music in the park san jose

.West Edge Opera Presents Its Summer of the Supernovas

Berkeley opera company celebrates dazzling women

music in the park san jose

Cellist Jacqueline du Pré died at 42 of complications from multiple sclerosis. But during her brief, brilliant life, she was “a supernova,” said Marnie Breckenridge, the soprano who will portray her in West Edge Opera’s production of Jacqueline, Aug. 10, 16 and 18.  

Breckenridge has been involved in the opera since its inception. She had worked with composer Luna Pearl Woolf on a previous project, and was friends with librettist Royce Vavrek. When the idea arose to base a piece on du Pré’s story, centered around the structure of Elgar’s “Cello Concerto,” of which du Pré’s interpretation is considered a classic, she was eager to participate. Jacqueline premiered in 2020 at Toronto’s Tapestry Opera.

Starting with a series of workshops, which included cellist Matt Haimovitz, who had known and taken master classes with du Pré, the two-character result uses the concerto’s four-movement structure to illuminate the musician’s triumphs and tragedy. Haimovitz’s character is literally du Pré’s cello.

“The cello is her inner psyche and her lover,” said Breckenridge. Although the singer did a great deal of research on how MS affects the body, and this is portrayed in the opera, her performance is “not a caricature. But [Jacqueline] is talking about how it affects her.” 

Breckenridge was moved by a quote from du Pré in which she describes “thumping and bumping down the stairs,” and she is known to have commented that eventually, she had problems judging the weight of the bow on the cello’s strings as her fingertips became increasingly desensitized.

Yet she continued to perform for as long as she could. “She was the queen of glissando,” said Breckenridge, referring to the rapid glide from one pitch to another. Du Pré was also a gifted singer, she said, citing videos of her interpreting classical compositions. She was a powerful woman, who “straddled her Stradivarius when women were still playing sidesaddle,” according to Breckenridge.

Matt Haimovitz has been familiar with du Pré, her music and her story since he was a young boy beginning cello lessons. “I began listening to [her] LP, her first recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto. I wore out the vinyl,” he said. 

He and Woolf had been discussing collaborating on an opera, “a world outside of my usual sphere of instrumental music with no words,” he said. “She knew about my close relationship with Jackie and instinctively felt that her story, inspirational and ultimately tragic, was a natural for the operatic stage.” He and Woolf consulted du Pré’s close friend, Toby Perlman, as well as her husband, Daniel Barenboim. 

Haimovitz enjoys collaborations with Breckenridge. “Not only does she have a gorgeous voice and a big heart,” he said. “She listens and responds like an instrumentalist. It is rare to find that level of trust on stage and in rehearsal. Both of us are always seeking to delve more and more deeply into the work.”

Jacqueline, said Breckenridge, of course has tragic elements: the foreshortened life of someone so talented and inspirational. But it’s a “bittersweet triumphant story…her work stands up to today’s artists. She continues to live through it.”

Haimovitz writes in his liner notes for the recording of the piece: “This opera is personal on many levels. I am beyond grateful to be able to enter the world of Jacqueline, the opera, to keep the memory of this force of nature alive, but also to reflect on my own journey. As with my time listening to music with Jackie in her London apartment, the immersion into her story offers a moment of peace.” 

WEO general director Mark Streshinsky explained how the opera became part of this summer’s offerings. “I flew to Toronto in 2020, just before the pandemic, specifically to see Jacqueline,” he said. “The performance thrilled me…my hopes were far exceeded. I immediately knew I wanted to bring this piece to West Edge.”

Jacqueline is the final WEO presentation of the 2024 season’s rotation. But the two operas taking stage before it, and a special presentation that follows it, all feature women, some real, some fictional, who are truly entitled to be called supernovas. 

Season opener Bulrusher, based on Eisa Davis’ play, tells the story of a young girl who is found in a basket by a river in Northern California’s Anderson Valley, raised by a local schoolteacher—and has never seen anyone who looks like her until a Black woman from Alabama comes to town. (Aug. 3, 11 and 15)

There is perhaps no more iconic opera character than Wagner’s Brunnhilde, and she’s back in the second season offering, Legend of the Ring, which combines elements of all four epic operas into one “action-packed evening of divine music…back by popular demand,” WEO materials state. Can’t put out that fire! (Aug. 4, 9 and 17)

Finally, Dolores is the second complete-length opera to be commissioned and developed by West Edge Opera. (Bulrusher was the first.) Dolores was initially commissioned in 2021, and has been in development since then. A complete piano vocal workshop, which is not open to the general public, will be presented at the Scottish Rite Center in late August. The opera is scheduled for a full staging in the 2025 season.

Dolores illuminates a few weeks in the life of civil-rights legend Dolores Huerta, as she celebrates the candidacy of her friend and supporter, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and then mourns—and survives—the catastrophe of his assassination.

Said Streshinsky, “Dolores continues to evolve with the inclusion of director Octavio Cardenas, scenic designer Liliana Duque Piñeros and costume designer Ulises Alcala.” After the piano vocal workshop, “[composer Nicolas Lell Benavides] will have about nine months for anything that needs to be changed from the workshop and to finish the orchestrations, all in anticipation of the premiere in summer 2025.”

As is the WEO tradition, the season offers something for everyone, Streshinsky agreed. “We always think about varying interests and tastes when we program a season. My greatest wish is that someone who loves an opera like The Ring will dip their toes into a new opera like Bulrusher and discover they love it!” he said.

For the third year, WEO is back at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center, which continues to be upgraded for safety and comfort. WEO traditions that continue are Streshinsky’s pre-performance “Opera Talks,” and the ever-popular free wine pre-show and at intermission.

Opera-goer’s tip: Take advantage of the proximity of the Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill for a pre-supernova meal.

West Edge Opera Season 2025, Aug. 3-18, Oakland Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Dr., Oakland. 510.841.1903, www.westedgeopera.org.   

Janis Hashe
Janis Hashe regularly contributes to the East Bay Express and other Bay Area publications.

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