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Killer Plants Take Over Brooklyn Garden for Opera: Music

'Rappaccini's Daughter'
Elaine Alvarez and Eric Dubin in "Rappaccini's Daughter." The opera is about a woman, the daughter of a mad pharmacological scientist, who's trapped in a garden of poisonous plants. Photographer: Richard Termine/Michelle Tabnick Communications via Bloomberg

In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” a crazy botanist locks up his daughter in a garden with poisonous plants.

The story by Nathaniel Hawthorne inspired an opera by Daniel Catan, a Mexican master of melancholy, who died unexpectedly two years ago after finishing a new orchestration of “La Hija de Rappaccini.”

You can see it tonight at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where the always inventive Gotham Chamber Opera will set up a stage within the cherry esplanade. The unusual setting is typical of the company that presented a memorably witty staging of Haydn’s “Il Mondo della Luna” in New York’s Hayden Planetarium.

Conductor Neil Goren, Gotham’s artistic director, spoke to me during a rehearsal break.

Tarmy: Strange story!

Goren: Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and author, turned Hawthorne’s story into a theater piece. The setting is Padua. Rappaccini is a mad pharmacological scientist who feeds his daughter nothing but poison from the day she is born, so she becomes poisonous.

Dangerous Bloom

She has to live in this hermetically sealed garden of poisonous plants. A problem arises when a young student moves next door and can see out of his window into the garden, and then falls in love with her.

Tarmy: Does the garden setting present acoustical challenges?

Goren: We got an amazing acoustical engineer on the recommendation of Victoria Newhouse, who writes about architecture and musical spaces. This engineer did the acoustics for the outdoor spaces of the New World Center, the new Frank Gehry building in Miami.

Tarmy: Your production of “Eliogabolo,” a baroque send-up of a Roman degenerate, took place at the Box, a gaudy venue with a bar. Does the future of opera involve drinking and eating?

Goren: I think there’s a place for it, but I don’t think it should replace anything else. Opera is a presentational art form, so I don’t think the audience should be interacting unless there’s a piece that specifically calls for it.

Tarmy: When we last spoke, around two years ago, your budget was around $1.4 million. How has it changed?

Growing Up

Goren: Now it’s $1.6 million. But now we’re presenting four productions a year rather than one or two, because we’re doing a lot of co-productions, which helps amortize the cost.

Tarmy: Has your fundraising been in tandem with the rise in production costs?

Goren: Oh yes, we never operate on a deficit, so it has to.

Tarmy: How far in advance do you schedule?

Goren: Now we’re looking all the way to 2020. I’m trying to hook up some co-productions in Europe, and if you’re working with big companies you have to plan things way in advance.

Tarmy: Can the singers you book make a living singing?

Goren: Some can. But the market is shrinking, opera companies are folding all the time, so there are just as many people chasing after fewer jobs.

Tarmy: Do you think Gotham Chamber Opera has a distinct identity?

Goren: We’ve created a brand over the years: you’ll hear really high musical values and fabulous singers no matter what the piece is, and a production that takes a point of view. And if you happen to not like that production you’ll respect it for what it is.

(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on Turkish wine and Patrick Cole on music.

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