Married couple Sam, in his all-blue office, and Dinah, in her all-pink kitchen, in Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti” at the Music Academy of the West’s OperaFest. (Phil Channing photo)

Bold programming and innovative staging from director James Darrah set a triumphant new precedent at the Music Academy of the West’s OperaFest on Saturday.

What normally would be a series of opera vignettes performed in Hahn Hall, this year started with an all-out “Campus Takeover” of works exclusively from 20th- and 21st-century composers.

Audience members convened in Hahn but were split into roving groups that traversed the campus to enjoy several of six works in a variety of beautiful indoor and outdoor spaces.

The five pieces I saw made me wish there were another opportunity to see the rest, and to enjoy different versions of the ones I did see.

For instance, in a duet of sopranos with an electronic children’s chorus in Ellen Reid’s “Floats the Roving Nebula” (2015), alternating audience groups saw one of the two vocalists perform the lead role and the other sing second.

It was a fascinating and evocative work, set in Holden Garden, aka “The Pond,” with a single child’s voice projected from each of eight speakers set around the audience. That means that depending on where you were sitting, you’d have a different experience of the instrumentation and vocals.

Reid, who had been in residence at MAW all week, said the work was designed to make the electronic components feel more human.

The two live vocalists, as did the singers in all of the vignettes, wore all white.

One was bound by four tulle ribbons from each wrist that stretched to trees on either side of the garden. In a beautiful transfer of energy, the two switched places by the end of the work.

Walking between vignettes among the lotus-filled pond, theater, ballroom and chamber music spaces, we encountered other audience groups on their journeys, artists in character “backstage” and the rich scent of jasmine.

Jonathan Dove’s “L’Altra Euridice” (2001) featured a solo baritone in English, and a narrative of conflict between the underworld and those of us who live above the surface. I followed an audience member who pushed a walker and said, “You’d need to smoke a lot of pot to get that one.”


A jazz vocal trio provides commentary during “Trouble in Tahiti.” (Phil Channing photo)

While I disagreed on the need for drugs, it was metaphorical and emotive material, refreshingly outside the mainstream opera canon.

An excerpt from “L’Amour de Loin” (2000), a work in French by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho about longing for love that transcends the material was paired with an uplifting love duet full of surrender and vulnerability in Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves” (2016).

Mazzoli’s “Proving Up” (2018) was the closest we came to an ensemble cast performance with five singers. A pioneer family portrayed the painful experience of Nebraska homesteaders: Pa, who “works hard and drinks harder”; “two dead daughters,” who appear posthumously in the piece; and Ma, who shakes out laundry and tries to protect her only remaining child, a son. The mood was dark, but the music and venue transcended hardship with ample beauty.

The second half of the program, with the entire audience reassembled in Hahn Hall, was Leonard Bernstein’s midcentury deconstruction of the American Dream, “Trouble in Tahiti” (1952).

The stage held a white-dinner-jacketed big band orchestra, a chipper jazz vocal trio providing commentary, and married couple Sam and Dinah in either her all-pink kitchen or his all-blue office.

One audience member said afterward, “It sure wasn’t West Side Story.”

On the contrary, the short work contained the incisive social commentary, uniquely American ambiance — in this case jazz, colorful sets and cultural dream state — and pointed wit that mark the composer’s more popular work.

With so many superb musicians on the program, space doesn’t permit comment on individual achievements, but the Music Academy fellows’ clear, bright performances all allowed the work to hold center stage.

Click here for more information about other MAW summer performances, or call 805.969.8787.

Noozhawk contributor and local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. She can be reached at news@noozhawk.com. The opinions expressed are her own.