At the end of June, I had the opportunity to attend a showing of the Pocket Opera’s performance of Jacques Offenbach’s opera La Vie Parisienne, at the Julia Morgan Theatre in Berkeley.
The Pocket Opera is a San Francisco-based opera company specialising in English performances of foreign-language opera. It is the labour of love of the musician, writer, consummate polyglot, and director Donald Pippin, who painstakingly translates German, Italian, and French libretti into English, making special efforts to convey emotion and meaning even in translation. The lyrics do not feel translated; rather, they feel as though they were originally written in English. These are certainly not poor pastiches. Particular attention is paid to accessibility: Pippin and his team do not merely translate the libretti; they also project the lyrics on a screen to allow people to follow along. The Pocket Opera’s goal is to allow everyone to appreciate the lyrical beauty of operatic music without needing to pay exorbitant prices or deciphering non-English lyrics.
I have seen other Pocket Opera productions—La Bohème and Carmen—and the quality of the performances in La Vie Parisienne lives up to the other performances I have seen. Although La Vie Parisienne is a comic opera, unlike the other two performances, it is treated with the same respect for beauty, content, and lyricism as the other two productions.
Broadly, the play is a rollicking, hyperkinetic glimpse of the life of a hodgepodge of Parisians, from a delightfully incompetent major-general (evoking shades of Gilbert and Sullivan), to a gaggle of overfed and undersexed noblemen, to an exuberant Brazilian, to a pair of scheming friends returning from their travels abroad. The entire production is a series of madcap hijinks involving mistaken identities, labyrinthine plots, and even a bit of drag. There is never a dull moment: there is always something to capture the viewer’s attention.
The spare sets and costuming belied the intricacy and creativity of the performers’ work. The aesthetics of La Vie Parisienne did not come from elaborate costumes or lavish sets; rather, they came from the full, compelling voices of the performers, as well as the crackling wit of Donald Pippin’s translation. While I am admittedly fond of large-scale productions with elaborate costumes and sweeping sets, I can also appreciate the intimacy and accessibility of less elaborate shows. The performance felt like a community theatre production, rather than that of a travelling theatre company. This is intended to be a compliment; the intimacy of the performance allowed me to feel a greater, more visceral connection to the characters than I would have in a larger and more impersonal venue.
The Pocket Opera’s performances are excellent introductions to the world of opera, and La Vie Parisienne was no exception.
Finn Gardiner is the acting editor of Synchronized Chaos. He is a college student, graphic designer, writer and soy-ice-cream-addicted technology junkie.