Please Pass the Puccini

Guest conductor Michael Butterman serves up dinner and an opera.

Imagine savoring mouthfuls of spaghetti and meatballs, steaming garlic bread and a pungently dressed salad in your favorite trattoria. Then suddenly, singers in Italian-American garb rise from the table and begin crooning harmony from a familiar Puccini score.

That's what's on the menu when OrchestraX presents Gianni Schicchi, a two-course, pre-Valentine's Day meal that combines Giacomo Puccini's comic opera and an Italian dinner. Those leery of sitting frozen as a church pew for four hours in front of Houston Grand Opera's proscenium stage, take heart. Guest conductor Michael Butterman and OrchestraX are serving up opera-at-the-bistro beneath the glitter of the Rice Hotel's Crystal Ballroom chandeliers, followed by a relaxed plate of pasta, served family-style.

Pucciniconceived Schicchi as one in a trio of one-act operas, which he had a hard time selling to his publisher before all three eventually premiered at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1918, eight years before the world first saw his masterly Turandot. Based on a 13th-century sketchfrom Dante's Inferno, the story begins after the death of a rich old Florentine, Buoso Donati. When Buoso's relatives learn that he has left them nothing, bestowing all of his wealth on a nearby monastery instead, they frantically search for his will. Determined to change things, they enlist the help of wily, lowborn Gianni Schicchi, who accepts the family's bribe and figures a way to alter the will. In the end, though, he dupes them by proclaiming himself Buoso's sole heir.

Don't expect the rogue players to remain faithful to the original tale. Veteran stage director Peter Webster turns Puccini on his ear. Webster, who directed HGO's Little Women last season, has removed the action from medieval Florence and placed it in Houston.

"Instead of the [Florentine] river Arno, we'll be singing about Buffalo Bayou," he quips. "And rather than concern ourselves with Dante's [aristocracy], we'll be singing about the Cullens, the Browns and the Wyatts." Webster was reluctant to reveal all of the evening's surprises, but he was sure about one thing: "It'll be wild and wacky."

Butterman, music director of Opera Southwest in Albuquerque and the principal conductor for education and outreach at the Rochester Philharmonic, will make his debut as the Gen-X troupe's first guest conductor. Butterman is no stranger to unorthodox stagings, and he relishes the chance to jump into this one. He admits, however, that he finds directing Puccini's ensemble repertory outside the normal stage-pit arrangement to be a challenge.

"Since good ensemble depends on being able to see and hear one another, the singers and I have to be very conscious of which points in the music require the most communication, and make sure that we can see each other well at those moments," he says. "This will be a little bit different."

Webster admits that choreographing the singers and musicians may get a little hairy, but he's also looking forward to it. "My greatest hope is to get the audience to sing along."

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