A New Kind of Aria

The Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun’

It was a night of the unexpected and perhaps the absurd, and all of it combined to create a night of opera as unconventional as it was delightful. Despite Nicole Paris not being an opera singer, she delivered some of the most fun and impressive arias of the year for the Santa Fe Opera at Saturday's one-night-only performance of Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun, a marvelous melding of children's theater and opera if ever there were one.

Paris rose to arguable fame a few years ago when she and her father began releasing "mentor vs. apprentice" beatbox battle videos on YouTube. They shortly went viral, and Paris soon ended up on The Late Late Show, gave a TED Talk (I use the word "talk" loosely) and now—in a move that seems as surprising to her as it is fabulous for us—has ended up an opera diva thanks to the Opera for All Voices initiative.

Opera for All Voices, brainchild of a consortium of five opera companies around the country, is a new project aimed to make opera accessible and desirable to audiences up to and including the 55+ crowd. The key here is that second adjective—"desirable." Any 14-year-old can manage to score a ticket to a Santa Fe Opera production and would likely enjoy what they saw, but would they want to try in the first place? Sweet Potato, Opera for All Voices' inaugural production, turns the medium inside-out to be both appealing to new audiences and palatable for veteran audience members.

In the new work (Augusta Read Thomas, composer; Leslie Dunton-Downer, librettist; John de los Santos, director), the titular Sweet Potato is played by spritely Amy Owens. She has appropriately orange hair and an outfit cartoony enough for the Muppets, and admittedly, she's a bit of a pill. She likes to cause trouble, and the scene opens on her hanging out in a rooftop garden full of pigeons and beehives, dancing around saying she wants to kick the sun out of the sky. Her comrades urge her not to do so, but she unsurprisingly does not listen. Kick!

Kick! A modular set could conceivably be broken down and trucked around the country to provide opera to any community. (Tira Howard for the Santa Fe Opera)

The garden is plunged into disarray, and the matriarch of the garden, Grandmother Seed-Keeper (Briana Elyse Hunter), departs for her "secret cellar" to wait out the chaos.

Grandfather Beekeeper (also played by Hunter) tells Sweet Potato to make amends, and to take along her voice-of-reason hummingbird friend 89 (Dominik Belavy) and head to City Park Mountain to figure out what to do. After encountering a bevy of city-dweller friends like a trash-collecting dog, a utility-pole worker woodpecker and a traffic cop spider (all played by Dawn Lura), and participating in a song battle with two puffy-coat-wearing citizens pushing a shopping cart full of candy and soda, Sweet Potato and 89 grow up along the way and eventually find Grandmother. They return to the garden and order is restored.

This is indeed an opera geared toward children, and Santa Feans turned out in droves with their young ones. Fantastically, every single child in the audience around me behaved themselves, and the only outbursts were kids either talking about the action onstage or repeating things that had just been said by the actors. It made clear that the kids were truly engaged and paying close attention, while their parents were also enthralled by the colorful presentation, top-notch vocal performances and Paris' hilarious narrative interjections.

Nicole Paris taught audiences a new lesson about what an opera diva can sound like in 2019. (Tira Howard for the Santa Fe Opera)

Indeed, Paris was used perfectly in this production. She acted as a benevolent omnipresent narrator, following along with the story as we did, often repeating lines or concepts to be sure the audience understood. Despite being sung in English, due to a lack of subtitles, it may have been easy to get lost without her; for example, as a character is introduced, Paris called out from a stool in the corner: "Wait, who is this? Grandfather, OK."

Not all of her interjections were beatboxed, but a number were, leaving mouths agape and inspiring no polite chuckles—she was funny as hell, and we laughed for real. For such a tight production, her calls seemed genuinely improvised, which added freshness and bounce to the story. And when she launched into sublime and soulful gospel-style solos between hisses and growls, the entire house floated on air. There was not a better choice for the star of this opera. She taught us about a new kind of aria, and it was inspiring.

The set, designed by Liliana Duque Piñeiro, was not only modern and modular, but made a stage full of people and a six-person orchestra somehow still seem massive. The pieces, including prismatic sun rays and utility poles and staircases, all wheeled around and formed new scenes, and proved to be forward-thinking by way of transporting this opera long distances. Something called an "Opera for All Voices" is ideally easily portable and able to be thrown up on stages in any city, and it is easy to picture this set breaking down, loading into a truck and heading to the next town to spread some operatic light.

And speaking of light, lightning designer Noele Stollmack deserves a nod for bold choices, including cool colors perfect for a world without a sun, as well as the bravery to plunge the whole stage into darkness as Sweet Potato and 89 search for Grandmother. You don't realize just how rarely lighting designers are willing to put characters in darkness until it happens, and we have been lucky enough to see it happen twice on SFO stages this year (previously, Cosí fan tutte also saw its characters singing in the dark).

With regards to that onstage six-person orchestra, kudos to musical director Carmen Flórez-Mansi and her brave musicians, particularly percussionists David Tolen and Gregg Koyle. From bird calls to city sounds, sometimes this score could hardly be considered music—it often devolved into a kind of ambient noise behind frenetic action onstage, punctuated by tweets and squeaks as 89 frantically zipped around the stage, and watching the musicians keep their heads as the story swirled around them was nothing short of heroic.

The lack of subtitles worked fine for my seat in the seventh row of the Lensic, but it's hard to know how it translated to the back of the mezzanine; thankfully, the expressive music and lighting paired with the singers' acting chops were likely enough to communicate the story. Baritone Belavy, who played the often-exasperated hummingbird 89, was a particular delight to watch. He kept perfect composure as he ran around the stage in an undeniably silly beanie with a long beak (probably the finest piece among many fine costumes from designer Ashley Soliman) and exhibited an unflagging sense of humor as he chased Sweet Potato around the city on her ridiculous adventures. I hope to see more of Belavy's deft work, and hopefully he will have plenty of opportunity to make us laugh again in the future.

As the production wound to a close, the audience at the Lensic felt they'd been transported to another universe for years—but a check of the clock showed only about 90-some-odd minutes had passed. As Paris called out gleefully from the stage, "Can you believe it? I was in an opera!" we cheered and laughed alongside her incredulity, and everyone was all the better for seeing just how an opera ostensibly for children can truly delight generations.

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