by Marty Demarest

How bad do you have to be before you're unredeemable? Do the lies that you tell matter if they don't hurt anyone? Is it good to be greedy when you're needy? These are the questions that are asked in Giacomo Puccini's one-act opera Gianni Schicchi.

Far from being a dark, morbid tale, however, Gianni Schicchi is funny. Ludicrously funny, in fact. It's a short, sweet, nonstop whirlwind of music and scheming hijinks that suits the organization that's presenting it -- Opera Plus -- in Coeur d'Alene this weekend. But that's not all. The show's second act will be made up of a generous selection of opera favorites.

Gianni Schicchi begins with a death. Frantic and distraught relatives assemble not so much out of grief as out of greed. It seems, however, that the recently deceased left his entire estate to a monastery. Stricken with panic at the prospect of losing money, the family quickly enlists the help of a local peasant (read: con artist) who decides to impersonate the dead man (whose body is conveniently hidden) and change the will.

Most people think of grandiose extravagance when they imagine an opera, and certainly Gianni Schicchi has its extreme moments. But what audiences can also expect on Saturday and Sunday is the same approachable work of art that has been delighting audiences for decades. Set entirely in a single room, and involving a relatively large cast, the opera packs as much action into its hour-long running time as most operas present in an entire evening. But it's still a serious work of art by one of the world's most celebrated composers. It also features one of his most famous arias: "O mio babbino caro," which has been a showstopper for sopranos since it was written in 1918.

"It's so nice to see a grassroots effort to put on a quality product," says baritone Max Mendez, who is singing the part of a poor relative named Betto. Mendez has been active in opera around the country for years, singing with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera and Long Beach Opera, among others. And what he finds in Opera Plus's efforts is a sincere attempt to take opera seriously, without killing the popular and accessible style that made it one of the great art forms of the 19th century.

"They're making a very good production here," he explains. "They're bringing in some good singers, and putting some financial backing behind it. Opera is not cheap, so you have to admire Opera Plus for actually investing in this production. That's something that doesn't happen in a lot of smaller communities.

"We don't get a lot of opera in the Eastern Washington area," Mendez continues. "So anytime a production comes to town, or someone produces something, it's a great thing. We're lucky to have a symphony that operates nine months, and Spokane Opera does a great job with the productions that they do every year. But it's great to have even more options -- to have other groups putting on operas."

Opera Plus's production promises to be much more than a group of singers standing on a shallow stage accompanied by a talented pianist. Conductor David Demand, who is the artistic director of the Coeur d'Alene Symphony Orchestra, hand-picked a group of musicians to join the selected singers. And director Mark Faulkner promises a full staging, complete with English supertitles so that audiences can follow the opera's original Italian.

"We're trying to do two things," says Demand, just before launching into a late-evening rehearsal. "First, we want to present a very good opera. But we also want to educate the audience. So there are extensive notes in the program, and there's a pre-concert lecture about Gianni Schicchi. And while singing in Italian is a little bit more challenging for the singers, they're also having fun and learning something new."

"It's a huge challenge," concurs Jadd Davis, who is singing the role of a young lover who wants to use his relative's death as a means to marry his beloved. Davis made an auspicious debut recently when he was tapped by Gunther Schuller to fill in at the last minute as the tenor soloist in a Bach Festival performance of Bach's Magnificat. He has also sung the role of Tony in West Side Story and Lancelot in Camelot for the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater. Davis is currently a senior at Eastern Washington University.

"I've been working with my voice for a while now, so it's fun to have a chance to do another classical piece with it" he continues, seemingly unimpressed by the dramatic arch his career has already taken. "I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've had in the community. It can be a little daunting because we have so many great students around here, and there are so many chances for young people who want to perform. In fact, it can be frustrating, because in school I don't get to perform as much as I'd like, but in the community there are all these opportunities."

Bringing performers into contact with one another is one of the advantages of artistic organizations like Opera Plus. By arranging productions that draw on the resources of the community, they not only give local artists a chance to do the work that they do best in a professional setting, but they also expose much of the talent that calls the Inland Northwest home.

"This place has changed since I graduated from high school," chuckles William Rhodes, who plays the role of Gianni Schicchi. Rhodes has performed more than 70 opera and musical theater roles in a career that has ranged from Carnegie Hall to the Aspen Music Festival. He recently returned to the Inland Northwest for early retirement, and insteadfound himself performing the lead in CST's Fiddler on the Roof.

"There's so much going on artistically around here -- particularly in the summer," Rhodes observes. "It's an adventure doing productions like this. And it's fun, because you're on the ground floor. You're watching everything be built around you, and that's a challenge. And challenges in art are good."

The production has certainly kept Rhodes on his toes. Despite having sung three different roles in three different productions of Gianni Schicchi, Rhodes has also directed the opera before. And he says that he's having "a blast" working on Opera Plus's production.

"This is a Marx Brothers-type of opera," he says. "There's a lot of shtick. And one of the fun things is trying to invent new shtick."

"I think you're in for a funny comedy," agrees Max Mendez. "But it's also a moral story. So without giving away the plot too much, audiences are hopefully going to be able to come in and laugh and see a little bit of themselves in some of the characters. And because it's Puccini, it's also full of tempo changes and high, extreme dynamic climaxes, especially with the orchestra and the voices that we have. So I think that people are going to enjoy a full opera -- the whole experience."

Publication date: 10/16/03

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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