A scene from "Befana: A Christmas Fable."
(Via Steve DiBartolomeo)
City Life

‘Befana’ makes a defiant comeback, Rydell legacy continues to grow, all hail Karen Yamashita

At Cabrillo, it will be Christmas in February for an Omicron-delayed opera. Downtown, four fellowship artists get their own MAH exhibit. Online, a newly crowned literary titan talks about her craft and more — and Wallace Baine gives us a sneak peek at all of it.

Despite the Omicron-inspired state of suspended animation, the Santa Cruz County arts world continues to inspire. This week, an opera that’s been the preoccupation of almost 100 performers and tech people for almost a year gets derailed, and then set right again at Cabrillo College. Plus, may we never forget the generosity and spirit of Roy and Frances Rydell, and it’s about time the world wakes up to the talent of Karen Tei Yamashita.

Wallace

A February Noel: In this weird, upside-down, through-the-looking-glass pandemic world, it just seems fitting that we should get to experience Christmas in February.

At least that’s the plan at Cabrillo College, where Cabrillo’s Music and Theater Arts Departments, in collaboration with the Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra, will present a world premiere of a magical new opera from celebrated San Francisco composer Kirke Mechem.

A poster for the musical "Befana"

The opera is titled “Befana: A Christmas Fable,” and if you’re thinking this is a case of the Omicron variant wreaking havoc with the scheduling of a traditionally Christmas-oriented production, you’re right … sort of.

“Befana” is a big deal, the work of scores of performers and tech artists, with a budget of tens of thousands of dollars. Mechem is a world-renowned composer who offered Cabrillo this new opera based on his long relationship with Cabrillo’s choral director, Cheryl Anderson, and her husband, John, the conductor and artistic director at Ensemble Monterey.

Yes, the show was originally slated to debut at the Crocker Theater during the Christmas season, albeit long after Christmas Day, when most people had already stuffed their blinking lights, aluminum trees and other decorations back in the attic. Because the myth the opera is based on has to do with Epiphany, which is the 12th Day of Christmas, the Cabrillo production was set to debut on Jan. 6, the Day of Epiphany on the Christian calendar. Thanks to COVID-19’s most recent curveball, however, the production was shut down.

But now, there’s a new date as “Befana” sets its sights on four performances at the Crocker on Feb. 24-27. Deck the halls, again.

Cheryl Anderson, director of the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus
Cheryl Anderson, director of the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus on the upcoming “Befana: A Christmas Fable”: “It’s so beautiful and so poignant.”

If you’re not Italian, you might have never heard of Befana, a figure in Italian folklore who combines the familiar traits of Santa Claus and the archetypal witch. She’s is an old woman in a black shawl who flies around on her broomstick on Epiphany Eve (Jan. 5), distributing gifts to good little children and lumps of coal to not-so-good children. Befana, as legend has it, was a tireless worker and hosted the Three Wise Men on their way to visit the infant Jesus. For her hospitality, they invited her to accompany them to Bethlehem, but she declined, citing too much work to do. Only later, wracked with regret, did she change her mind and go out seeking the Christ Child. As generations of Italian parents have told their children, she never found what she was searching for.

Composer Mechem, now 96, has been hearing about Befana since he was a child and decided to compose an opera based on her story. The pandemic had derailed the opera’s original commission, so nearly a year ago he called the Andersons to see if it might be a fit for Cabrillo.

Cheryl Anderson was delighted to take it on, once she and John had looked at the score. “And, so we sat down at the piano,” she said, “and when we got to the third movement, which is Befana’s soliloquy about her life. I mean, we lost it. It was so beautiful and so poignant. We just closed the score. That’s it. We don’t need to hear anymore. So we just picked up the phone and said, ‘We’ll make this happen.’”

The Andersons got busy corralling the musicians and the voices for the 45-voice choir. Cabrillo’s great technical staff, including director Robin Aronson, costumer Maria Crush and set designer Skip Epperson, set the thing in motion. The performers and crew returned from a pre-Christmas break for rehearsals in the last week of December and the opera was heading for a Jan. 6 opening.

Anderson said that she was looking warily at the Omicron headlines, feeling all she could do was to be vigilant on her masking and distancing protocols and continue to go on as planned. On Jan. 5, there was a “soft opening” for around 50 invited guests. Still, everything was a go.

But the morning of the opera’s opening night, Anderson learned that someone in the choir had tested positive for Omicron after having been at a family gathering. Then a second person got back a positive test. Then a member of the orchestra also tested positive. There was nothing left to do but to shut it down, mere hours from opening. All performances were canceled.

“We were all, the next day, just in the lowest pit of the lowest pit,” said Anderson. “We were just going through the motions. And, ultimately, even though this happened, I would do it all again, in a heartbeat. The people I get to work with are so wonderful and they sounded so beautiful. Everything was great. And now, we get to do it again. So it’s all OK.”

Tickets will soon be on sale for “Befana: A Christmas Fable,” slated for Feb. 24-27 at the Crocker Theater on the campus of Cabrillo College.

Painter Kajahl Benes-Trapp has recently been named a Rydell Fellow for 2022-23.

Rydells season: It’s more than 20 years since Santa Cruz lost Roy and Frances Rydell, a husband-and-wife team who were a dynamo in the local arts scene. Roy Rydell, who died in 2000, was a master landscape architect, one of the designers of the downtown Pacific Garden Mall, and a figure of influence and power in building the cultural life of Santa Cruz. His wife, Frances, who died two years before Roy, was no less a force of nature and a literary and political tastemaker.

When they passed away, the Rydells (who had no children) lent their estate to the formation of an ongoing fund to allow serious visual artists in Santa Cruz County to make strides in their art. Since 2006, the Community Foundation has administered the Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship Program, which every two years awards four local artists with stipends of $20,000 each to pursue their muse.

Artist Kristiana Chan is one of four artists to receive the Rydell Fellowship for 2022-23.

This month, the Museum of Art & History will be hosting the Rydell exhibit of the 2020-21 artists, which includes: printmaker and illustrator Ann Altstatt, designer and artist Marc D’Estout, dancer and choreographer Cid Pearlman and photographer and printmaker Edward Ramirez. Each artist will present what they’ve created during their fellowship year at a big new show on the MAH’s second-floor Solari Gallery.

At the same time, the Community Foundation has announced the next round of Rydell fellows, for 2022 and 2023. The new fellows are: Santa Cruz painter Kajahl Benes-Trapp, writer/artist Kristiana Chan, multimedia and sound artist Anna Friz and tapestry/fabric artist Janette Gross.

The fellowship is now in its 14th season and has handed out more than $600,000 in awards to Santa Cruz’s creative artists. It’s an astounding gift to posterity by a couple that continues to shape, influence, and inspire.

Thank you, Roy.

Thank you, Frances.

Kudos to KTY: Gaze upon this list of names for a moment — Eudora Welty, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Miller, Stephen King, Adrienne Rich, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Don DeLillo, Isabel Allende.

We’re talking about the Mount Olympus of contemporary American literature. As writers, you and I simply do not belong in their company.

Longtime UCSC literature professor Karen Tei Yamashita
Longtime UCSC literature professor Karen Tei Yamashita has won an award that puts her in the top echelon of American writers.

But Karen Tei Yamashita does.

The longtime UC Santa Cruz literature professor and accomplished novelist was recently awarded the 2021 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. And if you’re wondering what that is, go back to that list of writers. Those are some of this medal’s previous recipients.

The NBF Medal is a lifetime achievement award, bestowed every year on the finest American writers. And, if the above roster is not impressive, there are more, many more, including Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Maxine Hong Kingston and Elmore Leonard.

The latest name to join that august company is Yamashita, the medal’s 2021 winner. She will be on hand in a live virtual event on Jan. 27 as part of the Living Writers Series sponsored by the UCSC Literature Department and UCSC’s Creative Writing Program. She will be featured alongside Los Angeles-based writer Eric C. Wat in a program called “Change Me: Stories of Radical Transformation.” The event is free, but requires registration.

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Yamashita is a towering figure on campus, but she is most known nationally for her books, the magical realistic novel “Tropic of Orange” and the historically informed and ambitious series of novellas “I Hotel,” both adding context and nuance to the narrative of the Asian American experience.

Her latest work, “Sansei and Sensibility” (2020), is a collection of short stories and if that title sounds like Jane Austen, that’s no accident. The stories are centered on third-generation Japanese diaspora, but they operate as echoes of Austen.

Congratulations to a Santa Cruz treasure now, finally, getting her literary due.