Opera Omaha Brings Out the Original Western
February 11th, 2016
Omaha, NE — Thereâ€™s a new sheriff in town, a tough guy from Cut and Shoot, Texas.
When I entered the studio to interview a lead actor and singer for Opera Omahaâ€™s upcoming production of The Girl of the Golden West, my first thought was, â€œThis guy has a fantastic beard!â€ followed directly by â€œHe looks like he could star in a John Ford film.â€
â€œMy name is Michael Mayes, Iâ€™m singing the role of Jack Rance in The Girl of the Golden West, and Jack is the sheriff whoâ€™s in love with Minnie. But that love is unrequited and he is supplanted by the handsome and beautifully-voiced Dick Johnson, also known as Ramirez the Bandit. Itâ€™s very â€œspaghetti western,â€ itâ€™s fantastic.
As it turns out, Mayes is OK with a little bit of Classic Western influence. In fact, his love of Westerns goes back to his childhood in the town of Cut and Shoot, Texas.
â€œI am the biggest Western fan in opera, period,â€ Mayes said. â€œThis, for me, has been an absolute playground. Growing up, my mother, father, and I watched Western every weekend. Once we got that fancy magic box and talk called TV, we were able to get the Western channel. We watched it all the time. I was absolutely immersed in the tradition of Westerns. [Girl of the Golden West] itself is really your first Western. Film wasnâ€™t really going at that time, and you didnâ€™t have these things.â€
Mayes points out that Western films didnâ€™t just impact the design of this production, but also the interpretation of the story. For example, Sheriff Jack Rance is not the stereotypical villain with authority, but a morally complex and â€œgrayâ€ character similar to those in Fordâ€™s masterpiece, The Searchers.
â€œYou see this guy, heâ€™s a good guy, right?â€ he said. â€œBut, he has this epiphany and you really see the struggle; the dark side and the light side. Heâ€™s the hero, but inasmuch as heâ€™s the hero heâ€™s also kind of a monster. Westerns just didnâ€™t tell that story before â€˜The Searchers,â€™ and thatâ€™s the sort of story weâ€™re trying to tell here.â€
Creating that complexity involved delving deep into the background of each character, often digging up information that isnâ€™t in the opera itself! For example, why did Jack Rance go out to California and become a sheriff when he was doing well in Louisiana?
â€œA lot of those guys got into that gig because they knew both sides of the law and the operated on both sides of the law,â€ Mayes said. â€œThat mystery of where Jack comes from, how we gets out there, is never really made clear. We know heâ€™s from Louisiana. We know heâ€™s a gambler. If youâ€™re looking at gambling in the 1850s, why the heck would you leave Louisiana? Itâ€™s gambling central there. You have every mark you could ever dream of. So what sends him out West? We donâ€™t know that. We know he has a wife back there though he doesnâ€™t talk about it anymore. And going from Louisiana to California in the 1850â€™s is like going from here to Guam; you might as well be going to Mars, thatâ€™s how far away it is.â€
Pucciniâ€™s The Girl of the Golden West will be staged by Opera Omaha this Friday, February 12, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, February 14, at 2 pm. Both performances are at the Orpheum Theatre in Omaha; tickets and more information is available online at www.operaomaha.org.
Comments are closed.