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    The Girl of the Golden West set
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    On November 14 and 16 Kentucky Opera will present Giacomo Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West), an opera that it has never before put on stage. Set during the California gold rush, this opera features a single female character, Minnie -- a poker-playing, gun-slinging saloon owner who looks out for the miners who frequent her bar, and sometimes provides them with a Sunday-School lesson. When a stranger arrives in town, the drama cranks up as Minnie falls for him, only later to find out he is a wanted man.

    Puccini wrote Fanciulla after his well-known masterpieces, La Boheme, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly. It was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and premiered there in 1910. Like Madame Butterfly, it was based on a play by David Belasco. It may seem strange to see such an American story sung in Italian, but it's not the first time the mythical American West fascinated an Italian. You might consider it the true beginning of what came to be known in film as the Spaghetti Western, a genre made famous by Director Sergio Leone and that young fella who starred in some of the best ones, Clint Eastwood.

    The cast is headed by soprano Michelle Johnson, making her Kentucky Opera debut as Minnie and returning tenor Jonathan Burton as Dick Johnson. Also returning to Kentucky Opera in the role of the Wells Fargo Agent is bass-baritone Zach Owen, who was last seen in this season's production of Fidelio as Don Fernando. Owen took some time out of a busy rehearsal schedule to tell me about his preparation for playing Ashby (Below: Zach Owen singing. Photo Credit: Frankie Steele).

    When did you first start singing and how did you become interested in pursuing opera? 

    I first started singing when I was a child in choruses. My father is a choir director (my mother has also become one as of late), so music was always part of my life. As far as opera is concerned, I started really pursuing a career on stage after singing the role of Curly in my high school's production of Oklahoma!. After that, I was hooked. All it took was a push in the right direction from my voice teacher in undergrad, and I promptly traded Broadway for Mozart. (Not that I don't still love to sing a little Rodgers and Hammerstein when I get the chance.) 

    How have you prepared for the role of Ashby?

    Ashby is a fascinating character. I think he's the only "hired gun" in the whole repertoire. I did a couple character studies in preparation for the role. My biggest inspirations were Kurt Russell's portrayal of Wyatt Earp in the film Tombstone and John Wayne's legendary performance in the film Rio Bravo.

    What roles in the repertoire are you most looking forward to performing? 

    The roles I most want to perform are Sweeney Todd in Sondheim's musical of that name, Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Figaro in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro.

    What differentiates the bass-baritone as a vocal style and the kinds of roles that exist for it? 

    The operatic bass-baritone is a voice type whose range extends roughly from F2 to F#4 on the piano. A bass-baritone usually has the color of a bass (rich and dark), but can sing comfortably in the vocal range usually designated to baritones. Roles for this voice type run the gamut of possibilities, but stereotypically a bass-baritone will play the every-man, the wise-older man, or the villain.

    How would you describe your style?

    I aspire to achieve an "old-school" sense of Italian legato and lyricism in my singing. Like anyone else my age who sings opera, I am far from perfect, but I find that the more lyric and romantic the music I sing is, the more I enjoy it. Not only that, but I am able to create more musical shapes and colors this way.

    What are your off-stage interests?

    When I'm off stage, I absolutely love going to the movies. It's definitely my biggest hobby by far. I love the art of cinematic storytelling, and find myself constantly fascinated by what film-makers are able to achieve.

    Where is your home-base when you are not traveling or performing?

    My home base when I'm not on the road is back in Rockford, Illinois with my beautiful wife, Andrea. It's a great area, and close enough to Chicago that we can enjoy the city when we want to.

    Who are your operatic heroes -- singers or composers? Who has influenced you the most?

    I have so many operatic heroes that I will have to limit myself to just a couple for this interview. My favorite bass to listen to is Ferrucio Furlanetto (although Cesare Siepi is close second). Ferrucio just has so much style and beauty in his singing that it's absolutely mind blowing to me. He never gets old. Finally, my favorite operatic composer would have to be Mozart. His music is responsible for getting me into this business, and has saved me so many times in the past. In my opinion, there was no one who was ever his equal in this genre. His music is as transcendent and sublime as anything ever created by any artist ever.

    More on this production

    Kentucky Opera's Fanciulla is directed by John Hoomes, who worked with designer Barry Steele on the  original concept for this production, presented in 2012 by the Nashville Opera. It makes use of technology in its Cinemascope-sized screen backdrops, visions inspired by film makers Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. J. David Jackson will conduct the Louisville Orchestra playing Puccini's music.

    Tickets are available online for this weekend's shows (prices start at $34) at the Brown Theatre on Friday, November 14 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 16 at 2 p.m. You can also call the Kentucky Center box office at 1.800.775.7777.

    WELLS FARGO co-sponsored Girl of the Golden West and representatives are shown here with the singing actor portraying the Wells Fargo Agent in the show: Laura Cook, Charles Robello, Zach Owen, Tom and Elizabeth Jones. Photo by Frankie Steele

    Selena Frye's picture

    About Selena Frye

    I'm a writer and editor living in Louisville since 1996. I'm originally from the Blue Ridge of Virginia.

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