Could 'Faust' be the last full-length opera for Claudia Simpson-Jones?

Future of Opera Pacifica uncertain as its founder considers retiring

Contributing writerMay 30, 2013 

  • ‘FAUST’

    What: The Olympia Chamber Orchestra and Opera Pacifica team up for a concert version of “Faust,” an opera by Gounod.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Minnaert Center for the Arts at South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia

    Tickets: $27 general admission, $22 for students and seniors, $3 for youths (12 and younger)

    More information: 360-753-8586, washingtoncenter.org or operapacifica.org

How much does Claudia Simpson-Jones love opera? A decade ago, she founded Opera Pacifica with her husband, tenor Robert William Corl.

“Olympia didn’t have an opera company, and it should have because we have some really great singers,” she said. “We have Cyndia Seiden, who is a Metropolitan Opera star. She sang our first opera.”

But being the founder means Simpson-Jones doesn’t just conduct the operas, including the concert version of “Faust” that the opera company and the Olympia Chamber Orchestra will perform Saturday. She also produces them, which is a huge endeavor, even for the amazingly dedicated.

And so Simpson-Jones, 68, said this might be the last full-length opera she tackles.

“There’s a lot of preparation that goes into doing opera,” she said. “Stress can be good or bad, and doing opera is wonderfully stressful, but I probably need to retire.”

She can’t say for sure, though. “I say it may be the last opera,” she said. “But I have so much fun doing it, I think, ‘How can it be the last one?’ ”

This is her first time conducting “Faust,” which tells the familiar story of a man who makes a deal with the devil, with predictable results.

“It’s one of the most beautiful operas ever written,” she said, “and it’s not done a lot. It has some of the most romantic and beautiful music in it.”

The cast includes Corl as Faust; bass Thomas J. Freet, who has sung major roles with several Washington companies, as Mephistopheles; and soprano Christina Kowalski, who has sung major roles with a number of German opera companies as well as the Portland Opera and performed with the Olympia Symphony last season, as Marguerite.

The original opera is three hours long. For this performance, Simpson-Jones has trimmed it to fit in the two hours typically allotted to the orchestra’s concerts.

She’s also the maestro of the orchestra, which is wrapping up its 2012-13 season with this performance.

As if all that work weren't enough, Simpson-Jones also has been working on Broadway musicals. “Claudia is pretty remarkable,” said the orchestra’s Tania Basham.

“Just because I’m an opera conductor doesn’t mean I don’t like other kinds of music,” Simpson-Jones said.

Of late, she’s musically directed such Capital Playhouse productions as “Nuncrackers” and “Next to Normal.” This summer, she’ll work with the playhouse’s Kids at Play theater program. And she’ll conduct and write music for next season’s holiday show.

Musicals, she said, can in some ways be more challenging than opera because the cast’s musical knowledge and vocal training can vary more than those of opera soloists.

“You get people from all walks of life,” she said. “I have to do more teaching. I have to do vocal warm-ups. When opera people come to rehearsals, they have already done a set of vocal exercises.”

But ultimately, there’s one big reason the musicals are easier. “I am producing Opera Pacifica, which means I’m responsible financially,” she said. “With Capital Playhouse, instead of paying out money to put on a production, I’m on the payroll.”

Asked what will happen to Opera Pacifica if she really is ready to retire, Simpson-Jones said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I would like for it to (continue). It’s been a labor of love for a lot of years. I would like to see it continue. It may continue on a limited basis like doing an oratorio each year.

“But I haven’t sat down and really come up with a game plan.”

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