In the words of Francesco Milioto, Opera San Antonio‘s music director, the “three pillars of opera” are Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Le Nozzi di Figaro, and Cosí fan Tutte. His colleague E. Loren Meeker, the company’s artistic director, figures the three pillars of Opera San Antonio are determination, ingenuity, and a dedicated staff.

Those qualities have kept the opera ahead of the pandemic curve, returning it to the stage before many similar companies have been able to.

Opera San Antonio has announced its 2021-22 season, ramping up gradually from an energetic, 90-minute production of Don Giovanni Oct. 7-9 followed by a full-length, fully staged production of Verdi’s Rigoletto May 5-7.

Powerful and accessible

“We’ve actually done more live opera than the Met over the last year. How neat is that?!,” Meeker wrote in an email, noting that Opera San Antonio was the first opera company in Texas to go back to live performance at an indoor venue with Lucia di Lammermoor in May.

Meeker credits the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts flexible seating technology and safety protocols and COVID-19 testing provided by Community Labs for making possible live productions for an audience. Her own ingenuity also came into play with that production, with cast member Musa Ngungwana pronouncing her pandemic-safety staging work “genius,” but Meeker extends that credit to her staff.

“It’s safe to say that the artists and staff who were with us this past spring, we had a wonderful time getting back in the room and working together,” she said. “And the only way that that was possible was through the really careful planning of my staff and for that I’m entirely grateful.”

One innovation that made the Lucia di Lammermoor production possible was condensing the normally three-act production to a tight 90-minute format and to forgo an intermission that would encourage potentially unsafe mingling among audience members.

The upcoming production of Don Giovanni also will be condensed to 90 minutes, an innovation that might hold long beyond the pandemic.

“We’re looking at how to really create dynamic evenings of entertainment,” Meeker said, “to encourage people to leave their homes, step away from Netflix, get back out into the community, have a wonderful night out in the city, and feel entertained in an entirely new way.”

Though it might seem “heartbreaking” to condense a classic, full-length opera, she said, the 90-minute format creates an accessible performance while retaining the power of opera.

“If you’re maybe considering experiencing opera for the first time, you still get to hear the most engaging and beautiful pieces of music in Don Giovanni in the fall.”

The cast of Opera San Antonio’s production of Don Giovanni. Credit: Courtesy / Opera San Antonio

Looking toward the future

Should the various coronavirus variants subside as expected, the May performances of Rigoletto will mark the company’s return to full-length, full-ensemble productions.

While Meeker rearranged the limited cast of Lucia di Lammermoor to replace the chorus that would normally be part of the production, Rigoletto will mark the return of the 21-member Opera San Antonio Chorus to the stage.

Most chorus members are local artists, Meeker said, which allows the company to support the local community even as it brings in cast members from other parts of the country.

Opera San Antonio also will welcome artists from its opera apprentice program back to the stage, with Apprentice Artist Kresley Figueroa in the role of Zerlina for Don Giovanni.

The apprentice program began in early 2020 with the intention of presenting “Explore Opera” programs for youth, in concert with the San Antonio Public Library. Like so much ambitious 2020 programming, the new initiative was forced to migrate online, garnering an award for Best Innovative Online Education from San Antonio Magazine.

On Aug. 7, the program will finally go live as intended with Explore Opera in the Park!. Apprentice artists will entertain on the grounds of the Landa Branch Library, while audience members of all ages are free to enjoy picnics or food truck fare.

As the program takes on its full potential, Meeker said, the young apprentices will be integrated into future opera productions.

“We’re thrilled that this program is not only having success in its second year, but is now taking that next step of helping these young artists join our main stage and look to their future in the art form.”

Again, Meeker credits the San Antonio community with getting her company through the pandemic and ready for a new season.

“We’ve had a lot of success in being able to get artists back into performance and get our education and community programs back up and running in a way that even some other really well-known organizations have not been able to,” she said, “simply because we’re living in a place where thanks to community efforts, it’s been possible.”

Tickets are on sale for Don Giovanni, available through the Opera San Antonio website.

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...