Opera Santa Barbara at 30
From “Carmen” to Callas
and a hope beyond
By Josef Woodard | Photos by Zach Méndez
November 2, 2023
Carmen — and Carmen – burst into town in late September, with all his seductive cunning and lilting melodic charms. The tragic anti-heroine of Georges Bizet’s ever-popular opera, boldly embodied and performed here by mezzo-soprano Sarah Saturnino, serenaded two large halls of the Granada Theater, her toothy ulterior motives tucked in in the folds of his Spanish costume.
It was another opening night, another year of 30 now for Opera Santa Barbara (OSB), a courageous experiment that has become an institution in the local cultural landscape. And yet, it was not just an evening at the opera. On the one hand, it was the first large-scale season opening with two performances since COVID’s assault on the culture in 2020, and a further test for the business. Like many smaller urban opera companies in America, OSB faces a struggle for survival as the culture slowly returns to normal.
Is opera now too ingrained in Santa Barbara’s cultural soil and too important to fail? OSB has been led since 2017 by the charismatic and stubbornly committed artistic and general director Kostis Protopapas. He has shown himself adept at meeting with ingenuity the challenges of presenting opera – including new drive-in productions during lockdown and small, varied and adventurous projects last season – and coping with fiscal and demographic realities that surround the company.
In post-match analysis of OSB’s grand opening match in Granada, Protopapas states that “Carmen was a huge artistic success. We have been rewarded with ovations and cheers, showered with praise in the press and on social media, and letters of congratulations and gratitude from customers continue to flow in.
On the other hand, “the post-Carmen the financial reality is grim. Despite appearances and an enthusiastic response to the Granada, audience and box office figures were disappointing, bringing in less than half of the project’s half-million dollar budget (yes, the grand opera is an extremely expensive operation). Protopapas says: “Our current assessment is that although “going big” is within the reach of our artistic abilities, it was not such a good idea financially. Productions of this scale appear to be beyond what our community is prepared to support, and our future programming will reflect this.
Despite the grim reports, OSB’s story to date has been organizationally heroic since its launch by Marilyn Gilbert and Nathan Rundlett in 1994 and now has over 70 productions under its belt.
Although the main events of the current season continue in spring 2024, with the The Trovatore (April 9 and 11) and the company premiere of Héctor Armienta’s captivating opera in 2022 Zorro(April 19 and 21), key elements are integrated into the season. This December, at Center Stage Theater, the company will offer a family treat in the form of Xavier Montsalvatge’s chamber opera. El Gato con Botas .
And as it turns out, Carmenconstitutes a mature transition to the next stage of the current OSB season, La Divina: The art of Maria Callas a special tribute to Greek soprano Callas (née Kalogeropoulos), which will take place at the Lobero Theater on Friday, November 10 and, in a new feature for the company, at Bank of America
Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks, Sunday afternoon, November 12. Callas, one of the few opera singers of legendary status and described as a rare “known” celebrity in the history of opera, is being celebrated in this year of her centenary. .
Although Callas never appeared on stage as Carmen, her recordings of arias from the opera are legendary and beloved, as is quickly demonstrated by the fact that, of her top five arias on the official Spotify page, three are taken from Bizet’s opera.
As Protopapas explains, “the idea of The Divina was born when Helen Morales, Argyropoulos Chair of Hellenic Studies at UCSB, approached us to propose a collaboration to celebrate the Callas centennial.
ary, an event celebrated by opera companies around the world. UCSB planned to present a talk on Callas with London-based journalist, writer and opera scholar Helena Matheopoulos, and offered us financial support to create a show to complement this.
It is no coincidence that the homage arrives with a strong cross-connection to Greece, with Protopapas being a product of that country and a point of cultural pride. “Greeks are particularly devoted to their national heroes,” says Protopapas. “Callas embodied something essential of the Greek psyche and was deeply loved by the entire nation. The presence of a Greek artist in this celebration adds a great sense of occasion to an already very special event.
La Divina: The art of Maria Callashas as its featured singers artists with close ties to the company, soprano Jana McIntyre and soprano Eleni Calenos, whose kinship with the musical subject is particularly strong, given her own Greek heritage.
Calenos was in Florida last week, preparing to perform at the Orlando Opera Tosca— a role she memorably played in Santa Barbara — when we talked about the upcoming Callas tribute. “Maria Callas was sui generis– one of a kind,” says Calenos, “an extremely gifted artist and a very dedicated hard worker. She was a great technician and mastered her voice perfectly for as long as nature allowed. She wasn’t perfect, but she played all kinds of roles that she made like no one else can. She changed the standards of opera performance, making it more human and therefore more touching and real. Most Greek opera singers listen to it – especially when they begin their studies – and use it as a guide and example. She was and still is one of the most important cultural representatives of Greece.
“Looking back at her life, however, I wish she could have found more happiness and balance on a personal level, which is always a challenge in a career as successful as hers. Her life was unfortunately short ( she died in 1977 at the age of 53), but she left a rich legacy not only to Greece, but to the whole world with her recordings, becoming a legend. I “studied” her through recordings, books and documentaries, but how I wish I could have attended one of his live performances,” Calenos said.
For the next tribute, Calenos will draw inspiration from the list of “more lyrical” tunes from Callas’s repertoire, including Tosca , NormaAnd Otello . She adds that “even though people tell me that I remind them of Maria Callas – especially physically and as a Greek soprano – I feel that my voice is different. Callas was my guide during my first steps as a student, and he still is today for different reasons.
“Unconsciously, as a young singer, we tend to imitate our idol until we discover our own voice. As I get closer to my own voice, it still lives in me through her example as a singer, an artist and a person.
Reflecting on OSB, for which she has now appeared in a few leading roles, Calenos said, “Kostis Protopapas is heroically keeping the company alive and in a difficult time for the arts in general. What I find at OSB is a home away from home. I have a family feeling when I play here. A sense of care for the art form, care for each other as colleagues and people, and care for the community.
For its part, Protopapas works overtime to maintain the fires in these houses. After a nationwide search in 2015, he was given the position of Artistic Director, and two years later took on the responsibility of Managing Director. We can often see it — and, by extension, heard— in the pit as conductor in OSB productions, as he will be in The Divina.
When asked if it’s natural for him to manage his affairs on multiple levels, he admits: “It’s true that it’s in my nature to take responsibility and get things done, no matter what.” it’s necessary. I also have an insatiable interest in all aspects of our operations, which has developed over time from my passion for music and theater, and a vision of what leadership in arts.
“I take the word “General” in my title literally and believe that being involved in everything is the best way to serve Opera SB. This is of course particularly useful in a time when OSB cannot afford the luxury of a large staff or endless meetings. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a small but fearless team of overachievers who work and think like me, and achieve things that even teams twice my size don’t achieve. I am also grateful to have the trust, support and guidance of a highly engaged Board of Directors.
He is well aware of the fundamental imperatives, to be balanced with the art of creating an opera company mastering both preservation and a sense of adventure. As he puts it: “Our existence depends on people buying tickets and paying a price commensurate with the value they receive. Contrary to Hamiltonor Taylor Swift, even if you buy our most expensive ticket, you won’t have to take out a loan. Having vibrant live performing arts in our community requires a financial commitment from everyone who values them. Otherwise, we risk losing arts programming in Santa Barbara.
Cautious optimism remains his dominant position, but Protopapas realizes that “the future of small opera companies like ours is extremely precarious. Nothing should be taken for granted. We learn every day that companies are closing and suspending their programs. My vision is to create a sustainable business model for Opera Santa Barbara for the next 30 years and beyond, while producing extraordinary art.
“There is no doubt that our work will continue to be extraordinary. It will just be on a different scale.
For more information on Opera Santa Barbara and its upcoming programming, see operasb.org.