Berkeley Opera will open its new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in their new home, the 450-seat El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater on the campus of El Cerrito High School.
Mark Streshinsky, newly appointed artistic director of the company, succeeding Jonathan Khuner, who will remain music director, spoke about the changes for the company, about Don Giovanni and the new theater, by phone from “the pit—with an elevator!—below a stage with wings, and plenty of fly space up above me! We’re the first ones in here; the building just opened.”
Strashinsky has stage-directed for Berkeley Opera previously, but “I thought I’d gone as far as I could with the Julia Morgan Theater,” the company’s old home, due to its technical limitations.
“Jonathan Khuner and I are really good friends. We love working together. He started asking me a few years ago if I would be artistic director. He knew I’d always wanted to be, for an opera company. And he’s happier concentrating on the music. He knew my background in stage management, my organizational skills.”
Streshinsky came back to the Julia Morgan for his fourth show, lured by the offer of a world premiere, he said, referring to Clark Suprynowicz and John O’Keefe’s opera Chrysalis, for which Streshinsky stage-directed, as well as designing costumes and sets.
When the Julia Morgan entered a partnership with Berkeley Playhouse to create a center for children’s and family-oriented performances, Berkeley Opera went looking for a new home—and Streshinsky was providing feedback to the architect of the new $25 million theater on the campus of his alma mater.
“I thought, How can I get into this theater?” he said. “Right at that point, Jonathan approached me again. We presented it to the board, and they went for it.”
Streshinsky spoke about the theater’s accommodations: “It has a lot more seats than we’ve ever had before. There’s a 150-seat balcony. We’re not planning on opening it. But Berkeley Opera is 80 percent above in subscriptions; we’re starting to talk about doing it.”
The school district will manage the theater, which was built through a bond issue, and Streshinsky noted Berkeley Opera has started to talk with the district about how best to manage it.
“It’s a little different than their usual facility management,” he said. “They’re learning from us, we’re learning their process from them. All signs point to success.”
Streshinsky reminisced about going to school in El Cerrito.
“When I was in high school here, I was in the musicals,” he said. “They don’t do much of that anymore. So we hold workshops in costuming and makeup for the students. Five of them who are interested are helping out here tonight, soaking it up. I don’t know what I would’ve done in high school if I didn’t have theater to center me.”
Coming back to El Cerrito as artistic director is a homecoming for Streshinsky in more ways than one. Originally from Kensington, where he lives today with his wife, soprano Marie Plette, and their son Evan, Streshinsky took classes from Contra Costa Theater founder Louis Flynn, performing onstage there, while his sister worked in the box office. They both ushered shows at CCCT. His photo at age 16 is in the hall of the theater. Streshinsky noted his son is now taking classes at CCCT and will play the lead in Seussical.
Berkeley Opera’s future rests on the talent they can attract, he said.
“With a reduced budget, our focus is on the singers,” Streshinsky said. “We have some who work all over the country, as well as the best local artists and emerging singers right out of their training. We have a few from San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I work, teaching basic acting for auditions twice a semester.”
He spoke of Berkeley Opera “trying to do exciting programming, a real mixture, to perform the classics in slightly different ways. In the future, we plan for something from each of the three main eras of opera each season: Baroque or Classical, Romantic and Modern/Contemporary.”
Streshinsky, who has directed at Cincinnati, Seattle and Dallas operas, as well as “fire operas” for Oakland’s fire arts project, The Crucible, talked about Don Giovanni’s staging.
“It’s in modern dress, which is really fun,” he said. “It opens up a whole new vocabulary. The set is very stark—as Broadway sets are now—with projections. We’re focusing on the Don as a narcissist, his need to take all the women comes from his love for himself. But Jonathan and I want to focus on the three major relationships, flawed relationships the Don exposes, through the staging.”
Streshinsky laughed. “There are dark moments, but it’s also really funny. We have some great comic actors. Comedy’s really hard, but it’s working because of those people—at least everybody coming to the rehearsals has been laughing!”