Behind the Scenes: Arizona Opera

Joshua Borths, founder of the Arizona Opera Book Club, is on a mission to “de-silo” opera.
by Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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Joshua Borths at Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix
© Cecelia Roeder

“AUDIENCES TEND TO THINK OF OPERA in very confined boxes,” says Joshua Borths, AZO’s resident stage director and director of education and community engagement. “The goal is to connect opera to history, to literature, to what is happening in current pop culture. A book club seemed a natural way to create a space for adults to share, learn and connect their love of opera with things they may or may not have thought about.”

To foster thematic, historical and stylistic diversity, Borths allows only one piece of operatic source material per season. So while this year’s reading list features Voltaire’s Candide, The Barber of Seville is accompanied not by the Beaumarchais play but by Molto Agitato, Johanna Fiedler’s gossipy history of the Metropolitan Opera.

“We decided to use Barber, which is one of the more traditional titles from our season, to delve into the tradition of opera and have a grand old time discussing the stories and experiences that are catalogued in that book,” Borths says.

Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, recently adapted for Starz, sheds new light on Das Rheingold by interrogating the influence of modern myths on contemporary life, while Tosca’s Rome, by Susan Vandiver Nicassio, provides a window into Italian nationalism using Puccini’s opera as a guide. Borths has a knack for finding inventive solutions, as with Hercules vs. Vampires, an opera created by Patrick Morganelli to be performed live during a screening of the 1961 Italian film Hercules in the Haunted World, in place of the original soundtrack.

“We’re reading Christopher Moore’s Fool, a bawdy beach-read comedy that’s King Lear from the perspective of the Fool,” Borths says. “As Hercules is taking this cult film and turning it into opera, we’re taking a book that deconstructs Shakespeare into this hilarious romp through the destruction of the family of Lear.”

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Borths talking to audience members after Arizona Opera’s Riders of the Purple Sage
© Cecelia Roeder

The company’s partnership with local indie Changing Hands Bookstore has been integral to the book club’s success. “They provide the books and space to meet,” says Borths. “Everybody shows up at seven o’clock, gets wine and discusses opera and literature for an hour.” The book club got off to a memorable start, pairing Emmerich Kálmán’s 1954 operetta Arizona Lady with Lazy B, Sandra Day O’Connor’s memoir about growing up on a ranch in Arizona. “Justice O’Connor actually came and did a Q&A about the book and her life, and the themes that are present both in the operetta and in her memoir. That was pretty incredible,” recalls Borths. 

Conductor Jane Glover visited the bookstore for what Borths describes as a riveting discussion of her book Mozart’s Women in conjunction with Don Giovanni, and Angela Davis-Gardner Skyped in for her novel Butterfly’s Child. “We try to think outside the box in terms of people to connect book club members with. That in turn changes their appreciation for what they read and what they’ll see onstage,” Borths says. For Rusalka, soprano Elizabeth Futral, then a professor at the University of Arizona, offered perspective on Renée Fleming’s autobiography The Inner Voice. “She talked not only about her experiences singing with Renée Fleming but about the experience of being a singer at that level of career. It was really vibrant, and she even gave everyone a brief voice lesson to get into the mindset of what it’s like to be a singer.”

If the book club hasn’t directly influenced the company’s programming, it has changed the audience’s perspective. “They’re starting to come up to us with more interesting suggestions and are more engaged in how the world is influencing the art we put on the mainstage and vice versa,” Borths says. “So it’s no longer as much ‘We haven’t done Traviata in six years,’ it’s ‘Is there an opera based on this novel?’ Slowly, they’re realizing that opera is ultimately a very contemporary art form.” spacer

Joanne Sydney Lessner is a playwright, novelist and singer.



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