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Ochelata's Wedding

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World Premiere Details

OK Mozart Festival, Bartlesville, Oklahoma USA
10 June 2000

Joe Sears and Jaston Williams

Leon Majors

Solisti New York
Ransom Wilson

Robert Swenson (Andre La Font)
Bradley Garvin (Chief Ochelata) 
James Burritt (Tito)
Ariana Zukerman (Wilma)
Jonathan Hays (outlaw/lawman)
Shon Sims (outlaw/lawman)
Charles Robert Stephens (outlaw/lawman)

Set Design
Erhard Rom




The following article appeared in several US newspapers including TulsaWorld, from which it is reprinted here.


By James D. Watts Jr. World Entertainment Writer

OK Mozart is celebrating a marriage of unique talents. And Ransom Wilson's the matchmaker.

It seemed like such a simple plan:

Bring together a respected French composer and a pair of playwrights known for their comic plays about a place called Tuna, Texas.

Present them with the seed of a story, about a French composer who finds himself in northeastern Oklahoma -- say, somewhere around Bartlesville.

Give them a few months to exercise their creativity and voila! -- they produce a comic opera that would be perfect for something like the OK Mozart International Festival.

That was the idea OK Mozart artistic director Ransom Wilson had. Five and a half years ago.

That's how long its taken "Ochelata's Wedding" to travel from an inspiration in a Broadway theater to the stage of the Bartlesville Community Center, where the opera will have its world premiere Saturday as part of the OK Mozart International Festival.

Even though the opera's opening night is less than a week away, "Ochelata's Wedding" is still undergoing some changes.

"Like any new piece, it's a work in progress right up to the last minute," said Wilson, who recently put in a 21-hour day overseeing some last-minute revisions to the orchestration. "But everyone feels like we've really achieved something special with this show. And, frankly, we're all a little amazed that we've finally made it to this point."

"Ochelata's Wedding" -- written by composer Jean-Michel Damase, who has appeared at several previous OK Mozart events, and playwrights Jaston Williams and Bartlesville native Joe Sears, creators of the popular "Tuna Trilogy" -- is that rarest of creations: a 20th-century comic opera.

"No one is writing comic opera's these days," Wilson said. "Just about every new opera that comes along is a social opera, very heavy and fraught with meaning.

"I had this idea about juxtaposing different cultures -- which is, in a sense, what OK Mozart is all about," he said. "I mean, if you can set Mozart down next to an oil derrick, why not have two guys who written these plays about life in small-town Texas collaborate with a French composer who knew Ravel and Faure?"

Sears said Wilson approached him about doing the libretto in December 1994 -- the day he and Williams were opening on Broadway with "A Tuna Christmas," the production for which Sears would be nominated for a Tony Award.

"He said, `I know you're busy,' " Sears recalled, laughing, " `but I'd like to commission you to write an opera.' It was something he had wanted to do for a long time, and he wanted someone with local ties to be involved. When he found out I was from Bartlesville, it seemed perfect."

Sears immediately brought Williams into the project, and they worked out a storyline from Wilson's original idea, about a French composer in the 1800s being sent by the Duchess of Windsor to Indian Territory to compose a choral piece as a wedding present for the daughter of Ochelata, chief of the Cherokees.

"Joe worked out most of the original storyline, and I was really impressed," Williams said. "It was a really funny idea, and I brought my own bit of insanity into it, added some U-turns to the plot."

The theatrical adage that "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" seems to be magnified once applied to the world of opera.

"We both love opera, but we'd never considered writing one," Williams said. "Neither of us had any idea of the intricacy of opera, how many red herrings had to be tossed out, how no possibility could be overlooked."

Add to the difficulty the fact that the third major collaborator lived half a world away.

"I have known Ransom since he was a student in Paris," said Damase, whose many compositions include two works that had their world premieres at OK Mozart. "And I was very excited about this, about doing an opera set in America, because I associate American music with the liberation of Paris. That was when I really discovered American music, and I still enjoy it, now more than ever."

Although Damase is fluent in English, he found the process of putting music to English words surprisingly difficult.

"French is my language, not only for speech but for music," he said. "The sounds and rhythms of it are part of the way I think, the way I hear. The way the words are accented in English is so different from French. Fortunately Ransom has been a great help in that process. Now, I am not so worried about how the English sounds.

"Besides," Damase added, "some of the words are so funny that I did not want to put them to music, to make sure that the audience could hear them clearly."

Wilson said, "I thought that once I passed on the idea and brought the three of them together, my participation in this would end. Which, I suppose, was pretty naive of me. They needed a translator -- not simply to translate between French to English, but between the sensibilities of France and Tuna, Texas."

The text and the music have gone through all sorts of changes over the time it's taken "Ochelata's Wedding" to come to fruition. The wedding around which the story revolves has taken on a kind of "Romeo and Juliet" quality, as it is between a Cherokee woman and an Osage man. The fish-out-of-water aspect of a French composer in Indian Territory has been taken literally -- he and his piano are on a barge going up the river that gets wrecked.

That piano also takes on an important role, since it is where a trio of outlaws have stashed their ill-gotten gains, just steps ahead of the Texas Rangers on their trail.

Although "Ochelata's Wedding" is certainly a comedy, Sears said there is a seriousness underlying the hilarity -- something that the final scene, when the composer presents his finished work, is designed to emphasize.

"I wanted to make certain that things didn't get too far out of hand in dealing with the Indian characters," said Sears, whose work away from the Tuna plays has dealt mostly with historical themes, like "Nation," the play wrote in 1997 for the Cherokee Nation's "Trail of Tears" outdoor drama. "I had already done a lot of research into Cherokee history for that Trail of Tears play, and I wanted to make sure that we weren't going to offend the Cherokee or the Osage with this."

The cast for "Ochelata's Wedding" includes Robert Swenson as the composer Andre La Font, Bradley Garvin as Chief Ochelata, James Burritt as Tito, the Osage Indian betrothed to Wilma, played by Ariana Zukerman (daughter of Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman, both artists featured at past OK Mozarts), and Jonathan Hays, Shon Sims and Charles Robert Stephens alternating between the outlaws and the lawmen pursuing them.

The show is directed by Leon Majors, artistic director of Boston Lyric Opera and director of the Opera Studio at the University of Maryland.

"The most interesting and important part of opera is doing the new works, like `Ochelata's Wedding,' " he said. "It's what feeds our view of the great works from the past.

"My job is to make the story clear, which means making sure this is a piece about people," he said. "Real people doing real things. Any message you want to present isn't valid if the audience doesn't know the people. Anything that needs a footnote doesn't make good theater."

Which brings Majors to another thought: exactly how best to describe "Ochelata's Wedding."

"To me, it's a musical theater piece," he said. "You want to call it an opera, it's an opera. You want to call it a musical comedy, it's a musical comedy. You want to call it an operetta, it's an operetta. If I had my way, I'd call it a lyrical operatic musical comedy theater piece -- if only to see how they'd fit on that on a marquee."


Sent on The Associated Press wire, the next article was also printed throughout the US


Indian culture goes opera in Oklahoma town
Clash of cultures works in presenting humorous story about wedding in old oil town

The Associated Press

BARTLESVILLE, Okla. (AP) -- The librettists came from Broadway. The composer from France. And the slapstick story about Indian Territory is set right here in Bartlesville.

The opera "Ochelata's Wedding" premieres today at the 16th OK Mozart International Festival.

"It had to represent a kind of clash of cultures that we represent," said Ransom Wilson, artistic director of the concert series. "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."

The book was written by the Tony-nominated team of Joe Sears and Jaston Williams ("Greater Tuna" and "Tuna Christmas"). The composer, Jean-Michel Damase, is known for lush, impressionistic music in the style of Francis Poulenc. Leon Majors of the Boston Lyric Opera directs.

"I wanted to show the people of Bartlesville that opera can be fun," Wilson said.

The fictitious story, set in Oklahoma's Osage Hills a century ago, revolves around the wedding of Wilma, the daughter of Cherokee Chief Ochelata, and Tito, her Osage bridegroom. As a wedding gift, a French duchess sends a composer with spinet in tow to provide music for the wedding.

Outlaws, however, hide their loot in the spinet to evade pursuing Texas Rangers. When the spinet gets crated and sent off to Indian Territory, mayhem unfolds as the outlaws try to recover it.

A trio of baritones playing dual roles as Texas Rangers and outlaws provide most of the comedy, dashing behind rocks to emerge as other characters.

"Ochelata's Wedding" began with a brainstorming session in 1995 between Wilson and Nan Buhlinger, executive director of OK Mozart. With Bartlesville's 1998 centennial approaching, Wilson suggested commissioning an original opera about life in the oil-rich territory 100 years ago.

Bartlesville, today a city of about 35,000, sat then at the edge of Cherokee and Osage land. Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips Petroleum, entertained outlaws, Indians and Hollywood royalty at his country home there.

The OK Mozart board received a startup grant from the Wallace/Reader's Digest Special Projects Fund. Wilson approached Damase "because his music is so charming and light in texture. I knew his music wouldn't bog down a comedy."

The Solisti New York Orchestra, which plays throughout the festival, would provide orchestral accompaniment. The next step was to find librettists.

Buhlinger suggested Sears, a Bartlesville native who had gone on to Broadway success with Williams. Wilson attended the premiere of "Tuna Christmas" in New York in 1995 and offered them the job backstage that night.

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

Wilson, an Alabama native who works mostly in New York and travels as a conductor and flautist, remained the go-between.

"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," Wilson said. "We were bringing Paris, New York and Texas together."

It was clear early on that the work wouldn't be ready in time for Bartlesville's centennial. Sears and Williams, used to writing breakneck theater comedy, found opera a challenge.

Sears, whose family came to Oklahoma in the era in which the opera is set, had a Cherokee background to draw on and live up to. "I made sure we didn't contrive anything that would make Native Americans look bad," he said.

Performers were selected last fall at auditions in New York City.

"Our idea is that it will go on the road," Wilson said. "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."


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