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Songs in His Heart

Centerpiece: Ventura County

Composer John Biggs premieres his first opera as part of college project.

August 06, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Opera has been a stranger in Ventura long enough that its sudden appearance in the area, twice in three months, makes you wonder: Is there a trend afoot? A conspiracy? Are there forces trying to make Ventura County safe for the cultural reality of opera?

In May, composer Miguel del Aguila's gonzo musical theater piece "Composer Missing," a chamber opera, was brought to life by the Ojai Camerata. This weekend, a different kind of comic operatic effort is being unveiled at Ventura College.

John Biggs, Ventura's prominent resident composer, has taken his first step in the direction of opera with the comic "Ernest Worthing," an ambitious reworking of Oscar Wilde's celebrated "The Importance of Being Earnest." He is undertaking the project with the encouragement and production help of Linda Ottsen, head of the year-old Ventura College Opera Workshop.

Much of the original dialogue remains in place, but is interspersed with Biggs' imaginative way with songs, mixing elements of Stephen Sondheim and Richard Strauss.

As heard in rehearsal, the effort pays off nicely. Teeming with savory tunes and ripe humor, this is opera of a light but not light-headed sort, for opera-philes and skeptics alike.

Last week, as eight weeks of rehearsal reached their peak, Biggs was understandably elated and a bit flummoxed. Putting together purely musical projects is one thing, a familiar process for a veteran composer like Biggs. Throw in elements of theater, and new headaches pop up.

"I'm really going to be glad to have my life back after this is over," he said, only half-joking. "I told my wife, Carol, I'll never be the music director of an opera again. I'd much rather just write, get the clean work out of my system, and then let somebody else direct it. Live and learn."

The composer, whose John Biggs Consort was a popular touring group years ago and who has worked extensively in vocal settings, has long wanted to make the plunge into operatic writing. This natural urge, though, was held at bay by the thorny logistics of the medium.

Among his potential subjects is a story about Tarzan, "but everybody laughs at that," Biggs said. "I want to write about a Tarzan who is over the hill. You've got Tarzan, Jane, Cheetah, Boy, lots of monkeys. I'd love to do it, inject some jungle music. It would be the antithesis of 'Ernest Worthing,' a manners opera."

Where did Biggs get the original impetus to rework Wilde's famous opus?

"The germ of it probably goes way back to my childhood, because my father studied composition in England and had a very keen British sense of humor," he said. "He himself had a very terse sense of humor and knew a lot of jokes common among British people in the second decade of the century. Those jokes got to me through osmosis."

Specifically, Biggs' project had its origin in the late '70s, when he lived in Fullerton. He wrote one scene, hoping to interest a resident conductor in developing a full production. It never happened, and the scene sat on the shelf for decades.

Fast forward to the late '90s, to a happy convergence of connections and desires, where Ottsen was the catalyst. A vocal teacher at Ventura College, she recalled Biggs from her days in graduate school: "He was very well-known, through his Consort, working through Columbia Artists Management. I remember them performing at the University of Illinois, where I went to school."

After moving to Ventura, Ottsen linked up with Biggs and collaborated on various projects, including the premiere of his half-hour "Mass for Our Time" in 1990.

"He's always talked about writing an opera," said Ottsen "It was going to be either Tarzan or something else. Carol highly discouraged the Tarzan idea."

Ottsen started the Opera Workshop at Ventura College last summer, and at her behest, Biggs dusted off his earlier work for a performance of opera scenes last August. It went smoothly enough that he was inspired to continue.

Then there was the nagging issue of finding the resources and assurance of a performance at the end of his creative toil. "I've never written in a void," said Biggs. "I'm lucky to say that. I'm not a composer to sit there and write things for exercise. I've always written for a performance."

He told Ottsen that if he could find someone to produce the opera, he would finish it, she explained between acts at a rehearsal last week. "I said, 'If this opera workshop takes off at the college, I promise I'll do it.' I really believe in promoting new works. He got to work on it and we realized that summer was a good time to do something here, because the facilities are at our disposal. We went for it. And here we are."

Biggs' desire to finish the project was also fueled by the inspiration of hearing singer Karen Sonnenschein in a production of Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." He called her up and secured her involvement, in the role of Lady Bracknell.

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