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Under the Milky Way | Cascade Journal

“Vía Láctea, A New Opera in English” premiers at Tower Theatre

The lines of reality blur as real and imagined characters take the stage in Central Oregon’s first homegrown opera, premiering June 10 through 12 at the Tower Theatre in Bend.

The opera, created and produced by an all-local team, started with Bend author and poet Ellen Waterston’s 2012 walk along the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage route in Spain. She wrote about her experiences in a poetic novel, Vía Láctea: A Woman of a Certain Age Walks the Camino. In 2015, she adapted this humorous and philosophical account of her adventure into a libretto (opera’s equivalent of a script), titled Vía Láctea, A New Opera in English.

The story of Vía Láctea, which means Milky Way in Spanish, derives from the folktale that the hazy appearance of our galaxy’s stars overhead was created from dust kicked up by pilgrims walking the Camino. Waterston explains that this legend created a mystical backdrop for her experiences, inspiring both the verse novel and the libretto.

Translating the libretto into a full-length opera and stage production has taken a year and a half of hard work on the part of a group of dedicated individuals who have come to call themselves “Team Vía.” With the libretto complete, the next step was setting the written words to music, a job given to award-winning composer Rebecca Oswald. A graduate of the University of Oregon School of Music, Oswald has written the score in a variety of music styles. “The music is varied, interesting and very approachable,” says Nancy Engebretson, artistic director. “Given that these parts have never been sung or interpreted before, the cast members accepted their roles based on the quality of Rebecca’s work.”

“The music sets the emotional tone told through the eyes of the characters, some realistic and some surrealistic,” explains Engebretson. In 2013, she, along with Jason Stein, founded the nonprofit OperaBend, which is serving as the umbrella nonprofit for the production of Vía Láctea. “The juxtaposition of both real and surreal characters is part of what makes it opera, an experience that stretches people outside their everyday boxes.”

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With the musical score complete, Team Via began casting. A major coup was recruiting soprano Emily Pulley to play the lead part of Peregrina. Pulley has sung with the New York Metropolitan Opera, along with various other opera companies in the United States and Europe. The male role of Peregrino is being played by tenor Chad Johnson, who has sung with the Fort Worth Opera and the Washington National Opera. OperaBend’s co-founder Stein has been cast as the Catholic priest, Father Tomas. In addition to serving as OperaBend’s executive director and music director for Vía Láctea, his credits include performing, directing and producing musicals and operas.

Other cast members include soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas of Portland who plays the part of Peggy; baritone Zachary Lenox who plays Harold; Hannah Penn as Omniscient; and Jeanne Wentworth as Camino Woman. The cast are freelancers, and don’t belong to a single opera company, explains Waterston, but the disparity doesn’t detract from the overall performance. “The cast of Vía Láctea is top-notch. Their performances will be show-stoppers.”

In addition to the out-of-area cast members, local talent will sing in the chorus. Michael Gesme, music director of the Central Oregon Symphony, will conduct members of his orchestra. Bend’s Gotta Dance Studio is providing dancers with choreography by Michelle Mejaski. Scott Wegner, who is designing the sets, will be creating backdrops from images provided by community members who have also walked the Camino.

The entire crew comes together to take on the daunting but exciting task of bringing a production to the stage for the first time. “Taking the page to stage requires first adapting the libretto to music, and then creating transitions, one scene to the next,” Engebretson says. “The goal is that they blend seamlessly.” She explains that with an existing opera, those elements are already in the script. “I’m not only directing the performers but also adapting a brand new work to the stage in which all the pieces must fit together.”

Vía Láctea is a truly unique opportunity for locals to witness a celebration of story telling, music and drama, all part of a collaborative process led by local artists. “It’s a very emotional moment when the curtain goes up after all the preparation, trials and tribulations,” Engebretson said. “It’s a birthing process, and when the baby is born, it’s a beautiful thing.”

For more information see towertheatre.org.

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