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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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."