun. If you like musical theater, this is musical theater-plus because it has the oomph of a real orchestra and real singers.”
Bakardiev noted that veteran opera-goers will also enjoy the performance, in part because of its high-quality music and top-notch cast. He also noted that everyone likes a good laugh.
“People’s lives are so stressed with so many worries and challenges,” he said. “They need relief. We will give them a comedic relief with good music and a funny story. They like to be entertained, and while they are being entertained, we will bring them beauty. That’s what opera is all about. This is undying music that is hundreds of years old. It is one of the most performed comedic operas.”
The performance will be sung in English, using the translation by Phyllis Mead. Unlike the traditional performance, which takes place in 19th-century Rome, this will be set in modern-day Wichita. Familiar shopping centers such as Bradley Fair and landmark institutions such as Newman University will be dropped into the story to augment its humorous effect. William Powers, the stage director who also stars as the character Don Pasquale, said the adaptations allow the experience to be more accessible and enjoyable.
“What we have done in this show is brought it into a modern concept,” he said. “It’s the same feeling, but we put it in Wichita, in the present day, to make it more realistic and more relevant to today.”
Michael Nansel, who plays the role of Dr. Malatesta, said that incorporating local humor and jokes enhances the characterization of the show and helps draw audiences into the story. He noted that it’s not the driving force of the multi-layered show, though.
“I think it makes the production more accessible,” he said. “The heart is already there. Some shows can’t be taken out of their location because they are a historical piece or because the location is part of the story, but here you can.”
Another unique aspect of this show is that it’s a traveling production. Usually, Wichita Grand Opera stages its shows at Century II.
In addition to the performances in Salina’s Stiefel and Wichita’s Orpheum theaters next weekend, there will be a May 17 staging at the McPherson Opera House.
“We wanted to showcase the historical theaters that Kansas has,” Bakardiev said. “This will be the first ever opera for the Orpheum Theatre. This helps support their long-term goal to be an art center for ballet, opera, etc. The acoustics are terrific there, too. It’s really a venture out for us.”
Humorous tale, ageless themes
The story of the opera focuses on Don Pasquale, the aged, gregarious owner of the most popular Italian eatery in town, and his quixotic scheme to teach his nephew, Ernesto, a lesson about love and responsibility. Smitten by the financially strapped, vivacious Norina, a young widow from southwest Kansas who migrated to the city, Ernesto overlooks practicality in pursuit of true love.
“The Don” has other plans for him, though, and arranges someone whom he deems more suitable. When Ernesto rebuffs him, the Don retaliates by disinheriting him and decides to marry himself. Sensing trouble, Dr. Malatesta, a restaurant regular and close friend, takes matters into his own hands by choosing a bride for the family patriarch.
This turns out to be a trap, though, as the person referred to as his “budding flower of a sister” is actually Norina, disguised as Malatesta’s sibling, Sofronia. Upon their first meeting, Norina is meek and submissive. The two are quickly wed in a sham ceremony. Her personality quickly shifts as she sets out to make life as uncomfortable as possible for her new “husband,” spending freely, partying late into the night, bossing him around, and even slapping the Don when he gets out of line.
The plot eventually comes to a head, with Don Pasquale learning an important lesson about tyranny and control as love wins out in the end.
Nansel said that a central theme of the story is a classic battle of the ages. The play is, in part, a story about the nudge older generations give to their offspring when it’s time for them to step up, and the resistance they face when they realize their children have their own ideas about the future.
“It’s not that the Don is old; it’s that he has a pre-defined idea of what his nephew’s dreams should be,” Nansel said. “He wants his nephew to step up and grow as a person, mature as businessperson, not think foolishly, but have financial stability, etc. His nephew just wants to marry for love. The Don gets married to prove his point — he’ll get married and love has nothing to do with it. It’s a conflict between the ages.”
“It’s a story about love, pain and joy,” said Bakardiev. “In every love story, there is a certain intrigue. These elements go back and forth in the story. This is funny. This is lovable. This is charming. We have great actors to bring it to life.”
The cast for the production is smaller than other Wichita Grand Opera performances, with around 45 total members between lead characters and the chorus. In addition to Powers and Nansel, Dustin Peterson stars in the role of Ernesto, Sharin Apostolou plays Norina, and James McAdams is a notary. Ken Hakoda is making his debut with the company as the conductor.
Bakardiev praised the actors’ diverse talent and said their performances would make an already great story stand out. He’s particularly excited to have Powers at the helm, he said, both in the starring role and behind the scenes.
“He’s extremely intellectual and spirited,” Bakardiev said. “He’s perfect for the title role. He has a really great sense of humor.”
Powers said he is looking forward to performing on stage and helping shape the production as its director.
“It’s going to be a challenge in some ways, but I have done this particular show in six different productions, so I am very well acquainted with it,” he said. “Even though I will be on the stage, I can direct the action. We have a wonderful cast who are going to be great on stage.”