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27 Mar 2018

Stories Told in Song: Opera in the Park Returns for Its 20th Year

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A view from the stage during a previous year’s Opera in the Park. A view from the stage during a previous year’s Opera in the Park. Lani Garfield

Everyone is doing it. Well, all the coolest people are, at least.

Of course, we’re talking about opera.

What did you think we were talking about? In Quantum of Solace, James Bond was climbing around the backstage area during a performance of Tosca at the Bregenz Festival in Austria. Not cool enough for you? Well, Bugs Bunny even did it, in the classic 1957 cartoon short “What’s Opera, Doc?”

This means there will be plenty of cool people at Palm Springs’ Sunrise Park on Sunday, April 8, for the annual, free extravaganza that is Opera in the Park.

It all began 20 years ago with a piano and just a couple singers, thanks to Arlene Rosenthal, now of Well in the Desert. Today, the event attracts more than 5,000 attendees. This year, eight singers will perform different arias, including selections from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Candide.

Bruce Johansen, president of the board directors of the Palm Springs Opera Guild, vouched for the quality of the performers. “These are not people who are thinking maybe they might try opera—but people who are committed and have their master’s degrees already,” he said. “They come from Southern California, in particular; most come from USC, UCLA and Pepperdine. … These individuals are starting and breaking into their careers now.

“Liv Redpath, who will be here, is currently performing in LA Opera’s Orpheus and Eurydice. A Mexican tenor, who is a huge star in Europe, Jesús León, is coming back to the valley. He sang for Opera in the Park many years ago … and as a gift will be performing in Opera in the Park this year. We have the chance to watch these singers grow up over the years and become major names in the operatic world. Our guild has had quite a bit to do with their success.”

Johansen’s background is in television; after walking by the Opera in the Park by chance, he discovered the Palm Springs Opera Guild. This chance encounter turned an interest in opera into a passion.

“The people in group cover the full gamut of being extremely passionate to others who enjoy it, but maybe don’t know all the nuances,” he said about the guild. “Everybody has a story about opera—either as kid who had been forced to see an opera and hated it, or as in my case: I had a brilliant music teacher who took us all to see a dress rehearsal of Carmen when I was 13 years old. It just changed my life.”

What does the Palm Springs Guild do beyond Opera in the Park? “We’ve held an annual Palm Springs vocal competition since 1983. The participants compete for various prizes, including scholarships. We also offer Opera in the Schools: Every year, we go into schools in the Palm Springs Unified School District and introduce them to opera. We do a half-hour assembly. With our introduction of opera to them in school, we are trying to take away the stigma that opera might have. … There have even been times when we can take a bus of students to see a performance at the LA Opera. In addition, we have the Prime Time Outreach series at the Rancho Mirage Public Library, which includes lectures and performances.”

The 20th Annual Opera in the Park takes place on Sunday, April 8, at Sunrise Park, located off Sunrise Way, between Ramon and Baristo roads, in Palm Springs. Rehearsals start at 9 a.m., while the actual program runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, including tented-seating information and details on pre-order lunches from TRIO Restaurant, visit palmspringsoperaguild.org.

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