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Berkeley Opera's Move to El Cerrito High Worked Wonders

Skeptics didn't think a high school venue would be appropriate when the opera had to move from the Julia Morgan Theater.

El Cerrito wasn't the first place that sprang to mind when the Berkeley Opera learned in 2009 that it had to find a new venue.

"I think most of the board had never been to El Cerrito," says Mark Streshinsky, who knew the town well. Raised in Kensington, he'd gone to El Cerrito High.

But Streshinsky himself has been in the dark about certain things. Just a few years earlier, during a casual chat, an associate at the San Francisco Opera mentioned his involvement with the Berkeley Opera. "I didn't even know there was an opera in Berkeley," Streshinsky says.

But he knew his associate, Jonathan Khuner, wouldn't be involved with something second rate. "I said, 'If you ever need a director, let me know.' "

Several years later, after directing four shows for the Berkeley Opera, Streshinsky was in line for the job of artistic director, where he would collaborate with Khuner, the musical director. And Streshinsky was urging the opera to move to the theater at the brand new El Cerrito High School, whose performing arts space opened in early 2009.

The opera needed to leave the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley when that venue shifted focus after its merger with Berkeley Playhouse, which produces plays for young people. "The Julia Morgan Center effectively went from being a rental venue to a venue with a robust set of youth programs," says its executive director, Jerry Foust.

Some opera board members were skeptical about performing in a high school theater, afraid it might be "akin to a multi-purpose room," says Paul Sugarman, board president. Valhalla between the basketball hoops, anyone?

"They also worried their people would not come to El Cerrito," Streshinsky says. "I began telling them, there's a large audience here."

On Feb. 20, 2010, the Berkeley Opera held its first performance in El Cerrito High, a version of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" that filled most of the house for its three performances and featured a hilarious version of the Don's song about his 1,003 amorous conquests, with push pins popping up on the map for every damsel whose virtue he despoiled.

As the opera enters its second year in El Cerrito, Streshinsky says, "There is general rejoicing in the company."

Since the move, the budget has increased by 25 percent to $254,000, Sugarman says. Subscriptions doubled, to 300. Sugarman says their core Berkeley audience stuck with the opera, plus they gained new patrons from El Cerrito and points north.

Fears that they'd never fill the 600-seat theater (the Julia Morgan sat only 325), proved largely unfounded. Most performances saw the downstairs almost filled with a good scattering of people in the balcony – which originally, the opera didn't try to sell for seating at all.

Also gratifying was community response. City officials are helping the company find rehearsal space; rehearsals for the recent "Legend of the Ring" happened at the former El Cerrito Lighting store. And the opera will perform at the Chamber of Commerce's Taste of El Cerrito fundraiser. "We just feel very welcome," Streshinsky says.

The high school itself is more than welcoming. "It's given the kids a unique opportunity," principal Jason Reimann says, "a chance to be on stage with top quality actors and actresses and to see what a professional production is like."

The 2009-2010 season was a big year for the small company in other ways too. Not only did the opera find a new venue – it got a new artistic director and hired an executive director, Elizabeth Wells. And it got a new name.

If it weren't for the new venue, the opera probably would not have Streshinsky. "I agreed to become artistic director with the stipulation of coming to this theater," he says.

"There's nothing else like this in the area," Streshinsky says of El Cerrito High's theater, which has an orchestra pit that lowers out of sight, a fly system to move scenery, and high-end audio-visual equipment, and dressing rooms that can accommodate well-known performers.

The opera's new name, Berkeley West Edge Opera, as in edgy, is descriptive. "We don't do anything normal," Streshinsky says. "If we do a Top Ten opera, we're going to mess with it. We're going to do it in a different way."

The opera's three-show season includes something classical, something romantic, and something new. For 2010-2011 that means Handel's "Xerxes," Khuner's version of Bizet's "Carmen," retitled "The Carmen Fixation," and a new work, "Caliban Dreams," by composer Clark Suprynowicz.

The opera is also gaining fame for the company it keeps, meaning some high-end singers often seen at the Metropolitan or San Francisco operas. How can a small company like Berkeley attract big talent? "They're friends," Streshinsky says. Many know Streshinsy and his wife, the soprano Marie Plette, from the Met, where Streshinsky has helped direct and Plette has performed. Others know Khuner.

They also appreciate the Berkeley Opera for taking chances, and are far from turned off by its small size.

"A small company can only be defined by somebody who has small ambitions," says Eugene Brancoveanu, the baritone who sang Don Giovanni and has performed at San Francisco Opera more than 100 times. "Mark Streshinsky's should be the biggest opera company in the world because he has the biggest ambitions."

Brancoveanu also appreciates the opera's intimacy. "In a small space," he says, "you can feel the audience react to whatever you're doing onstage. If singing at a big opera house is like a lap dance, singing in a small house is like making love to a woman in the flesh."

Richard Paul Fink, who's gearing up to sing Kissinger in "Nixon in China" at the Met, sang Wotan for Berkeley Opera in last season's "Legend of the Ring," a condensed version of Wagner's four-play Ring Cycle. "You try to fill in your schedule with the major jobs," he says, "and then it becomes a balance of spending time with your family and filling in with smaller projects." With the Berkeley Opera, he says, "it's a chance to do an edgy production. It's a chance to do something avant-garde."

Malin Fritz has performed at the Met but doesn't snub Berkeley. She performed last season in Copland's "The Tender Land" and will sing in "Xerxes." "Small doesn't mean that it's not great," she says. "It's real exciting for me, a chance to do really unusual repertoire that isn't being done anyplace else."

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