The operative word in the new Opera San Antonio production of Romeo and Juliet is the conjunction “and” between the two famous names.

The grand production brings together three resident companies of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts: an orchestra provided by Classical Music Institute, the opera’s chorus of 33 members from various institutions around the city including the San Antonio Chamber Choir, Trinity University, University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of the Incarnate Word, six dancers from Ballet San Antonio, and scholars of music and art history lecturing at the McNay Art Museum.

“Baked into the ethos of opera is a spirit of collaboration,” said Opera San Antonio General and Artistic Director E. Loren Meeker, who is also in the role of stage director for Romeo and Juliet

The Boston native said San Antonio is particularly well-suited to creative partnerships.

“From the second I got here, it has proven to be one of the most open-to-collaboration kinds of cities and environments that I’ve ever experienced,” she said.

Classical Music Institute has assembled a 45-member orchestra under the direction of Opera San Antonio Music Director Francesco Milioto, whom the lead actors said has been helpful in drawing out the emotional complexity of the score.

“Francesco is amazing at helping us to interpret the music,” said soprano Jacqueline Echols, who plays Juliet. “We want to bring a real human story to you.”

Intimacy and conflict

Another “and” reveals the dual nature of the complex story, written by William Shakespeare more than 400 years ago yet still relevant today for its tale of love amid conflict. Intimacy Director and Fight Choreographer Doug Scholz-Carlson embodies the breadth of the issue facing the star-crossed lovers as their warring families scheme to keep them apart.

“He helps us with comfort level” in the more passionate passages, said Duke Kim, who plays Romeo. Scholz-Carlson also helps the two lead actors portray their love in a way that conveys to the audience, as opposed to simply being closely entangled onstage.

Contrary to instinct, “sometimes you need space to portray that yearning,” Kim said.

Opera San Antonio performers practice a sword fight during <i>Romeo and Juliet</i>  rehearsals at Carlos Alvarez Studio Theatre.
Opera San Antonio performers practice a sword fight during Romeo and Juliet rehearsals at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

Scholz-Carlson’s direction also plays into the internal fight waged within the lovers as they confront their respective families’ conflicts. Kim said he uses body language to suggest Romeo is simultaneously repelled by and drawn to Juliet’s presence and uses subtleties in vocalization to capture Romeo’s mixture of uncertainty and determination.

“In the back of my mind, all of this will be a hurdle, and I acknowledge that,” Kim said. “But also, Romeo quite early on decides that he won’t let those barriers box him in, and he leaps over them.”

The human condition

Art historian Annie Labatt spoke at a combined lecture and performance event held on Valentine’s Day at the McNay Art Museum in celebration of the opera’s upcoming production. 

Attendees drank wine and sampled food while listening to local soprano Bronwyn White sing passages from the opera, with Opera San Antonio’s regular lecturer Kevin Salfen speaking about composer Charles Gounod and Labatt speaking on portrayals of Romeo and Juliet throughout hundreds of years of art history.

Labatt said she believes Shakespeare’s timeless story endures because “it touches on eternal, visceral feelings of love and family, and power and powerlessness. … It’s those fundamental human truths that pull us in every time, even when we know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Kim said that for him, Romeo and Juliet reaches people across generations because his character’s internal conflict between desire and duty is “so real. We all have a part of Romeo in our heart. It’s a human condition that has existed for the entirety of humanity.”

Stage Director E. Loren Meeker gives directions to Opera San Antonio performers during <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> practice at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theatre.
Stage Director E. Loren Meeker gives directions to Opera San Antonio performers during a Romeo and Juliet rehearsal at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

And if the story has the benefit of helping audiences better understand the nature of conflict and division in society, so much the better, Meeker said.

“I talk a lot in rehearsal about clarifying who’s a Capulet and who’s a Montague,” she said of the famously feuding families. 

Part of her role as stage director is to make sure “that everybody who’s on stage has the ability to uphold the truths and beliefs of their family’s perspective, and that none of the choices that are happening on stage are because one side is right, or one side is wrong, or one character is evil, and the other is good.”

The story of Romeo and Juliet endures because it’s not about right and wrong, she said, but about “different viewpoints that are heartfelt, and passionate and intense, that everybody on stage has to hold dearly. Everybody’s fighting for what’s right, no matter what side you’re on, and [the big question] is can you find the resolution or not?”

Tickets for performances of Romeo and Juliet March 30 and April 1 are available through the Tobin Center website.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...