THE COPPER QUEEN
Arizona Opera, World Premiere (film): 2021, Marble City Opera, Staged Premiere: 2022
ON OCTOBER 22, Arizona Opera released the world premiere of Clint Borzoni and John de los Santos’s opera The Copper Queen. The premiere was a full-length feature film version of the opera, which was originally conceived to be performed live, in the theater as part of Arizona Opera’s mainstage season. The film, featuring an original screenplay by de los Santos based on his libretto and directed by veteran opera stage director Crystal Manich, is presented as part of Arizona Opera’s McDouglass RED series of innovative opera productions and will be screened at theaters throughout Arizona. (It will be available for online streaming through January 2, 2022.)
Notably, this is the first production by Arizona Opera to include an all-female production team. In addition to Manich’s astute theatrical and cinematic hand, there’s the versatile and evocative set design by Liliana Duque Piñeiro and realistic, character-revealing costumes by Alice Fredrickson.
The Copper Queen centers around the legend of Julia Lowell, a prostitute who is said to haunt Room 315 at The Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Arizona. According to legend, Lowell killed herself in the hotel after being abandoned by the man she loved. In his libretto and screenplay, de los Santos takes Lowell’s “ghost story” as a starting point to examine the ways in which trauma and grief transform us and the struggle to overcome them as we try to regain control of our own story. The Copper Queen begins like a ghost story, but evolves into much more.
Headlining the production are the magnetic soprano Vanessa Becerra as Julia Lowell and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit as her modern foil, Addison Moore, a young woman fleeing to Room 315 in search of closure after the death of her grandmother. Both Becerra and Coit are naturals in front of the camera, each performing her role with a naked sincerity, earnestness, and tough-shelled grit through subtle vocal inflections, facial expressions, and almost imperceptible gestures that reveal fully constructed internal lives.
Borzoni’s score combines unabashed lyricism with allusions to the psychological suspense film scores of Bernard Herrmann, sprinkled with saloon and ragtime tunes for flavor. Julia’s aria, “Still Pretty,” is the breakout moment of the score and deserves to become a 21st century American opera standard; Becerra’s performance of it is superb. Another stand out moment is the duet for Julia and Theodore—the john-turned-lover who regretfully leaves Julia for his pregnant wife—which resembles the famous, extended Act II duet from Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West in its sweeping melodies and emotional and dramatic range. As Theodore, Joshua Dennis matches Becerra’s vocal commitment, singing with a tender, dulcet tenor with an apt touch of steel. Baritone Keith Phares does creepy double duty as the hotel proprietor Mr. Floyd and Daddy Lowell, the latter an appropriately cringeworthy but effective portrayal.
Conducting the Arizona Opera Orchestra, Daniela Candillari gives Borzoni’s score a detailed and kaleidoscopic performance, weaving seamlessly through genres and allusions to create a unified musical story.
The town of Bisbee, which lies in the Mule Mountains of Southeastern Arizona near the Mexican border, was a thriving mining town during the early 20th century. In 1902, the town’s most famous landmark, the Copper Queen Hotel, opened. The hotel over the decades has built a reputation around reports of ghosts haunting specific suites.
Composer Clint Borzoni, in collaboration with librettist John de los Santos, created an opera derived from the hotel’s ghost stories. The resulting opera has supernatural elements, but the story concentrates on family secrets shared between generations a century apart.
The opera begins in 2010, with a guest (Addison Moore) checking into room #315 of the Copper Queen Hotel. Addison’s recently deceased grandmother had suggested that Addison visit Bisbee and that she arrange to stay in that specific room, in which a suicide supposedly had occurred a century prior. The opera shifts to events occurring in that room in 1910, and moves back and forth between the two points in time as, we the audience, become aware of what actually happened there in 1910.
Composer Clint Borzoni and librettist John de los Santos, who already have a successful opera, “When Adonis Calls”, to their credit, teamed up again to create “The Copper Queen”, another thoroughly engaging work. Borzoni has a lyrical compositional style, that is through-composed, melodic and free of such 20th musical orthodoxies as atonality or rigid compositional formulae. His vocal music is obviously operatic, and accessible to all opera audiences. Librettist John de los Santos provides Borzoni with lyrics that are singable and always advance the story being told.
“When Adonis Calls’ and “The Copper Queen” tackle two very different and, for opera, non-traditional subject areas. There are relatively few operas with gay relationships as in “Adonis” or metaphysical themes as in “Copper Queen”, but these are clearly subject areas that have attracted 21st century television and cinema audiences. “The Copper Queen” has proven to be a worthy project.
The Copper Queen is an opera on film in the manner of the Tebaldi/Loren Aida and the Pavarotti/Freni Boheme of times gone by. The difference is that The Copper Queen is a modern opera for our own century by composer Clint Borzoni and librettist John de los Santos that tells of times past in Bisbee, Arizona. Five years ago it won an Arizona Opera competition and had several successful workshops, but because of the pandemic The Copper Queen became a film that can be experienced in movie theaters and online. The opera tells of the hard life a woman could be forced to live in nineteenth century Bisbee, a mining town in Arizona. Addison, a twenty-first century writer goes to Bisbee’s Copper Queen Hotel and spends a night in room 315 to investigate the reports of ghostly appearances. Opera scenes switch from nineteenth century to twenty-first century as the story unfolds.
Director Manich presents us with the unvarnished truth about the life of a mining town working girl doing the only job a woman could hold. Julia Lowell, daughter of the hotel owner, has male “visitors” to her third floor room. She has so many of them that her father built a ramp directly to her window from the street. She falls in love with a man named Theodore and expects him to leave his wife for her. When he does not, she tries to escape on her own but her father catches and kills her in a rage.
Borzoni’s opera begins as recitative between Addison and the hotel clerk, then another with Julia and a client. Like some Verdi operas, The Copper Queen has a plethora of duets, but it is in the arias where characters state their opinions that Borzoni comes into his own musically. While the character sings a unique line above, the orchestra plays gorgeous symphonic music in accompaniment.
The Copper Queen is an interesting and musically satisfying work that deserves its place in the operatic repertoire.
Exploring different stylistic niches in opera has been the raison d’etre of Marble City Opera since its beginning in 2013. Its productions over that time have ranged from works with timely relevance to classics in alternative locations (Tosca at St. John’s Cathedral and La Traviata at Westwood)—from world premieres of original works to contemporary classics from 20th Century composers. For its 2022 season-closer, MCO has yet again entered new performance territory and struck operatic gold with the stage premiere of The Copper Queen, music by Clint Borzoni and libretto by John de los Santos.
The Copper Queen was commissioned by Arizona Opera, but its live premiere there was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic precautions. Instead of live performances, the company opted to shoot the opera as a film which was offered as theatrical and on-demand screenings last fall. Having expressed interest in the work early on, MCO became first in line for the actual stage premiere of the work. For this production of The Copper Queen staged at Flying Anvil Theatre, librettist de los Santos has also served as director, bringing first-hand insights and his original intentions to the staging.
The opera’s dramatic arc shifts back and forth between 1910 and 2010, setting up a juxtaposition between Addison Moore (Sara Crigger) and the life of “soiled dove” Lowell (soprano Kathryn Frady). Gradually we learn that Lowell is mostly a captive of Daddy Lowell’s (Graham Anduri) money-making operation with her services as the centerpiece. In operatic tragic fashion, Lowell endures both pleasure and pain. The opera’s final reveal takes the story full-circle and offers a resolution to what has been a delicious secret for 100 years.
Even for opera lovers, the words “contemporary opera” are not always a welcome phrase. Happily for all, though, Borzoni’s score wanted no part of bristling-thorn intervals or sour-milk dissonant harmonies. The work is simultaneously melodic and complex, tuneful and rich, attractive and dramatically lush—dispelling the notion that contemporary opera has to be a stranger in a strange land.
Vocally and dramatically, this was a strong and noteworthy cast. Julia is a plum role for Kathryn Frady, who has both the lyrical softness to soothe and the dramatic power capable of knocking one’s socks off. Sara Crigger gave her Addison Moore a charming, lovely clarity that was a necessary counterpart to Julia. Graham Anduri sang two roles, both Daddy Lowell and hotel desk man Mr. Floyd, making the similarities and differences in the characters into a neat dramatic hook.
Tenor David Silvano brought a deliciously romantic lyrical side to Teddy, while baritone Daniel Spiotta took the bad guy role of Ackerman to an equally impressive, but dark and foreboding place. Bass-baritone Jacob Lay, as Sugar Dog, a client of Julia’s, opened ears with an incredibly smooth delivery. The 17-member orchestra, squeezed into one of the theatre’s entrance alleys, was led by music director Christy Lee.
In the past, although Marble City Opera has begrudgingly endured the inability to properly light its productions in the unusual alternative venues it selects, that wasn’t the case this time around. De los Santos and his lighting designer, Joshua Mullady, have created a minimal, but dramatically successful environment in the Flying Anvil Theatre space—white light clarity for the 2010 scenes and richly muted and dappled reds and golds for the period scenes. Such a vehicle as this terrific production of The Copper Queen and its moody tragedy really needs that kind of attention.