September 2, 2010

Pagliacci on Coney Island: the high-low art of Mercury Opera

Last night I attended a terrific opera that has to take the show-must-go-on prize for overcoming mountainous obstacles.  Mercury Opera Artistic Director Daria Parada somehow managed to stage an offbeat yet artistically accomplished version of I Pagliacci in the building that usually houses the Coney Island Sideshow.

It was the perfect venue for the production, since Parada’s interpretation of Pagliacci transposes the Ruggero Leoncavallo favorite to the amusement park boardwalk on the day of the Mermaid Parade. The Banff School of Fine Arts and Mannes College of Music-trained singer launched her company in New York City in 1999. In 2005 she relocated to her hometown of Edmonton, Canada for love, to marry musician Boris Derow. Parada first staged Pagliacci to rave reviews at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, but from the moment she first clapped eyes on Coney Island in 1992, bringing the production to the actual boardwalk that inspired it was her ultimate goal.

Parada held a competition for singers, and planned to stage the production in a tent on the Thor Equities lot on Coney Island. But a reduction in the number of seats she was allowed made the production financially untenable. After first considering cancelling the show, Parada thought of the Coney Island Side Show building on Surf Avenue and 12th Street, the original inspiration for her Pagliacci. Miraculously, despite the Side Show's busy summer schedule, its owner granted Parada use of the facility for one night only. Meanwhile, the tenor who had won the competition dropped out, the conductor walked out, and another singer was dragging the cast down by his lack of preparation.

 Somehow, the persuasive and plucky Parada managed to lure two top-notch performers to fly out from Phoenix and Niagara Falls to fill in, and Boris, her husband, did a superb job in the role of Beppe.
The event was a giant hit with the packed audience. Parada envisions Pagliacci becoming like a Cirque du Soleil production or a traveling Broadway show, constantly in production somewhere in the world. At the moment, she's in conversation with the Coney Island Side Show about doing an actual run there.

The last item in the evening’s program fittingly captured the miracuous quality of the evening. It was a quote from Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love: “….Allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. So what do we do? Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

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