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Stephen Schwartz conjures up 'Séance on a Wet Afternoon'

The musical theater titan ventures far from Broadway but not from melody with his first opera.

September 20, 2009|Irene Lacher

SANTA BARBARA — The sky is a clear and light enamel blue, but inside the banquet hall of the El Montecito Presbyterian Church, a light drizzle falls. You can't see the actual drops, of course, because they exist in another realm -- the bountiful imagination of "Wicked" composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz.

Schwartz is one of the American musical theater's most successful composer-lyricists, and the scene is a rehearsal for his first opera, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon," which Opera Santa Barbara will unveil Saturday at the Granada Theatre for the first of three performances. Based on the 1964 British film starring Richard Attenborough and an Oscar-nominated Kim Stanley, the opera tells the story of an emotionally unstable medium who persuades her husband to kidnap a child so that she can become famous when she reveals the whereabouts of the girl and the ransom.

Things go terribly wrong in the story, but not in the El Montecito church hall, where soprano Lauren Flanigan, as the twisted medium, Myra, pretending she's a nurse in a hospital ward (actually her home), is singing wistfully to the kidnapped young girl.

Later, Flanigan, Schwartz's muse who's known for her flair for acting, talks about working with an opera composer who doesn't come from the world of classical music.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 27, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Stephen Schwartz: An article last Sunday said that composer Stephen Schwartz has won four Grammy Awards and received five Tony nominations. In fact, he has three Grammys and six Tony nominations.

"It's as if Leonard Bernstein were writing the opera," says the singer, who has also had music written for her by Philip Glass and William Bolcom. "If he were writing an opera, this is the kind of vernacular and vocabulary he would be completely immersed in."

It's a significant departure for Schwartz, 61, best known as the driving force behind such Broadway mega-hits as "Godspell" and "Pippin," and a three-time Oscar winner and four-time Grammy winner.

In fact, Schwartz is one of Broadway's most successful composer-lyricists -- only Jerry Herman has equaled his record for writing three shows ("Wicked," "Pippin" and "The Magic Show") that have each topped 1,500 performances. But despite his accomplishments, he has never won a Tony in his own backyard, even though he has received five nominations.

Not surprisingly, the West Coast feels right to him as a fitting place for his high-culture debut, a possibly sacrilegious foray into a largely rarefied realm of music.

"I just always have been better treated in Los Angeles," he says, seated at a huge dark-wood table in the church library. "I can't tell you why. Maybe it's my sensibility."

If Los Angeles is the fountainhead of pop culture and New York the mecca for high, heading west may indeed have been wise for his first daring crossover on the professional stage, because Schwartz's idea of what a contemporary opera should be diverges from the sensibility of many recent works. His goal is to entertain audiences, and he's borrowing conventions from the popular arenas of musical theater and film to do it. Schwartz and his producers know that may not sit well with classical music critics, who often bristle at any departure from contemporary music's intellectual purity of purpose.

"Classical music, in my personal opinion, went through a very bad phase through a lot of the 20th century, when the 12-tone [atonal] rule took effect," Schwartz says. "And if something was accessible to listeners or had some emotional content, then it was denigrated by the critics and orchestra conductors of the day.

"There was a long period of time where classical music lost a lot of audience because no one actually wanted to listen to it. There were, of course, exceptions, the Coplands, etc., and just in the last few years, my sense is that the minimalist composers -- Philip Glass and John Adams -- broke that mode, but it was hard. And now people are writing tunes again."

For the most part, opera companies program seasons with tuneful works, a seat-filling strategy that largely eliminates repeat performances of the 20th century pieces. But Schwartz's English-language opera may have more in common with its European predecessors, offering tunes that audience members may even find themselves humming as they leave the theater.

"I don't want to mislead people," he says. "The music for 'Seance' is certainly, I think, challenging in some ways. It's not just simplistic tunes. But definitely there are melodies in it that are at least intended to be memorable."

Far from serving as a handicap, Schwartz believes, his experience in musical theater enables him to bring a fresh, needed approach.

"I bring a certain skill set with me -- I hope it doesn't sound immodest to say it, but I believe it served me well: principally a dramaturgical and storytelling skill. I think many contemporary composers who undertake opera don't have the same level of experience in that regard.

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