Oklahoma-commissioned opera to debut

Thursday, June 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BARTLESVILLE, Okla. (AP) -- If opera, Indian Territory and French composers don't sound like they should go in the same sentence, that's exactly the point. The eclectic group behind the premiere of "Ochelata's Wedding" wants to bring to the world stage an opera that combines the dignity of French composition with the laughs of Marx Brothers-style comedy.

"Ochelata's Wedding" debuts before a sold-out audience Saturday as the 16th OK Mozart International Festival opens at the Bartlesville Community Center.

"I wanted to show the people of Bartlesville that opera can be fun," says Ransom Wilson, artistic director of the annual northeast Oklahoma concert series.

"Ochelata's Wedding" brings together French composerJean-Michel Damase, who is known for his lush, impressionistic music in the style of Francis Poulenc; Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, the Tony-nominated acting and writing team of "Greater Tuna" and "Tuna Christmas;" and opera director Leon Majors.

The fictitious story, set in the Osage Hills of Oklahoma a century ago, revolves around the wedding of Wilma, the daughter of Cherokee Chief Ochelata, and Tito, the Osage Indian groom.

As a wedding gift, a French duchess who is friends with Ochelata, sends a French composer with spinet in tow to create the wedding music.

Outlaws hide their ill-gotten gains in the composer's spinet to evade the Texas Rangers, who are in hot pursuit. But the spinet gets crated for the balance of the trip to Indian Territory, and mayhem unfolds as the outlaws try to recover their loot.

A trio of baritones playing demanding dual roles as Texas Rangers and outlaws provide the central comedic theme. They're on the run throughout the opera, dashing behind rocks to emerge as other characters.

"It had to represent a kind of clash of cultures that we represent," Wilson says. "I mean, we're presenting 18th century European music in a 20th century oil town. With Native Americans around and buffaloes, it's an incredible culture clash, but it works ... and I knew it had to be funny."

How "Ochelata's Wedding" came into being is a story of persistence, communication and teamwork.

It began with a typical brainstorming session in early 1995 between Wilson and Nan Buhlinger, executive director of OK Mozart.

"We do 'what ifs' a lot," Buhlinger says. With Bartlesville's centennial in the planning stages for 1998, Wilson offered the idea of commissioning an original opera that would show life in the oil-rich territory around Bartlesville 100 years ago.

Bartlesville, today a small city of about 35,000, lent a rich heritage to the idea with its Indian Territory location at the edge of the Cherokee Outlet and Osage tribal lands.

Around that time, it became the home of Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips Petroleum, who entertained outlaws, Indians and Hollywood royalty at his country home, Woolaroc.

The OK Mozart board liked the idea and found a start-up grant from the Wallace/Reader's Digest Special Projects Fund.

Wilson's first contact was Damase.

"I thought immediately of Jean-Michel Damase, because his music is so charming and light in texture. I knew his music wouldn't bog down a comedy," he says.

The Solisti New York Orchestra, which plays throughout OK Mozart, would provide orchestral accompaniment to the opera. The next step was to find librettists. Buhlinger suggested Sears, a Bartlesville native who had gone onto Broadway success with acting and writing partner Jaston Williams. Wilson attended the premiere of their "Tuna Christmas" in New York in 1995 and offered the duo the writing job backstage that night.

"I have a memory of being blown away by his asking us to do that," Sears says.

Wilson originally planned to bring the disparate players in the project together, then stand back and watch. But that proved to be a challenge.

"The thought of a Parisian communicating with two 'boys' from Texas and Oklahoma who kind of celebrate their southwesternness --it was hard. They had very little common language," says Wilson. "We were bringing Paris, New York and Texas together."

Wilson remained the go-between, bridging two worlds, "because they are my two worlds," says the Alabama native who works mostly in New York and travels the world conducting orchestras and opera and performing on the flute.

The work, originally slated for Bartlesville's centennial, quickly grew out of the time frame.

There were challenges for the first-time operatic writers who were used to writing breakneck theater comedy.

"You have to able to slow some things down in opera," says Williams. "The performers have to be able to breathe."

Sears, whose family came to Oklahoma in the same era as the opera setting, had a Cherokee background to draw upon and live up to.

"I made sure we didn't contrive anything that would make Native Americans look bad," he says.

Wilson chose operatic director Leon Majors, director of the Boston Lyric Opera, to direct the new project. The performers were selected last fall at auditions in New York City auditions. Most were intrigued to have the opportunity to work on a new creation.

"The most interesting thing is just creating it for the first time," says Bradley Garvin, who sings the part of Chief Ochelata. "Once the composer says, `OK, we're ready to go.' Seeing what they create out of what's been put down."

Reviewers will be challenged with what to call the work. Is it a comic opera? A musical comedy? Classic French farce?

"We've decided we have a new animal," says Buhlinger, who says she believes "Ochelata's Wedding" could be destined for either the New York Opera or Broadway musical stage.

Several potential Broadway and opera producers will be in the audience for the premiere.

"Our idea is that it will go on the road," says Wilson. "We think that it has such appeal, it will perhaps play even in Europe. Because whenever I travel in Europe, they all have this fascination with the exotic West."