Opera Omaha Brings Out the Original Western
February 11th, 2016
Omaha, NE — There’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 Omaha’s upcoming production of The Girl of the Golden West, my first thought was, “This guy has a fantastic beard!” followed directly by “He looks like he could star in a John Ford film.”
“My name is Michael Mayes, I’m singing the role of Jack Rance in The Girl of the Golden West, and Jack is the sheriff who’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. It’s very “spaghetti western,” it’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.
“I am the biggest Western fan in opera, period,” Mayes said. “This, 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 wasn’t really going at that time, and you didn’t have these things.”
Mayes points out that Western films didn’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 “gray” character similar to those in Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers.
“You see this guy, he’s a good guy, right?” he said. “But, he has this epiphany and you really see the struggle; the dark side and the light side. He’s the hero, but inasmuch as he’s the hero he’s also kind of a monster. Westerns just didn’t tell that story before ‘The Searchers,’ and that’s the sort of story we’re trying to tell here.”
Creating that complexity involved delving deep into the background of each character, often digging up information that isn’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?
“A 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,” Mayes said. “That mystery of where Jack comes from, how we gets out there, is never really made clear. We know he’s from Louisiana. We know he’s a gambler. If you’re looking at gambling in the 1850s, why the heck would you leave Louisiana? It’s gambling central there. You have every mark you could ever dream of. So what sends him out West? We don’t know that. We know he has a wife back there though he doesn’t talk about it anymore. And going from Louisiana to California in the 1850’s is like going from here to Guam; you might as well be going to Mars, that’s how far away it is.”
Puccini’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.
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