Hot Opera

Little Women, big sounds and more May music

Portland Opera mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn (pictured here in La Traviata) stars in Eugene Opera’s Little Women
Portland Opera mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn (pictured here in La Traviata) stars in Eugene Opera’s Little Women

Opera is hot in America these days. Despite the hidebound programming of most major opera companies endlessly recycling the tired old “top 10” 19th- and early 20th-century warhorses, today’s American composers are writing dozens of new operas — many based on American themes — and finding audiences both young and old.

One of the leading American opera voices, composer Mark Adamo, scored a hit in 1998 with his operatic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women, which Eugene Opera is staging May 14-15 at the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater.

His sometimes melancholy score (lush and lovely enough for a movie soundtrack, yet occasionally and appropriately spiced with modern harmonies) enticingly evokes the themes — love, envy, sibling conflict, disillusionment, poverty, the conflicts of adolescence, death, the inevitability of change and more — that make this ever-relevant story of young girls coming-of-age so much more than a kids’ story. With a cast of stalwart Oregon opera veterans (such as the excellent Portland Opera mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn and Eugene’s own sturdy baritone Sandy Naishtat to accomplished and emerging younger voices), it’s a fine, forward-looking finish to Eugene Opera’s season.

The Eugene Symphony has also been looking forward instead of merely resting on its considerable laurels during this 50th anniversary season, which concludes May 12 at the Hult with not only Beethoven’s ever-exhilarating Symphony No. 9, but also a brand-new piano concerto commissioned by the orchestra from one America’s finest composers, Eugene’s own Robert Kyr.

Kyr’s Dawning of the World, featuring his University of Oregon faculty colleague Alexandre Dossin, celebrates both Oregon’s natural beauty and the emergence of the kind of multicultural global-fusion music that Kyr himself helped pioneer over the course of his acclaimed career.

There’s more American orchestral music (by Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, Frank Ticheli and more) in the Eugene Symphonic Band’s May 16 concert at First Baptist Church (3550 Fox Meadow).

And Dossin joins other UO faculty colleagues in a showcase concert May 7 at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall featuring music by Brahms, Aram Khachaturian and a premiere by UO alumni Evan Paul.

Speaking of global music, the UO’s Future Music Oregon features Chinese electroacoustic music pioneer Xiaofu Zhang at the UO’s Thelma Schnitzer Hall May 14. Saxophone master Otis Murphy and pianist Haruko Murphy play American songbook standards by the great composer Jerome Kern and more May 16 at Beall.

Early music fans have a couple of treats this month. On May 7, Byrdsong Consort performs Baroque music from the British Isles, France, Italy and Germany on period instruments at Unitarian Universalist Church (1685 W. 13th Ave.).

On May 15, Oregon Bach Collegium, featuring Ashland guitarist James Bishop-Edwards, soprano Heather Holmquest and fortepianist Margret Gries, gives the historically informed treatment to the sumptuous early Romantic songs of the great melodist Franz Schubert at United Lutheran Church  (2230 Washington St.).

The spring flowering of music at The Shedd continues with the great Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band’s incendiary mix of Caribbean and South American rhythms and soul on May 12. The next evening, the sizzling guitar duo of jazz great Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo play everything from Bach and Mozart to Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa, along with classic and original gypsy jazz.

On May 17, Cajun music scholar and performer Michael Doucet brings back one of America’s most valuable bands, the Cajun revivalists of Louisiana’s BeauSoleil, for the latest in its long and distinguished string of Shedd appearances. The band keeps the music fresh by incorporating rock, jazz, zydeco, country and blues while keeping it danceable and delightful.

And you can catch another appealing roots music show, a bluegrass celebration featuring dobro master Rob Ickes (formerly of Blue Highway) and singer-guitarist Trey Hensley, on May 16 Tsunami Books.