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Arts & Culture: In Perfect Harmony

By Anh-Minh Le

A contemporary opera company continues to innovate, broadening its reach and relevance.

This month, Opera Parallèle, led by Nicole Paiement and Brian Staufenbiel, presents Sophia’s Forest, which features nine sound sculptures designed by Lembit Beecher and built in conjunction with Drexel University’s ExCITe Center. | Photo courtesy of Lembit Beecher

During an interview to discuss Opera Parallèle’s forthcoming presentation of Sophia’s Forest, Nicole Paiement is searching for the right word to complete a thought when colleague Brian Staufenbiel helpfully offers: “Challenges?”

“That’s right!” It was just on the tip of her tongue. “We like to transform challenges into opportunities,” she continues.

“We’re a good team, for sure,” he follows up with a laugh.

Paiement is the founder as well as general and artistic director of contemporary opera company Opera Parallèle — prior to 2012, it was known as Ensemble Parallèle — and Staufenbiel is its creative director. For the past decade, they have led the San Francisco nonprofit’s innovative productions, such as Ainadamar, which integrated video mapping technology; The Little Prince, performed with an all-female cast; and Bon Appétit!, which centered on Julia Child and included a multicourse dinner.

The challenges that Paiement previously mentioned related to the pandemic, which prompted them to create a digital graphic novel opera last year. She conducted and recorded a remount of Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest that Staufenbiel created and directed. The Wall Street Journal described the piece as “ingenious.”

Paiement and Staufenbiel’s successful partnership extends to their private lives: They are husband and wife. “We met making music together,” Paiement recalls. “Brian was a singer and I conducted him when we were both at the University of California, Santa Cruz.” When she and Staufenbiel stepped down from UCSC in 2014 and 2017, respectively, she was director of ensembles while he was director of the opera program.

They have resided in San Francisco since 2005 and consider it an ideal place for their operatic pursuits. “The City loves opera,” says Paiement. “There is a big opera company here, but there was not the contemporary aspect. We thought we could fill that niche. And this community is very open to new ideas.”

They are known for working collaboratively — or “in parallèle” (Paiement is French Canadian) — with other disciplines, from illustrators to circus artists. “Including different genres in the storytelling brings in a wider audience,” Staufenbiel explains. “More people can relate to what’s going on onstage.”

“We do try to find different entryways into the art form,” adds Paiement. “One of our big goals is to demystify opera and make it something that people love. That they don’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t like opera.’ That they realize, ‘Oh, this is opera. I do love it.’”

Opera Parallèle is preparing for the second of its 2021–2022 season’s three productions: composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch’s critically acclaimed Sophia’s Forest, which examines the immigrant experience through the lens of a refugee. Both Paiement and Staufenbiel describe the one-act opera as “cathartic.”

“There were no two people I’d rather work with on this project than Nicole and Brian,” says composer Beecher (far right) of Sophia’s Forest, which makes its West Coast premiere this month. | Photo courtesy of Opera Parallèle

“A young girl and her mother escape the Balkan wars and end up in the United States,” he further elaborates. “But the child is clearly needing to work through what happened back home. It is about memory and relationships and survival and also forgiving oneself for making mistakes. It’s a beautiful journey that I think most people will relate to.”

Rehearsals of Sophia’s Forest are currently being held at Saint Joseph’s Arts Society, where Paiement and Staufenbiel are artists-in-residence. As part of their three-week stint at the private club, they are hosting an open rehearsal on February 15 (registration on the Opera Parallèle website is required).

Later this month, the production will move to Nob Hill’s Grace Cathedral for four ticketed performances, February 24 to 26. Instead of pews in the nave, attendees will find a stage populated with nine sound sculptures specially designed by Beecher for the opera’s 2017 debut at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Beecher, a Santa Cruz native, became acquainted with Paiement and Staufenbiel while they were at UCSC (Beecher’s father taught there, too). When the composer received a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to develop and produce Sophia’s Forest, he knew he wanted to work with the duo. “They are artists who are adventurous and excited by experimentation and exploration,” he says, “but also have such a keen sense for dramatic storytelling.”

Sophia’s Forest has evolved since its initial workshop performances at Drexel. The San Francisco iteration “feels fully realized, like the real premiere,” says Beecher. Musical sections have been expanded and a character reconfigured, plus the new venue enhances the scenic design. Paiement notes that Grace “has an amazing community program around the theme of immigration and refugees,” making it a particularly fitting location for Sophia’s Forest.

Beecher will be on hand at the cathedral, electronically controlling the sound sculptures that make up the set as well as function as instruments, sonically combining with a score performed live by the Del Sol Quartet and percussionist Divesh Karamchandani. With components such as bicycle wheels and wineglasses, the sculptures generate an ethereal soundscape while evoking the title character’s inner thoughts and recollections.

Outside of Opera Parallèle, Paiement and Staufenbiel are plenty busy, including signing on for a 2023 production with Opéra de Montréal. She recently conducted a symphonic concert in Italy; is a principal guest conductor for the Dallas Opera; and will conduct next season at the English National Opera and the Barbican Centre in London. On his slate are a documentary on Bay Area opera singer Frederica von Stade and a dance installation with choreographer Yayoi Kambara about Japanese internment camps.

In their roles with Opera Parallèle, they balance strategically growing with remaining nimble enough to stay on the pulse. “Because we want to be a dynamic company, we are reacting to everything, from what’s happening in society to what’s happening musically,” says Paiement. “The seed of the organization has remained the same, but like any good tree, the roots have gotten bigger and the branches wider on the top.”


Sophia’s Forest

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

February 24 and 25, 8 p.m.; February 26, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. For tickets ($35–$145) and more details, visit operaparallele.org.

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