Love triangles, girl power and tragedy — it’s opera

“Pelleas et Melisande

Girl is lost in a forest. Prince finds her. They marry and live in his castle. Then girl falls in love with her husband’s brother.

Stories like these usually appear on the television set around noon these days, but in 1902 this tragic tale of a love triangle — “Pelleas et Melisande” by Claude Debussy — premiered at the Opera-Comique in Paris and it’s still performed in concert halls around the world.

“I’m always striving to find the connection between people in history and the realities we face now,” said Regina Thomas, director of the Puget Sound Concert Opera. “Everyone faces critical decisions in their lives and that’s what happens in these operas. People fall in love with the wrong person and face those consequences, people end up enemies with those they’d rather have as friends. These situations happen over and over in modern day.”

On Saturday, Nov. 12, 5 p.m., “Pelleas et Melisande” is presented by the Puget Sound Concert Opera at Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church.

The show features — for the first time on the island — a string and wind ensemble to heighten the audience’s emotions and the dream-like quality of the songs.

“He [Debussy] feels like Monet, but in terms of music,” Thomas said. “His opera is full of water-like music that flows really beautifully.”



The Puget Sound Concert Opera was created in 2007, and debuted on the island in 2008 because Corinne Stevens, a lyric soprano living in Friday Harbor, was one of its founding members.

The majority of the opera’s performers hail from Seattle and sing in venues in their native city, Bellevue and Friday Harbor.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox, who performs in principal roles in operas across the country, says she likes singing in intimate venues, like San Juan, because the acting in concert performances is subtle and enjoyed better up-close.

“Debussy’s music has an intensely personal, fragile feel to it, which is wonderful in a chamber setting,” said Mattox, who will perform the lead role of the girl caught in a love triangle.

At the upcoming show, you won’t see time-period costumes, dancing or extravagant lighting usually seen in fully staged opera production. Mattox said this kind of “bare bones” presentations gives the audience an “opportunity to focus solely on the music” without any distractions.


Falling for “opera”

The concert opera performs on San Juan at least three times a year.

“It’s sometimes hard to spread the word,” Thomas said. “Sometimes we have a very large group, other times another event takes place and we have a smaller audience. Overall, Friday Harbor has been wonderful and very supportive of our work.”

Thomas often receives compliments from first time opera listeners, who have attended the show and then have “fallen in love” with the drama and the music.

One of those fans is Friday Harbor’s Wendy Shepard, who remembers opera as a mysterious entity in her childhood. Her mother often closed the door to the living room on Saturday afternoons to hear the radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera.

Shepard never knew what her mother was doing because “noisy children were not allowed in,” but opera has piqued Shepard’s curiosity ever since.

She has attended two of the Puget Sound Concert Opera shows.

“For people like me who know little about opera, it is a wonderful way to learn more and to appreciate this passionate art form,” Shepard said. “Even the comic operas have a depth of feeling that touches the listener.”

Thomas finds when people hear good opera they get hooked, but if they’re first experience is with a poor performance, it’s hard to ever get them interested again.

She fell in love with opera in college when she heard a recording of Mozart’s aria in Don Giovanni titled  “Batti, Batti, o bel Masetto,” an Italian phrase that translates to “beat, oh beat me, sweet Masetto.”

The aria, sung by a young woman, is meant to pacify her jealous husband, who believes she has been unfaithful.

“She [the young woman in the opera] basically knew her power and had the ability to calm down her man with her wit and her guile,” Thomas said. “I was really impressed by a woman who could be so smart in opera — during that time [1789] it was harder to have the power.”

The upcoming show, “Pelleas et Melisande,” also features a jealous husband.

The story is about Prince Golaud and his jealously of his wife Melisande’s relationship with his younger brother Pelleas. One day Golaud finds that his brother and wife are in love and tragedy unfolds.

In the end, one character is left begging for “the truth.”

“That’s why in movies and other media you see stories like this opera,” Thomas said. “Everyone is touched by the timelessness of this story.”

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