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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ensemble Parallèle's The Great Gatsby: A Newly Accessible Opera About Striving for the American Dream

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge Susannah Biller as Daisy Buchanan in Ensemble Parallèle's The Great Gatsby - RAPT
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  • Susannah Biller as Daisy Buchanan in Ensemble Parallèle's The Great Gatsby

Contrary to popular belief, the American dream is alive and well. Sure, we might abuse it now and then to move cars during the Super Bowl; but come hell or high water, our faith that hard work and determination leads to success is unflinching.

The American dream has been celebrated in many forms throughout the years, but probably none are more significant than F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby. The story represents the best of this country: the amours of a once working class, now-privileged man giving chase to a new, impossible dream.

What better way of capturing those irreverent days of social ascension and self-destruction than in a highfalutin art form like opera?

The twist, however, is that the people behind S.F.'s Ensemble Parallèle, who have been putting together contemporary chamber operas for new audiences since 1994, developed Gatsby for us schlubs.

This sophisticated chamber opera based on the literary masterpiece was originally performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The new Gatsby, reorchestrated by Bay Area composer Jacques Desjardins, marks its initial performance on the West Coast this weekend as the fourth major presentation by Ensemble Parallèle.

"A few years ago, [we] got the idea of reorchestrating the piece," says Brian Staufenbiel, stage director and production designer with Ensemble Parallèle. "We wanted to make it smaller so that more companies could come back to it later on."

Gatsby, however, is no small potato. Staufenbiel, who has staged EP's previous productions, has incorporated multidisciplinary elements to create new life within its legacy.

"I started the design about a year ago," he explains. "We worked very hard on trying to figure out a way to try to take such an important novel and bring it to the stage."

A major challenge in the process was in how to dispel expectations brought on by the novel's longstanding literary presence.

"It's complicated in the sense that so many people have a relationship with the book already," says Staufenbiel. "The question you ask yourself is: how do you tell this story in a way that allows people to let go of their preconceived notions and/or to observe the show with those preconceived notions?"

The result is an art deco-inspired, representational set. Staging is stark, but integrated with three layers of video projections that are intended to steer the audience into the piece without overwhelming or distracting with detail.

"The videos behind all these different sets, which are projected on scrim, bring the set to life," says Staufenbiel. "Every time you look at a window, there's a light outside or a bird flies by -- it creates life beyond the two-dimensional silhouette-style that we're [used to] using."

Gatsby is Ensemble Parallèle's most ambitious production to date. Its mixing of media, Staufenbiel says, aims to give new layers of meaning to characters, plot, and setting. This is where the company shines. In re-envisioning Gatsby theatrically, the production team captures the size, spectacle, and pomp of the era.

"I don't think we're using the video in a way that feels modern," he explains. "We're using it in a way that is subtle, that enhances the story, and helps bring us back to the 1920's."

Tom Segal, a period dance expert, has been recruited to choreograph the opera's larger party scenes to that end. With a bevy of professional dancers and a live onstage jazz band, EP explores the novel's greater themes of excess, consumption, and time.

"What we're doing differently," says Staufenbiel, "is we're creating intimacy ... I wanted to have intimacy in the smaller scenes [and] open everything up in the big parties. We have this wonderful contrast, [and] when you're going back in forth, from a big party to a small scene, I think you truly tell the story and it makes it more believable."

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Jessica Hilo

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