Les Délices returns to the live stage with pandemic-delayed baroque opera "The White Cat"
Cleveland baroque chamber ensemble Les Délices will debut one of its first live performances since the start of the pandemic for audiences this weekend, Friday through Saturday.
Its production of “The White Cat,” a new 65-minute opera, has been three years in the making and is noted as the group’s largest undertaking.
The opera will present French baroque music to listeners, performed by two vocalists and a six-piece chamber ensemble.
“The White Cat” is based on a story by 17th-century novelist Madame Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, who coined the term “fairy tale.”
It is a feminist retelling of the “Puss In Boots” story, written as part of the salon culture in France where women were highly influential.
Les Délices commissioned scholar and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Larry Rosenwald to develop a libretto, or opera text, in English for the production.
“The White Cat” will include music, projections, puppets and baroque-period sets. It is intended for audiences of all ages.
The project was initially scheduled to premiere in April 2020 but was put on because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s widespread lockdowns.
“We just kind of desperately wanted to bring this project to completion, not only because we've done a majority of the work and wanted to share it with the world, but you know, this is and was a very ambitious project for us, and it had it received some special support,” said Debra Nagy, artistic director for Les Délices.
Pivoting to hybrid performances during the pandemic
Nagy founded Les Délices in 2009, and the chamber ensemble has expanded from presenting medieval music programs to classical chamber music.
Chamber music is about intimate experiences, and when the 2020 pandemic hit, the ensemble turned to virtual programming to expand its audience beyond Northeast Ohio.
Now in its 13th season, the ensemble has presented a hybrid season from October 2021 through April 2022.
It performed three virtual concerts from October through January, and while “The White Cat” will also be available to stream online, the group encourages people to experience the live art in person.
“Part of my commitment to stay in Cleveland was about being able to create projects and cultivate artistic identity and connection with audiences here,” Nagy said.
Nagy is a multi-instrumentalist specializing in music from France in the 17th and 18th centuries. She graduated from Oberlin College and Conservatory and earned her doctorate at Case Western Reserve University.
She has remained in Cleveland and formed Les Délices more than a decade ago to create a wider impact on the area’s art scene.
“It’s an interesting and challenging time in the arts. You can’t take anything for granted,” she said.
Audiences are slowly returning to in-person entertainment and performances, but Nagy said there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that cultural institutions large and small can continue to thrive.
At the onset of the pandemic, Nagy created a web series called “Salon ERA.”
“[It was] really intended it as a salon experience for the 21st century, so it's a combination of talk with music,” Nagy said.
Salon performances were traditionally for small, exclusive gatherings in residences.
“Salon ERA” serves as an “early music variety show” people can watch in their homes or other settings virtually.
“We made a complete 180,” she said. “I think we were very successful, and I not only put a lot of thought into it but took a lot of pride in the sort of pivot to virtual and online programming that we engineered.”
She said the experience of taking Les Délices remote made those involved realize there are different means and avenues to bring together audiences worldwide.
The virtual programming allowed them to greatly expand the number of artists and contributors they worked with as well.
There were approximately 40 artists involved in the 16 episodes of “Salon ERA.”
“That program has been really interesting and allowed us to explore repertoire that's all over the map and that we wouldn't have been able to program or explore in a traditional concert series,” Nagy said.
Nagy said the pandemic allowed them to take risks, get more creative and expand their thinking.
"It’s an interesting and challenging time in the arts. You can’t take anything for granted."
They included pre-concert talks with scholars and curators around the globe and were able to introduce a new cultural experience to viewers.
Government support for the arts helped, Nagy said.
“Now we're at a point where there's not that supplemental government funding,” she said. “There's all this same ambition, if not more, and new expectations that the audience has about access as well as quality. So, I think now is a particularly dangerous time, if I'm totally honest.”
The ensemble’s performance of “The White Cat” is an opportunity to provide an engaging, enjoyable experience for all different types of audiences, whether they’re familiar with the type of music involved or not.
Introducing French classical music to new audiences
Jason McStoots, stage director and performer in “The White Cat,” said there has always been a large appetite for classical music in the United States, but audiences may not know or appreciate French baroque music because it’s not performed as often.
“This French music gets a rep as light or fluffy or frivolous. And I feel that's really deeply misplaced and misunderstood,” McStoots said. “So much of it is beautiful and serious and sort of arching and graceful.”
McStoots is based in Boston and works closely with the Boston Early Music Festival, one of the primary historically informed performance organizations in the country.
The festival put on a baroque opera with period instruments, costumes and sets and do what is referred to as “baroque gesture.”
“In other words, we attempt to recreate the style of acting and movement that a performer would have used in the 17th or early 18th centuries,” McStoots said. “So that's sort of become, you know, one of the hallmarks … is this more historically informed version of stage comportment and acting.”
He was excited to work with Les Délices on “The White Cat” because it incorporates the style of music and performance he has worked on throughout his career.
He said the name Les Délices implies a love of French repertoire and that interested him as well.
McStoots said he hopes families in Northeast Ohio will see “The White Cat” in person because it’s time to get back into the artistic culture of live performance.
This involves interacting with performers after the show and fostering that sense of connection between those on stage and in the crowd.
“We really want to get people back and stop looking at screens and start looking at human bodies in motion, making the magic that is instrumental and vocal music on stage, and not this sort of constant engaging with our artists through a screen,” McStoots said.
Creating visuals to tell the story
“The White Cat” will feature baroque music by Lully, Couperin, Marais and others.
It will be an audio-visual fairy-tale opera spectacle that fuses an old story with an entirely new script and libretto.
The music and visual elements are all inspired by the French baroque era. Nagy wanted to create an accessible, welcoming introduction to opera and this style of music to audiences of all ages.
“I think there's so many different levels on which to appreciate and experience this show because the music is beautiful and super-listenable for anybody,” she said. “But it's also very sophisticated.”
The intention is to create an inclusive and welcoming experience for a much broader audience then might traditionally attend a Les Délices concert.
McStoots said part of the reason for choosing a fairy tale as the production’s main story is because they wanted to share the music with younger audiences and families.
“I think a lot of people hear, ‘Oh, you're doing a French baroque opera,’ and they think that this is something that 50-something or 60-something people have, a dress-up night. And they go out to dinner, and they put on their fancy clothes and they go to the opera. And this is this production is really not that it,” McStoots said.
One aspect developed for the enjoyment of younger viewers is adding puppets to the show.
Cleveland-based designer and builder Ian Petroni created all of the puppets for “The White Cat.”
“I always feel like great art never stands still. It’s a constant state of evolving your ideas.”
Petroni will perform during the production, controlling the king character. Elena Mullins and Samara Steele will voice and operate the cat puppet, respectively.
After visiting a friend in Cleveland, Petroni volunteered to work on Cleveland Museum of Art’s Parade the Circle event where he could put his creative inclinations to use.
“I had a great time, and I really enjoyed the work. You know, the physical work itself was similar to what I had done in the theater, but I really responded to the community, the community of artists working together,” Petroni said.
He eventually got a job as the props carpenter at Cleveland Play House for five years.
Petroni and Nagy became neighbors and developed a friendship in Cleveland. Nagy approached him about her idea for a baroque opera and asked if he wanted to build puppets for it.
He said the first steps were determining how to tell the story using physical props.
“And to be able to sort of work in harmony with the musicians and the singers and actors, as well as, there’s a projection element,” Petroni said.
He said he also had to think about the structure and technical aspect of how the puppets would move and behave.
“The King is a 10-foot puppet that a puppeteer wears on a backpack, and then the spine goes up from the back of the backpack. [There is] wire and paper mâché for the heads and the hands and then for the king’s curly hair, I’m actually going to use toilet paper rolls and cut those up to make the curls,” he said.
Petroni worked with a painter to help bring the cat’s and king’s faces and to life.
“The King is sort of a modeled after the French Louis Quatorze, the kind of very, very pompous kind of over-the-top, that sort of style,” he said. “So I'm using a lot of tulle, which is nice and lightweight, but also give some fluffy, poofy body. And then some more decorative, kind of more elaborate fabrics on top of that.”
He hopes the audience will enjoy the production and experience its beauty, which he said is valuable for our humanity.
“I hope that the creativity of all these art forms working together can be inspiring as well,” Petroni said.
Bringing people together to experience the story
It was far along in development in 2019, but Nagy said they’re really bringing it to life now. The pandemic stalled the performances, but it also allowed time for changes in production.
“In the meantime different ideas have evolved. We expanded the instrument ensemble slightly, . It's in different spaces than we originally planned for,” she said. “I always feel like great art never stands still. It’s a constant state of evolving your ideas.”
Petroni said “The White Cat” had been put on a shelf for a while so it’s rewarding that the performances are finally happening.
“It does sort of feel like it's been cooking for a while,” Petroni said. “So it's exciting for it to be to be coming to fruition.”
McStoots said they want people to feel safe and comfortable attending the performance, and they’re working to make sure they can return to in-person programming while keeping everyone’s health a main concern.
"We really want to get people back and stop looking at screens and start looking at human bodies in motion."
He said "The White Cat" operates on many different levels of emotional connection and relationships, and audiences will get a lot from experiencing it in person.
"It's a really beautiful, different kind of fable," McStoots said. "It's not about someone bad finding their good or taking advantage of others. It's really about two beings finding beauty in each other and in the space that they share together."
"The White Cat" will serve as the grand finale for Les Délices 2021-22 season. Its 14th season will begin in September 2022.
Tickets for "The White Cat" range from $5-$40 and can be purchased at lesDélices.org or by calling 216-302-8404.
The first performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Akron Public Library, located 60 High St., Akron.
Performances at the Breen Center, located at 2008 W. 30th St. in Cleveland, will take place at at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday.
A filmed version of the performance will be released on Marquee TV April 28.