The Herbst Theatre is a testament to the neoclassical, complete with ionic pilasters and frescos of a harvest season. But Saturday brought a new kind of opera to the space, courtesy of San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program. Instead of a ballroom or a cigarette factory, there was a car wreck onstage, surrounded by what looked like white scaffolding. It was clear that this was to be a modern opera, and while that might have left certain traditionalists on edge, the promise of catastrophe was enough to draw everyone’s eyes to the stage.
The opera, “If I Were You,” offered theatergoers all the tragedy and emotional impact promised by the genre, but with a modern twist. Written by American composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer under commission from Merola, the story follows a young, struggling writer named Fabian (played on this date by Nicholas Huff) who almost dies in a car accident and inadvertently summons the devil, Brittomara (Brennan Blankenship). Brittomara offers him the power to steal other people’s bodies and live their lives — an offer Fabian accepts in order to win the love of the beautiful Diana (Anne-Marie MacIntosh). As with most any other opera, the premise is simple enough.
The story is described by its creators as a reflection on identity: “Who are you? Who am I? Who do I want to be?” are questions that echo throughout the libretto. But at its heart, the opera is really about the power of choice and its consequences.
Throughout the opera, Fabian’s soul jumps from body to body and is played by more than six different performers. Similarly, the devil also inhabits other people. She is an EMT, a bartender, a nosy neighbor, a femme fatale extraordinaire, but she is always played by the same soprano in the same Ariel-esque red wig. And while Fabian is the protagonist, it is Brittomara who is the star; Fabian’s scattered quest for identity becomes a foil for Brittomara’s collected, omnipotent presence. She is malevolent and seductive and entirely true to herself. An unintended reading of the story might suggest that this is not so much an exploration of identity but a testament to the power of the devil as an idea and an ideal. While Fabian is a stock hero, it is Brittomara whom everyone is waiting to see take the stage, to own the story, to make her own, unmistakable presence known.
In “If I Were You,” high art meets vernacular English. It is amusing to see a soprano and baritone flirting with each other around a pool table, singing things like “You bring out the crazy in me,” or a group of girlfriends singing, “Ya think?” Blankenship had a moment to show off her operatic prowess by way of the word “margarita,” belting out the cocktail name and getting some laughs from the audience. It feels a bit strange to hear opera in your own language — the same language you hear on TV and on the street. But the unease quickly gives way to appreciation of the artistry that can be achieved with the marriage of opera and the English language (though it is a less smooth communion to the ear than with Italian or French).
Merola’s production, under the direction of Keturah Stickann, does a skillful job of marrying the old with the new. The young opera singers are not asked to sacrifice the beauty of their craft in the name of hypermodern (read: dissonant) music theory, and the libretto is filled with elaborate, impassioned imagery to match the pathos of the orchestration.
In a particularly intriguing scene, Brittomara comes onstage holding a scotch glass and a piece of ice and sings a lilting, sinister aria about how she can melt and consume people like pieces of ice. The metaphors come from daily life, but there is something authentically “operatic” about their ability to do what any good opera seeks to do: to blur words, the human voice and instrumentation into a singular emotional effect.
“If I Were You” provides an exciting new direction for both the future of opera in the city of San Francisco and the art form in the 21st century. Standing outside the Herbst Theatre or the War Memorial Opera House, one might ask: “Who commissions an opera in 2019?” The art form may not be exactly mainstream, but it still has a pulse, and this work in particular has a special place among the curious species that is the modern American opera.