An Aria for the Rest of Us 

Oakland Opera Theater hopes to make the genre less distant and more visceral.

Lori Zook proffers a large wooden box with small-scale architectural detailing -- doors, windows, and walls. "These are freak-show displays," she says -- presumably booths where geeks, bearded ladies, and lobster-handed boys will test P.T. Barnum's famous maxim about suckers. The thing resembles an elementary-school diorama project, and you have to use your imagination to visualize the finished product. It's actually a miniature version of the stage setup for a Philip Glass opera based on Jean Cocteau's movie adaptation of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast.

La Belle et la Bête, which opens September 16, is the latest in a long line of innovative musical theater productions presented by Oakland Opera Theater, a company owned and operated by Zook and her husband, Tom Dean. While the word "opera" typically conjures up words like opulent or stuffy, their approach to the genre is much more open-ended. Zook believes her company has an obligation to make opera less of a challenge for everyday people.

Although the couple pride themselves on being avant-garde, their aesthetic also is quite traditional. Before television, radio, and movies existed, opera was pop culture. "Opera started out as a people's art form," Zook explains.

Headquartered in West Oakland's warehouse district since 1991, Oakland Opera Theater has its origins in the hazy, psychedelic rock opera experimentation of the '70s and '80s. Dean, a classically trained musician who played in various bands before gravitating toward theatrical production, started the Underworld Opera Company in 1989. The goal was to stage original self-produced works with no outside funding roughly every two years.

After struggling with various artistic breakthroughs and setbacks, including a 1997 fire that destroyed Dean and Zook's home (which doubled as Underworld headquarters), the company mutated into the Oakland Opera Theater in 1998, with a slightly more defined mission statement: a focus on works from the 20th and 21st centuries (which alone sets them apart from most opera companies), a more collaborative process between artist and director, a commitment to dynamic staging, and a willingness to interact with audiences in an effort to make opera seem less distant and more visceral.

The results have been, in Zook's words, "interesting and a little odd." Last year's Akhnaten -- only the third time the Philip Glass opera about the heretic pharaoh of Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty had ever been performed -- was a case in point. The show, which Zook calls "a real turning point," garnered critical acclaim and played to sold-out audiences, proving that the company's off-center ideas had merit. Audience members were ushered into the theater as part of a tour group visiting the ruins of Akhnaten's temple. From among that group, the principal characters (who sang their parts in ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, and a smattering of English) emerged to take the stage.

In La Belle et la Bête, the circus backdrop is similarly interactive. In addition to freaks, there are acrobats, contortionists, and visual installations (some by artists from the theater's next-door neighbors, the LoBot Gallery) to help set the mood and bring the audience into the fantasy world Dean and Zook have created. And while there will certainly be elements of the bizarre and grotesque in evidence, because Beauty and the Beast is such a well-known tale, Zook says, "You don't have to worry about the audience understanding every little detail."

Still, details are incredibly important in opera. During a rehearsal for La Belle et la Bête at the company office, which doubles as practice space when its Oakland Metro performance venue is otherwise occupied, Dean carefully explains the nuances, noting where props will be, where cast members should enter and exit their scenes, letting them know whether they will have extras to assist them, and explaining how to interpret the dialogue, much of which is in French.

One cast member, his rich baritone evident even in casual conversation, asks why one of his lines was cut. After Dean explains, the baritone responds, "I was just looking for motivation to get tweaked out" -- as apparently his character becomes dazed after wandering into the circus. As the cast runs through the scene again and again, more details are fleshed out. After each take, Dean's hearty laughter fills the air. The director cackles like a madman -- or maybe a genius -- at what appear to be private jokes, all the while keeping an eye on the overall picture of what's supposed to be happening onstage.

"More menacing. More menacing. More evil," he gleefully instructs one principal portraying a particularly wicked role. "Honestly, Tom," the performer replies, "I'm trying to be menacing, but I'm working on the French right now." The director then turns his attentions back to the baritone, who has a long solo scene with very little dialogue. The singer is a bit apprehensive about being onstage for that long, but Dean reassures him that music will be playing throughout the scene; the audience, he says, will be in a trancelike state due to the composer's well-known predilection for repetition. "When people listen to Philip Glass, they just get mesmerized," he says. "It's kinda like Pink Floyd."

The baritone seems satisfied, adding -- noting, apparently for his own benefit, "It's all about focus and concentration. If you have strong internal dialogue, the audience will watch you for hours." He then asks the other cast members whether they've seen the latest Bill Murray movie, Broken Flowers, in which the actor has to convey the essential themes of the film relying more on facial expressions and body language than speech. "His internal dialogue must have been strong," the baritone concludes.

Next, Dean introduces The Beast, who has just walked into the rehearsal space, looking quite unanimalistic in a Banana Republic sweater. The Beast and the baritone huddle around the diorama to hash out the blocking while Dean explains, "This part is your castle; this part, for the most part, is not your castle," pointing to various locations on the miniaturized stage mockup.

Watching Dean describe the strange world he has created -- which requires complete belief by him and the actors to pull off -- he's not unlike a dungeon master in a role-playing game, filling in the essential details of an imaginary, wholly surreal, mental construct. The difference, of course, is that his job is to create a tangible, visible, and musical alternate reality that theatergoers can easily comprehend.

Besides their own productions, Dean and Zook have supported other local arts companies, such as Corey Action's New Style Motherlode dance troupe, which has been producing shows at the Oakland Metro for the past three years. At a rehearsal for the recent NSM production The Juke Joint (subtitled "Where Hip-Hop Meets the Blues"), Action took a break from fine-tuning his choreography to explain why he likes working with Dean and Zook. "They're open-minded people," he says. "The crazier the idea, I think the more they go for it."

In December, Oakland Opera Theater plans to stage a concert version of the WWI antiwar opera Johnny Johnson, and next May, the company will present Anthony Davis' X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, which may be as far from La Bohème as one can get and still call it opera. For Zook, it's all about accessibility: "I want people to be able to walk into the Metro and feel at ease. I don't want them to think it's not for them."

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