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Verdi's first great opera to open West Bay season

'Nabucco' will feature Christina Major as Abigaile

Back in 1842, "Nabucco" established Giuseppe Verdi as the new star of the opera world. In 2019, it will serve as the fitting start to West Bay Opera's 64th season, which will be all Verdi.

"Nabucco" is the story of the plight of Jews as they are defeated, then exiled from their homeland by King Nabucco, a.k.a. Nebuchadnezzar II.

Loosely based on the biblical books of Daniel and Jeremiah, the opera also involves some romance and politics. Nabucco's daughter Fenena, and another alleged daughter, Abigaile, both love Ismaele. Conniving Abigaile manages to become queen of Babylon, and undertakes to trick Nabucco into signing a death warrant for the Israelites, and for Fenena.

"I think the central story is not the love triangle," West Bay Opera general director and conductor José Luis Moscovich said during a recent phone call. "It's still early Verdi; he's still trying to figure out structure and plots. But the real center of this story is Nabucco; the idea that a ruler can make mistakes, learn from them and grow.

Nabucco, at the time, has gone insane, and proclaims himself not just king, but a god. God doesn't like that, and more drama ensues. Eventually, Nabucco regains his sanity and begs God's forgiveness.

"That is one of the reasons I programmed it. Today, there are a lot of autocratic rulers ... they all think they know best. Verdi gives us a fable, a morality tale dressed up as Babylon, a convenient and dramatic enough topic so that he wouldn't get in trouble in his time. A ruler declares himself a god, is immediately struck down by God, then declares he will be above God," Moscovich said.

"It's a topic that resonates with people. In a lot of areas of the world, a lot of people are suffering because of despots. Verdi gives us an opportunity to see Nabucco get his dues from the power of God. He calls for the temple to be reconstructed, and the Hebrews brought back to Jerusalem."

It's a challenging work for West Bay Opera, which is known for going big with the music and the visuals -- some of the opera takes place in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which should make for impressive backgrounds.

The opera's most popular tune is the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," "Va, pensiero,” which is sometimes offered as an encore following full performances of the opera. West Bay Opera will have its biggest chorus ever -- 33 voices -- which is likely to make its performance even more memorable. There will be a large orchestra, split between the pit and on stage, a strategy that has succeeded in the past few productions by the company.

One of Moscovich's biggest challenges in staging this huge opera was casting Abigaile, a role that requires a very capable coloratura soprano.

"Abigaile is difficult," Moscovich said. "She requires a voice that can float and be soft. Companies have trouble casting it. The singer must have agility, but enough sound -- opera's main distinction is you don't use amplification for the voice."

But Moscovich already knew such a singer, Christina Major, who starred in the title role of "Norma" for West Bay Opera, and as Lucrezia in the company's production of "I due Foscari."

"I have a very large instrument," said Major in a recent phone call from her home in Texas. "I can do all the coloratura and the high extension, moving a freight train around in loop-de-loops. It's not a common voice type."

She triumphed with "Norma" at West Bay Opera, yes, but also went with it to Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is considered one of the best opera houses in the world.

Friendly and full of good humor over the phone, Major spoke fondly of working with Moscovich, and of the Lucie Stern Theatre, which is no Teatro Colón.

"It's wild for the singer," said Major. "Even though the house is small, and not acoustically amazing, having the orchestra on stage just kind of projects everything forward. No one gets buried. It's different when you have them right there in your face."

Major is very positive about "Nabucco" and the character she will sing.

"There is zero I dislike about Abigaile. She's another very powerful character among the roles I have moved in to. I used to do more matronly roles, like Electra. But this character is a very regal, very powerful woman. People see Abigaile as evil, but I see her as misunderstood. She believes she is the daughter of the king of Babylon. It turns out she is actually a slave."

And, speaking of vocal challenges, "The aria is 10 minutes of raw emotion. She feels betrayed, that she's done nothing but good, and is not to be usurped for the throne by her younger sister who's not her sister."

Growing up in Fort Worth, she became interested in singing when she was about 12.

"It was when 'The Phantom of the Opera' came around. It was the first time I'd heard operatic sounds. Christine (performed by Sarah Brightman) singing all those beautiful high parts.

"I put on a production in my bedroom. I made a gown from curtains. They (her family) were listening outside the room, said I sounded good. They got me lessons. A music teacher in my grammar school said, 'Don't mess with her voice until she's 15.'"

That was good advice. It's like being careful about teaching a 13-year-old to throw a curveball.

"I got my first voice lesson when I was 16 and never looked back," Major said. "There is no such thing as a teenage real opera singer. There are singers that can mimic sounds, but most of those kids don't sing past their 20s. It's something you have to respect."

Major's career took a slight detour four years ago, when her daughter, Eden, was born.

"She was a late surprise. I'd always been told I could not have children," she said. "Being a parent is a complete look at yourself from the outside. I didn't think I would be able to be a parent, but it's the greatest blessing in my life."

The sophisticated opera singer met her husband, Greg Evans, while playing ice hockey. They were on opposing teams. He is an assembly specialist at Peterbilt Motors Company.

"It's probably a good thing he's not a musician," said Major. "Having someone who is not in your profession, but chooses to learn about it because they love you, is awesome."

Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

What: "Nabucco."

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 18 and Oct. 26; 2 p.m. Oct. 20 and Oct. 27.

Cost: $35 to $92 (discounts available).

Info: 650-424-9999 or West Bay Opera.

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