Jane Austen’s takeover of Modesto began quietly enough this fall: An emphasis on her works by LearningQuest-Stanislaus Literacy Centers for its adult learners. A 244th birthday party for the English novelist in a downstairs room of the downtown library. An escape room, also at the library, with puzzles designed to inspire participants to read her works and learn more about her life.
Soon, though, it will take to the streets, the stage, the silver screen and even a skating rink. And it won’t be over until the slender lady sings.
It’s a Jane-vasion, with Opera Modesto and its production of the opera “Mansfield Park” at the center.
Opera Modesto board member Hillari DeSchane long has wanted to do an opera based on a work by Austen, said Roy Stevens, the company’s general and artistic director. Her wish is coming true thanks to “Mansfield Park,” a 2011 chamber opera by composer Jonathan Dove, based on Austen’s third novel, published in 1814.
Stevens said he and his opera-singer wife, Annalisa Winberg, who is Opera Modesto’s artistic consultant, saw a way to stage the work primarily using members of the company’s TOP Young Artists program. Before long, “we realized we had a potential catalyst to do something more with the community,” he said.
That “something more” ended up being the Story Into Song Literacy Initiative, for which Opera Modesto has partnered with LearningQuest, the Stanislaus County Library, the State Theatre, the Becoming Jane Austen Book Club (of which DeSchane is a member), city and county schools and the Downtown Modesto Partnership, among others.
The initiative is a great way to build excitement around literature and the arts, said library director Sarah Dentan. “We’re excited to partner with Opera Modesto to promote books and reading, as well as the arts and humanities,” she told The Bee in an email. “By offering complementary events at the library, we can extend our existing fan base, and perhaps introduce readers to storytelling through song.”
Built around the opera production Jan. 11-12 at the State, a so-called destination weekend also includes a Friday, Jan. 10, presentation by the State’s Late Night Horror Film series of the 2016 movie “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” preceded by a zombie walk costume parade across the theater’s stage. The next evening will bring a screening by the Book to Film Club of 1940’s “Pride and Prejudice” starring Laurence Olivier, preceded by a lecture/discussion led by Arnold Schmidt, a professor of English at Stanislaus State.
A Jane Austen convention, called Jane Con, will include activities both that Saturday and Sunday. Among the first day’s events are a Regency Period arcade of “unique, artisanal, handcrafted or locally sourced gifts” on the library portico, an All Things Jane information session inside, and the lectures/workshops “Gowns and Groans: A Costumer Looks at Regency Costumes on Film and Stage,” “ Defining the Definitive Darcy,” “Starting Your Own JA Book Club” and Dressing the Regency Lady.”
The second day will bring Regency dance lessons, “No Sweat, No Debt Costumes: Regency on a Budget” and “Bonnets on a Budget,” which require a materials fee.
At the close of the weekend will be a special Jane Austen On Ice session at the Modesto on Ice outdoor skating rink downtown. Those dressed in Regency attire will receive a discount.
For information on Jane Con registration, costs and more, go to www.modestojanecon.com, call 209-523-6426 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo booth props are displayed at a 244th birthday party for Jane Austen at the Modesto Library on Dec. 16, 2019.
The public performances of “Mansfield Park” are at 2 p.m. both days at the State, with fun events during each intermission. Saturday’s will be a Regency costume parade and contest, and Sunday will be a Jane Austen game show with the audience.
Directing the show is Carolina Stevens, daughter of Stevens and Winberg. She promises that while opera can feel very slow and drawn out, Dove’s work is fast-paced and exciting. Conceived as a touring production, it eschews big sets for minimalism. At the State, the director will make use of the movie screen and employ rolling furniture and other small set pieces.
“As the composer makes the scenes move and change, she’s got the same thing happening, with footmen moving people around the stage, and it’s really quite lovely,” Roy Stevens said.
Carolina Stevens added that not being able to use traditional sets and set changes began as a challenge and ended up a benefit, helping to create a more “dynamic” show.
The 23-year-old director said Austen — whose works also include “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility” — wrote very interesting characters, especially her female ones. They are fleshed out, strong and thoughtful, especially for the author’s time period, Stevens said, and people still draw inspiration from them.
“I think that’s part of why she’s taught in schools, is that we still can connect to the type of people she writes, to the type of struggles they have,” she said. “We connect to their emotional lives. We connect to trying to figure out your way in the world.”
“Mansfield Park,” about heroine Fanny Price and other young people trying to work their way out of difficult situations and find freedom in various forms, also is quite funny, Carolina Stevens said. She noted that Austen is known for writing evil aunts, “and this has the most evil aunt of them all, Aunt Norris.” Mrs. Norris, the unpleasant feline pet of Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch in the Harry Potter books and movies, was named for the Austen character, Stevens noted.
Opera Modesto’s production is the U.S. premiere of Dove’s orchestrated version of “Mansfield Park.” Because it’s primarily a touring opera, Dove’s original music was for “four hands,” meaning two players on one piano, Roy Stevens said. But the show at the State will have a chamber orchestra in front of the stage.
On stage are just 10 singers, he said, seven of them from the Young Artists Program, which includes some of the region’s best teen talent and regional/national emerging young professionals.
In addition to the public performances, Opera Modesto will stage “Mansfield Park” twice more as shows for readers selected by schoolteachers and LearningQuest tutors. These will be audience members who have prepared and come familiar with the story and interested, Roy Stevens said.
LearningQuest Executive Director Karen Williams praised the Story Into Song Literacy Initiative as a creative way of introducing readers of all ages to classical literature.
“We are honored to have a partnership with Opera Modesto in order to provide an enriching experience of literacy for our adult learners,” she told The Bee in an email. “LearningQuest will have a booth at Jane Con to inform the community about our free educational services, and we hope that the spirit of Jane Con, ‘Mansfield Park’ and SISLI inspires the readers in our community to become volunteer tutors and teach other adults how to read.”
Opera Modesto intends its “Mansfield Park” production to be just the first piece of an ongoing Story Into Song program. The second year, said Roy Stevens, will be based on two famous Spanish and Spanglish novels and two one-act operas based on them: Cervantes’ “Don Quixote de La Mancha” and Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima.” The literacy initiative will be focused even more on the Spanish-speaking part of the community, with “many new and developing partnerships and collaborations with Latino businesses and organizations,” he said.
Looking toward Year Three, the Opera Modesto director said it probably will be based on something by Edgar Allen Poe.
LearningQuest’s Williams said the initiative is different and important because it involves a regional effort by teachers, professors, administrators, librarians, volunteers and more, representing collaborative partnerships with an educational and literacy focus.
“Knowing this is something that will continue in future years with other works of literature, I believe this idea will grow over time,” she said. “This year is the infancy of what I believe will soon become a mature project with even more impact as it evolves.”
To learn more, visit www.operamodesto.org.