For Pete's Sake 

P.J. MacAlpine's new opera Sneaky Pete Alley flashes back and looks forward.

Like her father, P.J. MacAlpine believes in potential. Just talk to her about Sneaky Pete Alley, her self-composed first opera, debuting this Saturday at Oakland's EGYPT Theatre, and she lights up like a 100-watt bulb. Inspired by a poem of the same title written by her late father, Arthur, the opera meshes his belief in the greatness inherent in everyone with her own musical aptitude. As one of the first minority police officers in Springfield, Massachusetts, Arthur saw the despair of unemployed men during the Great Depression, and the disillusionment of post-World War II GIs, through sympathetic eyes. Rather than turn up his nose at the unsavory folks on his beat, he described them in his poem as people whose potential "briefly matched the brilliance of a star."

In the opera's eponymous alley -- the title echoes a slang expression for cheap, fortified liquor and the alleyways where men drank it -- MacAlpine adds a multifaceted theme of loss to the starry-eyed idealism. Jasper, the story's elderly protagonist, reminisces about growing up in the 1920s, muses about his changing neighborhood, grapples with his desire to make a difference, and confronts his own mortality. But Sneaky Pete isn't all tragedy and tears. Aside from the intrinsic entertainment value in watching Jasper's speakeasy flashbacks, MacAlpine hopes the opera will be a word of warning against dismissing people too casually. Ultimately, she says, "The opera is about honoring the past and having the ability to move on with life." MacAlpine recently made her own transition from student-parent to UC Berkeley graduate.

Ask MacAlpine to isolate the most noteworthy aspect of her experience composing and producing the opera, and she'll tell you it's a toss-up. It seems Sneaky Pete demonstrates modern opera's remarkable ability to embrace improvisation and change. "I want to make opera accessible," she explains. But rather than dumbing down or diluting the genre, she hopes to make the performance a vehicle for different types of voices and to attract atypical opera audiences in the process. The opera "unabashedly embraces aspects of music not common to opera inside the Western paradigm," she says, which is good news for anyone who has ever fallen asleep watching La Bohème.

Sneaky Pete promises to mix musical styles like a well-shaken bar drink, blending classical composition with jazz, blues, R&B, and gospel influences. But beyond musical manipulation, MacAlpine says the production highlights the amazing talent she "found in her backyard," a reference that is both literal and figurative. Her fourteen-year-old son Christopher -- webmaster for MacAlpine's newly founded production company and coauthor of the opera's libretto after advising his mom to "keep it real" -- has a bit part in the production.

Sneaky Pete Alley debuts this Saturday, November 22 at 8 p.m. at the Egypt Theatre, 5306 Foothill Boulevard, Oakland, and runs weekends through December 6. The EGYPT (Experimental Group Young People's Theatre), an underrecognized East Oakland nonprofit dedicated to cultivating the performing arts via children's classes, talent auditions, and affordable performances, recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Tickets are $12 advance, $15 door, and $10 students. 510-533-4664.


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