Last Sunday at the posh Silicon Valley Capital Club, the San Jose Chamber Orchestra threw a fundraising party for its upcoming season, which includes Paul Davies’ opera, OURLAND: A Dystopian State.
Erupting October 22 and 23 at the intimate 3Below Theaters, OURLAND will include a 10-piece orchestra, with sets, costumes and staging, all to address human rights, border crossings, and the real life-and-death consequences resulting from xenophobia. The opera was created with the idea that, through the power of the singing theater, issues of systemic bigotry can be expressed most powerfully.
At the party, I caught up with Argentinian expat Daniel Helfgot, who wrote the libretto for OURLAND. He said the text was about othering and the ways people are resented when they arrive as “aliens” The story asks the following questions: How do we otherize people? How do we judge them if they don’t look like us, if they don’t speak like us? If we don’t have the right color or the right accent, why do we suddenly become aliens?
“That’s what the opera is about,” Helfgot said. “Othering, the other, the unwelcome, and the consequences of people resenting people. And this is as old as mankind.”
Ourland is not placed at any particular border. It could be anywhere or anytime. That’s why it’s a dystopian place, added Helfgot. Dystopia can be here, there, or anywhere.
“Being a Jew, I am familiar with the past generations of always escaping, leaving one place, arriving to another place, and how unwelcome in most cases you are,” Helfgot said. “And the consequences of exile and crossing borders and so on. So that’s what triggered the opera. It was obviously something that was brewing inside, because that’s my life.”
The attire for the open-house style party at the Capital Club was “garden party” as in the Ricky Nelson song, so I reminisced with old friends and made new connections. There was a raffle and even selfies with a cardboard Mozart. There was open seating indoors in the ballroom and outdoors on the terrace, with its glorious view of downtown San Jose.
Barbara Day Turner started SJCO 31 years ago and some of the musicians have been there ever since. From day one the ensemble has always prioritized contemporary music. Meaning, the composers on the programs are still actually alive. It’s not one of those organizations relentlessly beating the same old repertoire to death. This production is no exception. And, mind you, contemporary does not mean inaccessible music, at least not with OURLAND.
“The music is enjoyable,” Helfgot said. “It is not what some people would consider crazy, modern, unhearable music. The music is pleasant to the ears. It’s absolutely modern, it’s a language in of itself, I don’t think [composer Paul Davies] is channeling any other existing composers, but he did not go into what would not be pleasant for the human ear.”
But back to the garden party. SJCO played three sets of music for the crowd, including tangos by Astor Piazzolla, some Offenbach and Gershwin, plus a few show tunes like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In the latter case, there was a very specific reason for this.
SJCO’s guest this time around was violinist Jeremy Cohen, founder and lead violinist of the multi-genre, three-time Grammy-nominated Quartet San Francisco, and who’s recorded with everyone from Santana to John Williams. For the event, Cohen played his storied 1868 Vuillaume violin, which previously belonged to the concertmaster at MGM Studios from 1939 to 1969, which means it can be heard on the soundtrack of every MGM film over the course of those years, including The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, Mutiny on the Bounty, Doctor Zhivago and many more. So when SJCO played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” we were hearing one of the same exact violins that we have all heard every single time we’ve watched that film on TV. This was mind-blowing.
Even better, the Davies opera will take advantage of the unique setup at the locally owned 3Below Theatres next month. The stage will include the characters and the musicians.
“I think that the intimacy of the place will add a lot to what we are trying to say,” Helfgot said.