Butler Opera Center Conducted by Richard McKay Stages Works by Bernstein, Mozart.

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By Randy Harriman | The Austin American-Statesman

There will be trouble brewing on the stage of the McCullough Theatre on the University of Texas campus over the next two weekends. The Butler Opera Center is presenting an operatic double-header there: Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti,” which has nothing much to do with that island paradise; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Impresario,” which has everything to do with the troubles involved in auditioning two very competitive divas.

Presenting the two operas on one bill gave some pause to Robert DeSimone, the director of the Butler center (and stage director for “Tahiti”). “The two are so different,” he says, “I wondered if we could pull it off. But I think we came up with a good solution.”

The differences to which DeSimone refers are considerable. Bernstein wrote “Trouble in Tahiti” in 1951, and it deals with the marital problems of a couple from that period. Mozart’s “Impresario” dates from 1786, about the same time he was working on “The Marriage of Figaro,” and although the central problem — dealing with two prima donnas — might be timeless, the piece was filled with references to then-contemporary events and personalities.

The solution DeSimone and his students came up with is twofold: The impresario who deals with the divas in the second opera is introduced as the producer of the first opera, with some business to demonstrate his involvement; and the libretto to Mozart’s work — sung in English — has been revised by stage director Octavio Cardenas to reflect current events and current personalities. (The two divas who are attempting to break into opera bear a striking resemblance to two young women in the contemporary pop scene whose lives, careers and sometimes anatomies are subject to public scrutiny.)

The casts for both works are small. There are five singers in “Tahiti”: Dinah, the wife; Sam, the husband; and a “Greek chorus” trio to provide running commentary. Things don’t get any bigger in “The Impresario,” which involves Mr. Scruples, the title role; Mr. Bluff, his assistant; Mr. Angel, the financier; and Mmes. Goldentrill and Silverpeal, the aspiring opera singers.

Richard McKay, director of the UT University Orchestra, will conduct “Trouble in Tahiti.” On the podium for “The Impresario” will be faculty member Dwight Bigler.

Both operas are double-cast, but even so, DeSimone says the involvement of relatively few singers represents something of a breathing space for the opera center between last fall’s imaginative and demanding performances of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and the April production of Carlisle Floyd’s large-cast “Susannah.”

“Trouble in Tahiti” takes its title from a fictional movie that plays a significant role in the story. Bernstein began working on the show while on vacation in Mexico, but the death of Serge Koussevitzky, his longtime patron, interrupted his labors. He was unable to continue work on the piece until, while serving as visiting professor at Brandeis University, he was asked to direct a music festival featuring “Tahiti.”

The opera was first performed in June 1952, revised, then revived by the composer in 1973. DeSimone says the Butler center production sets the scene firmly in the early 1950s, so he describes the half-century-old work as a “period piece,” an appellation that may be a little disconcerting to some who remember those years.

Mozart’s “Impresario” was likewise composed for a special occasion, in his case a visit to the court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II by the governor-general of the Austrian Netherlands, his wife (the emperor’s sister) and a nephew of the king of Poland. Mozart suspended work on “Figaro,” and set to work on a one-act “singspiel” as the emperor had requested, with a libretto by Gottfried Stephanie.

At the reception for the visiting royalty on Feb. 7, 1786, Mozart’s “Der Schauspieldirektor” was followed by another work commissioned by the emperor: a full-length Italian opera by composer Antonio Salieri. Salieri received 100 ducats for his efforts; Mozart, 50.

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