28 September 2019
From the Director's Chair: John De Los Santos on "Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun"
By John De Los Santos
Director John de los Santos
At this point in my career, it is an exceptionally unique day when I encounter a new score and libretto that leaves me equally fascinated and flabbergasted. Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun is itself an exceptionally unique piece in every aspect. I was fascinated by the staging demands put forth by composer Augusta Read Thomas and librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer, including the title character kicking the sun out of the sky within the opera’s first few minutes, the principal characters questing through a darkened world populated by strange animals, and a beatbox artist being incorporated into the principal cast. I was flabbergasted by the swarm of “how’s”. How to realize all of these ideas theatrically? How to incorporate the writers’ vision into one of my own? How to keep the audience onboard during this voyage through uncharted waters? I soon recognized that all of these questions were the same ones that arise with any premiere of a new work, so why did this occasion feel different?
I realized that the answer lay in my own understanding of what opera is and should be. I had never encountered a plot quite like that of Sweet Potato, in which a trickster protagonist and their hummingbird friend discover that the only way to bring back the sun is through recognizing their mistakes and correcting them by sharing in the wisdom of friends and family. Though the opera seems child-like at first glance, it is actually a kaleidoscopic universe eager to be explored by artists and audiences alike in a genre sometimes perceived to be stuck in the past. While this is a misconception, as several new and truly great operas have enriched the classical canon within the last few decades, some operagoers still hold that if a new work doesn’t adhere to certain musical and dramaturgical rules perfected by the Bel Canto, Romantic, or Verismo eras, then it isn’t worth a viewing. In order for me to navigate Sweet Potato successfully, I had to rethink some of my conventional staging practices, which are greatly influenced by a controlled, choreographic background, and embrace a freer and more improvisatory approach. Sonic improvisation has been woven through the score by the composer, so I plan on utilizing the singular talents of our excellent cast to discover new ways of breathing life into these characters. I gave my assembled design team of Liliana Duque Pinero, Ashley Soliman, and Noele Stollmack the phrase “imagination playground” as a starting point. Some of our most important influences have been inspired by bioluminescence, origami, and Japanese tie-dying or shibori.
The role of the special guest artist built into this opera and the casting of beatboxer Nicole Paris in this role was another window into the piece. Her ever-evolving, fireworks vocalizations will invoke naturally spontaneous reactions from both the audience and the other characters. This is squarely in-keeping with the score’s themes of improvisatory surprise. The libretto begins with her exploring an empty stage, eager to share her talents with the audience, just as every theatre artist does. She is dumbfounded when she finds that she has wandered into an opera, and doubts she will enjoy it, much less become an integral part of it. Her doubts may mirror those of the audience as well at first, uncertain whether this performance is one they can be a part of. But the truth is they can. The world of Sweet Potato is our world. Beset with an uncertainty, a fear that darkness will swallow our light and warmth, we frequently descend into chaos and noise. We stop listening. To me, that is what this piece aims to remind us to do: To listen to one another’s different ways of communicating, particularly when they come from voices vastly different from our own; voices of another person, an animal, or even our planet itself. Cherishing the voices of those around us, and perhaps even trying to speak as they do now and again, can provide solutions to a more harmonious existence for us all. Sweet Potato is a culmination of many individual artists listening and combining their voices to demonstrate this beautiful idea. My hope is that our audience will leave with a few colorful and new ideas of their own of what is possible in opera after joining us on this magical adventure.
—John de los Santos
Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun receives its world premiere on October 26, 2019 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe. It is the first of four works commissioned by the Opera for All Voices consortium. The piece is composed by Augusta Read Thomas and features a libretto by Leslie Dunton-Downer. Carmen Flórez-Mansi conducts a bright young cast that includes Amy Owens, Briana Elyse Hunter, Nicole Paris, Dominik Belavy and Dawn Lura. The production is directed by John de los Santos; the Creative Team also includes Liliana Duque Piñeiro (scenic design), Ashley Soliman (costumes) and Noele Stollmack (lighting).