‘West Side Story’ embraces its operatic side in San Jose

More than 60 years after its world premiere, “West Side Story” remains one of the most important works of American musical theatre. But it’s also a natural choice for the operatic stage, according to the cast preparing a new production at Opera San Jose.

With its lively score, thrilling dance episodes and timeless love story between warring gangs in New York City, Leonard Bernstein’s landmark work, which retells the story of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, was revolutionary when it premiered in 1957. happened. It still has a lot to say about the immigrant experience, and OSJ’s staging promises a massive revival.

Directed by Krystal Mannich, moderated by Christopher James Wray, and starring tenor Noah Stewart and soprano Teresa Castillo in the lead roles of Tony and Maria, the company’s first staging of this iconic American work opens as a final offering at the California Theater on April 16 Its 21-22 season.

Critics and audiences have long debated whether “West Side Story” is a musical or an opera. Bernstein stated that it was not an opera, but a celebration of his immediate, dynamic score by top conductors including Michael Tilson Thomas and Gustavo Dudamel at the San Francisco Symphony, who conducted the score for the previous year’s film remake directed by Stephen Spielberg. . The original film, co-directed by Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins, was released in 1961 and received 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.)

According to Opera San Jose general director Shawna Lucy, who programmed the work shortly after being named to the company’s top position, “it’s on a fully operatic stage.”

The production of Opera San Jose is coveted by the many cast and creative team members who have lived the immigrant experience. Take, for example, Maniche, a Latina director and filmmaker based in Puerto Rico who says the musical is the quintessential immigrant story.

“Through all my experience with stage productions, the personal experience of being Puerto Rican has made me very excited to tackle this piece at this point in my career,” she said in a recent phone call. “We’ve talked about what it was like to grow up Latina, and everyone in the cast, even those coming from different cultures, can relate. These are the things that line up to deliver. Influencing the way, the physicality of the staging.”

Castillo, a graduate of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Young Artist Program, who played Frascita in the recent revival of Opera San Jose’s “Carmen”, has been singing Maria since she first saw “West Side Story”. are looking forward to.

“With this role, it’s hit after hit,” said the soprano.

With family roots in Costa Rica, Castillo, who is currently based in New York, said rehearsals with a large number of Spanish-speaking artists were a pleasure. “It has been great to be in the rehearsal room with so many Spanish speakers – people from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica,” she said. “I’m usually weird.”

Maria, she adds, is a character “with many layers.”

“We always see a really sweet Maria, but I see her as someone who wants her life, to make her own decisions,” she explained. “Her desire to be independent has fallen short of cultural expectations. She wants to break away from it, and that shows a lot of strength.”

Bernstein’s score combines operatic flights such as “Maria” and “Somewhere” with other numbers, such as “Gee, Officer Krupke,” solidly in the musical theater tradition.

For Castillo, who believes the show is operatic, those stylistic changes are thrilling.

“It definitely has operatic moments,” she said. “You could call it a crossover piece – it has elements of both. But you have to have an operatic voice for songs like ‘Kahin Kahin’.”

“I didn’t like Mariah’s ‘I Feel Pretty,'” she said. “But now I see that it is necessary. And his last duet with Anita is so powerful – it shows Maria’s true strength that she is not a child. She has been forced to grow up too quickly. But, Despite all this, she chooses to believe in love.”

“West Side Story” is a new experience—”my first foray into musical theater,” says tenor Noah Stewart, another rising star who played Don Jose in the company’s recent “Carmen.” “At school, ‘America’ was one of the first numbers I heard. Later, I fell in love with art songs and opera. So ‘West Side Story’ is bringing back wonderful memories.”

Stewart, who grew up in Harlem, says the show follows the streets of New York in a familiar way. “Tony’s youth. He’s searching for what his life can be, and he wants to do well. He sees that hate and violence go nowhere.

“Growing up, I heard someone say that one in four will move out of the ghetto. I think ‘No – I’m going to make it.’ But I could have been one of those kids who didn’t. It’s so easy to make the wrong choice.” The show makes no mention of Tony’s father, he notes – taking the role for the Doctor who owns the bodega, where the gang hang out.

Dance is a key element of “West Side Story” and Stewart credits choreographer Michael Pappalardo, who is leading the cast through the dance episodes. “Unlike opera, where the curtain comes down, each scene is moving,” he said. “We all sing, dance and act, and it’s so exciting to have so many people on stage. It’s alive — dark, gritty and joyful.”

Contact Georgia Rowe at grow@pacbell.net.

‘The Story of the West’

conceived by Jerome Robbins, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents; Presented by Opera San Jose

When: April 16-May 1

Where: California Theatre, 345 S. 1st St., San Jose

Health & Safety: proof of vaccination; Attendees are requested to wear masks inside the theater

Ticket: $55-$195; www.operasj.org

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