Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the established form in a new way.
Case in point, composer Nathan Felix, who began his musical career playing in bands that eventually got bigger and bigger until the sounds he heard could no longer be performed by a standard rock ensemble.
Now, he’s premiering a new type of opera, where the audience interacts live with the performers, and listens to the whole thing on headphones while wandering what amounts to an open set.
“The War Bride” is based on the memoir of Felix’s late grandmother, Jean Groundsell-Contreras, who married Joe Contreras, from Mexico, in Great Britain during World War II. Joe became an American citizen, and the two later settled in Nuevo Laredo before emigrating to the United States.
The opera will be performed twice on Saturday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in Hemisfair Park as part of San Antonio’s annual Luminaria arts festival.
Felix says the setting is perfect.
“The [San Antonio] river would be just right there smack in the middle of the performance space. Why not kind of use that to tell a story? I did a lot of research on war brides and that whole immigration movement, and that is something that I don’t think a lot of people really know.”
In “The War Bride,” the San Antonio River represents, metaphorically, the divide that Felix’s grandmother had to cross. First over the Atlantic Ocean, then the Mississippi, and Rio Grande. “There will be things happening on both sides of the river, sometimes at the same time,” Felix explains of the performance itself.
“There’s no stage division between the audience and the performance.” Audience members will be able to walk freely between a small orchestra inside the Convention Center and the singers, who will be outside, among the sets and lighting, designed by San Antonio artist Chris Sauter. The sound mix will be fed to the headphones that all audience members will wear.
“I've been fascinated with this idea over the last couple of years of doing performances where you force the audience to engage by walking through sort of different rooms, or different sets. And this is a smaller version of that. It's just like a discovery-type thing,” Felix says, explaining that he hopes “The War Bride” will challenge audience members to actively engage with the players and story, which also includes characters from history, such as Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister at the beginning of World War II, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The role of Felix’s grandmother Jean will be sung by soprano Elise Miller. Baritone Jeremiah Drake and tenor James Dykman also join the cast. Felix has been working to bring classical music to new audiences for several years now. Now 37, he fell in love with the music in his twenties, pointing to John Corigliano’s “Circus Maximus” as a turning point.
“It was just so expansive,” he recalls. He gradually began expanding his palette from the world of rock and punk to include more instruments. He wrote and released a symphony in 2013, founded the award-winning “street choir” From Those Who Follow The Echoes, and created a project called “6 Pianos,” in which he harvested instruments, restored them for a concert, and then donated the pianos to lower-income schools.
The “6 Pianos” project began in Austin and was replicated in San Antonio, Barcelona, and Melbourne. Felix was awarded a $15,000 grant from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio to create “The War Bride,” and with its Luminaria premiere on Saturday, will continue to open the world of classical music to new audiences and offer opportunities for classical fans to look at the music in a new way.