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EXCLUSIVE: Rolando Sanz Talks Kristin Chenoweth Concept Opera, Harvey Milk & Anne Hutchinson

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com on Apr 12, 2016 05:51 PM EDT

The conversation regarding the LGTBQ community has become pervasive in today's public debate. It hasn't just become a driving force in deciding this election's presidential nominees but it also underscores America's fight for human rights.

The Strathmore, one of metro Washington D.C.'s premiere venues intends to enter the debate, trying to encompass the larger conversation and include not only the topics of civil rights in the homosexual and transgender communities but gender rights as well.

A two-night engagement on April 23-24 at Strathmore's Music Center, Andrew Lippa's I Am Anne Hutchinson / I Am Harvey Milk is a unique "concept opera" that details the lives and legacies of history's reigning freedom fighters: politician and publicly recognized member of the LGTBQ community Harvey Milk and outspoken 17th century Puritan midwife Anne Hutchinson.

The aim of the production is to create a blend of history and entertainment that places the onus of the show not on its studded musicality but its voice. Bringing in beloved Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, the narrative is one that is in dealing with the nation's racial, gender and sex climate and aims at further skewing an already ambiguous gender binary.

Of course Harvey Milk fits the bill, with the 2008 Gus Van Sant film Milk having immortalized the character of the San Francisco politician, but Ms. Hutchinson is a more obscure hero to outline in the opera. Her bold departure from the religious norms of early-American Puritan society labeled her a heretic and ultimately brought on her downfall.

"She, like Harvey Milk, was a firebrand," Lippa says in a press release, and the statement certainly rings true. And while Lippa was able to bring these two tragic folk heroes to the stage it's Strathmore's own, Rolando Sanz, who is the show's executive producer, that has brought it to the global political hub.

It would sound like they're infiltrating the system, bringing something this outwardly topical to the country's headquarters, but Sanz argues otherwise. This performance, instead, is something Strathmore is not only equipped for staging but inherently perfect for in communicating its subject matter.

"Both pieces speak to anyone who's ever been marginalized," says Sanz in the same release.

But before this production takes the stage at the end of April, we were able to get Mr. Rolando Sanz on the phone for a conversation about just what Strathmore is doing.

Speaking about Lippa, Chenoweth and the overtones that punctuate the opera's opus, read our minutes below with Mr. Sanz before the production opens on April 23.

CLASSICALITE: Rolando, a pleasure to have you, thank you for taking the time to speak with us at Classicalite. Welcome. Let's dive right in to what you are doing, which I think is really great. That is, taking these two American stories about Anne Hutchinson and Harvey Milk and turning them into a production for the stage.

ROLANDO SANZ: Yes! Thank you. It's very exciting. This is Andrew Lippa's creation and it came about when I attended the premiere of I Am Harvey Milk during its New York premiere in 2014 when they were at Avery Fisher Hall. I actually didn't know Andrew at all, but I reached out to him after seeing it, and I said we have to somehow bring this to Washington, D.C. because I knew it hadn't premiered there. Andrew was very interested, and we got Strathmore on board, which is a world-class concert hall down here in D.C. A couple weeks later, Andrew called me and said, "Well, actually, I also had this idea to create this partner piece for I Am Harvey Milk that I've always wanted to do and this might be the perfect opportunity." So it was just kind of kismet that doing the D.C. premiere of Harvey Milk is what kind of drove him to create this partner piece, I Am Anne Hutchinson, to make it one complete work.

CL: And I know you were the real driving force for bringing this to Strathmore, correct?

RS: I produced a couple of large-scale shows down here. Most recently was Children of Eden - we brought down Stephen Schwartz, which was very exciting. For Anne/Harvey, I approached the Strathmore administration and I said, "This is something that we need to do here and something that can really bring some national attention to Strathmore." It's a ten-year-old concert hall, performing arts center, and it really is one of the best halls in the country.

CL: And you have the National Philharmonic and the Alexandria Harmonizers behind you?

RS: That is correct, and what's also exciting is that they are with these great artists from New York. We have probably over 40 artists coming from New York City including Andrew, Kristin Chenoweth and the entire creative team, as well as our featured artists.

But we're not just shipping in a production from New York. The National Philharmonic is one of the resident partners here at Strathmore, so it's locally flavored. And the Alexandria Harmonizers are also based here in D.C., so one of the things that I really pushed for early on - and that I'm glad has stuck - was to keep this marriage of bringing in world-class artists to a place like Strathmore, but also championing the wonderful, local artists we have here in D.C.

CL: Absolutely. Keeping it local is very interesting because normally when you have productions on Broadway, you have talent come in from all over the world. But here you have players and performers that are from the D.C. area, which is really kind of--familial--in a way.

RS: Exactly. Strathmore is very much rooted in the community. It's not just a performing arts center, but also an education center. And this production just goes hand-in-hand with what they're all about. And I feel very fortunate with their trust and being able to bring this here.

CL: And I guess you're billing it as a concept opera, too.

RS: That's correct, that's kind of a new genre we created.

CL: Yeah! I've never heard that before and I think that's very cool. What goes into that kind of ideology?

RS: Well, you haven't heard it before because that was a 3 a.m. email conversation between Andrew, the director, Noah and me. In this piece, we have a full orchestra and virtuosic vocalists with more than 140 people involved in the cast, chorus, and orchestra. But, it's on a concert stage with intricate lighting and costumes along with a full staging team as well as projections. It's this kind of beast that has no name, so we found ourselves--when we were starting to pitch this idea to people and started to garner interest--trying to locate a title for the genre.

Andrew and I were in the same boat saying, "Well, it's not a musical; and it's not a symphony; and it's not a choral piece; and it's not an opera." So we found ourselves saying everything it's not, and we didn't have a name for what it is. The name "concept opera" was one of those 3 a.m., sit-up-in-bed kind of ideas that came to me a few months back. We have this genre of a concept musical that was created back with Brecht, and with Sondheim with Follies - these non-linear works of musical theatre that were not book musicals. They were named later, after they existed, once there were a few of them around. Since Anne/Harvey isn't a musical, I felt it was very important that this piece find a genre - even if we needed to create a new one.

Along the lines of "concept musical" comes "concept opera," because the scope of this piece is really operatic in nature. Everything is virtuosic, the symphony and the chorus. All of it. So, yes, it is a new genre we are very happy to have coined and I'm glad it's being used, because I really think it describes the work very well.

CL: It's certainly a new idea to create a label such as "concept opera," and I think you could definitely tour that idea all over the country and globe.

RS: Absolutely. And since its inception, Andrew has really seen this thing as operatic, so the opera part of it was really important. As an opera singer, I also understand how opera is viewed in the larger scope - it can be seen as elitist. In this piece, the music is complex but it can be understood by anybody at any level.

CL: Yeah, and it also helps that you have two big actors like Andrew Lippa and Kristin Chenoweth in it, too.

RS: Well, it does. I mean, this is Andrew's baby and we're just kind of nursing it along. It's his vision, along with the director, Noah Himmelstein, who he's been working with. Andrew is the absolute creator of the words and music, the entire concept, and in addition he's onstage, which is clearly a bonus. I don't think there are many who could do that. Andrew Lippa is a world-class composer and lyricist - that we know - but the fact that he is also a world-class singer puts him in a league of his own.

And then the relationship he has with Kristin is unparalleled. Kristin has been his muse for the last 15 years - ever since she brought him in to write "My New Philosophy," where she got her big Broadway start. Andrew was her music director for the big solo concert she did at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007 too, so they have this real trust, and she is really very proud to be able to champion this work that he is writing for her.

CL: That makes a lot of sense. So to finish, and I know this is a large question that you may not feel comfortable answering, but how do you feel that each story effects the other? Meaning how do you think that one story dealing with the LGBTQ community and someone who champions feminism in a Puritanical society intertwine and speak to one another?

RS: It's a good question, and the piece is still being created, so perhaps the real person to ask is Andrew.

However, in the conversations that I've had with him, and what I've seen in the various drafts of the work, is that he really has painstakingly crafted these two stories together into one narrative. They're both big topics that, on paper, might not have a lot to do with one another, but they are both about a similar struggle. One of the first phrases Andrew used when we were talking about it was "Both pieces are about these reluctant prophets." Both Anne and Harvey were cast into the limelight. They didn't intend to be, but ultimately they stood up for an entire people who were oppressed. Sure, one was in 1637 and one was in the 1970s, but thanks to the wonderful mind of Andrew Lippa, these two stories come together and it's amazing to see it.

CL: And when you find the connection between these two time periods, it certainly finds a correlation that works and translates to an audience. That's a fascinating concept.

RS: Of course - I mean, we're talking about the first feminist, 250 years before that was a word. Then, with Harvey Milk, we have someone who stumbled into politics and ended up being the first openly gay figure in American politics. So, I mean, looking at it in 2016 we think, "Of course!" But in their time, they were just Joe Shmoes who were standing up for what they believed in. It's a true American story, both of them.

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TagsRolando Sanz, Kristin Chenoweth, Andrew Lippa, Strathmore, Washington D.C., EXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A