Portland Opera opens its second spring/summer season with Puccini's "La Boheme," in which Kathleen Belcher makes her debut as director.
Mind you, she has directed plenty of operas before, just not with Portland Opera.
She's enjoying her 18th season on staff with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, one of the world's best companies, and she has also worked for several regional companies. She's seen plenty of excellent opera, and anxiously awaits the staging of "La Boheme," May 5-13 at Keller Auditorium.
"It's been wonderful here, it's a great organization and everyone has been very professional," she says. "All the artists are very well taken care of by the artistic staff.
"Singers in 'La Boheme' are young for opera singers, but of very high quality. Excellent singers, fantastic actors and it's one of the best orchestras I've heard. It's one of the best regional companies that I've worked for."
Belcher had never been to Portland or the Pacific Northwest before coming here for rehearsals. Like many visitors, she likes the city — the spring greenery, the sites, the food. Her singer husband, Daniel, has worked for Portland Opera, and Belcher has always wanted to work with the company and Christopher Mattaliano, general director.
Belcher worked as an intern in Cincinnati when Mattaliano directed an opera there in 1992.
"La Boheme" is based on Henri Murger's novel "Scenes from the Bohemian Life," and it follows the loves and fortunes of a small group of friends in Paris — it inspired the Broadway hit "Rent" and has produced much familiar music that appeared in movies such as "Atonement," "Moonstruck," "The Boondock Saints," "The Great Caruso" and "Mimi."
"I've not directed it before, but I've worked on various productions of it over the years," Belcher says. "I know it very well. It's that opera that everybody knows the music to, even if they don't; you hear these tunes and 'I know that.' It's a great universal story that appeals to everyone, about love, loss and friendship."
There are not many female directors in opera. "It's a boys club," Belcher says. And maybe there are just more men out there wanting to direct opera, she speculates. So it's another opportunity for her to make her mark.
"I've been lucky. People who've hired me, it never seems to be an issue," she says.
An opera can take on a different look, in ways, with a woman director.
"I would like to see 'La Traviata,' about fallen women, told from a women's perspective, since it's always told by men," she says. "'La Boheme,' I like to think I can throw in touches of humanity ... it's important to portray a big-hearted, kind-hearted woman."
Belcher is excited about the performances of Giordano Luca (Rodolfo), a young Italian tenor who is making his U.S. debut. "He's great, Pavarotti-like," she says. "I think he's going to be big." She's also excited about Vanessa Isiguen (Mimi).
Belcher certainly brings credentials to Portland, having been at the Met Opera almost 20 years. She has seen the opera "modernize," with old rep being replaced often with new rep, led by Peter Gelb, general manager.
Working at the Met comes with a different level of intensity, although it's all in a day's work for Belcher.
"It's very competitive as far as trying to get a full-time position there," Belcher says. "The Met is like any theater; for people who work in that building, for years and years and years, it becomes a big theater family. Everybody takes care of each other, which makes it a smaller organization than it is."
She wouldn't call New York City opera audiences more sophisticated, but perhaps the city has more of a core audience for the art form.
"Opera has really had to try to reach out to new people who normally don't think about going to opera," she says. "Companies are most successful when they bring somebody in and they say, 'It's really great, I'm wondering why I didn't go before.'
"Another thing people should know about opera is it's not a super-snobby experience. It's just like going to theater, but the music is acoustic and not amplified. It's foreign, but there are (translations). It's nothing to be afraid of."
"La Boheme" stages at Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St., 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5, 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 11, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 13. For more: www.portlandopera.org.