Cabrillo poised to unveil ‘Befana’ at the Crocker, plus Mermen news and Avant Garden Party returns
Yes, “Befana” is a Christmas fable, and Omicron delayed its premiere. But, Wallace Baine writes as he looks ahead to what’s coming on the local arts scene, the mini-opera’s spirit extends well beyond the holiday season.
There’s a big and bold new production coming to Cabrillo College, but one word in its title presents a bit of marketing challenge in getting audiences to engage with it.
It’s called “Befana: A Christmas Fable,” and immediately you can see the issue. Christmas? In February?
“Befana” is a big deal at Cabrillo, a fully staged mini-opera, a world premiere co-presented by the Cabrillo Choral and Vocal Program, the college’s theater arts department, and the Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra. Cabrillo commissioned the work from well-known San Francisco composer Kirke Mechem. It’s based on a beloved Italian folk tale that dates back to Roman times.
The “Christmas” part of it is a clue that the production was a victim of the Omicron wave, postponed from its original dates to late February. The production now is set to debut next Thursday, Feb. 24, at the Crocker Theater at Cabrillo and run four performances through Sunday, Feb. 27.
But though rooted in Christmas tradition, “Befana” is not really about Christmas, in the same way that though it’s based on Italian folklore, it’s not really about Italy.
For one thing, even if Omicron had not crashed the party, the Cabrillo production was going to face a similar challenge with the term “Christmas” anyway. The folk tale of Befana is technically linked to Epiphany, the date in which the Three Kings are believed to have visited the infant Jesus, the back end of what’s celebrated as the 12 days of Christmas. And Epiphany is Jan. 6, which was when Cabrillo was originally planning to premiere the piece. That, of course, is already long past the point when most contemporary Americans have packed away the tinsel for another year.
On top of that, this is original music from a living composer, with no references to Christmas carols or Christmas-season tropes.
Many Italians are already quite familiar with the tale of Befana, a figure depicted as an old woman who flies around on a broom delivering gifts to children on the eve of Epiphany. According to legend, the old woman was originally invited to accompany the Three Wise Men to visit the Christ child, but she turned them down, claiming she had too much housework to attend to. She realized too late what a foolish decision it was to decline the invitation and tried in vain to find the Christ child on her own. So Befana now lights out every year on Epiphany Eve to visit every child in the world with gifts, as a kind of penance.
The moral here is to never prioritize work obligations over other, more potentially life-changing opportunities. And that’s a message that carries weight, especially with contemporary Americans, any month of the year.
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Composer Mechem had been familiar with the old folk tale for decades. He first encountered it way back in the 1960s in a poem by American poet Phyllis McGinley. He remembers being enchanted with the idea of setting the story to music, but he never got around to it.
Fast-forward 50-plus years. At the age of 94, Mechem finally decided to act on his long-held desire to write something about Befana. He sat down and wrote a “scenario,” not quite as substantial as a libretto. It was a start. But could he finish?
“I was still unsure whether I had enough gas in the tank to write all that music,” said Mechem, now 96, from his home in San Francisco. “I was just sitting in my chair in the living room one day, and there was something about (Donald) Trump that was making me angry. So I just wrote a little verse about Trump.”
Whatever it was he wanted to say about the former president has long been forgotten. But he felt that the bones of the melody were pretty strong. He began to build on it. And out of that came the long-gestating idea of a piece about Befana.
“I was kinda surprised,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess I haven’t lost the knack.’” He envisioned the piece as a choral work for children. He even used a bit of the poem in which he first learned about Befana at the end of what turned out to be a short piece, less than an hour.
Mechem had known Cheryl Anderson, the director of choral groups at Cabrillo, for years. When the piece was finished, he decided to call her.
“He said, ‘Well, you know I’ve written this piece for children’s choir,’” remembered Anderson. “Well, immediately, my heart stopped. Because one of the things that there’s just not a lot in the repertoire that challenges children with really good music, and puts them in the same space as adult professional singers, with a really good orchestra. And (when you do that), it can be a game-changer for kids who are musically inclined.”
Soon after Anderson and her husband, John (the artistic director of the Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra), received the score through email, “we just picked up the phone and told him, ‘We will make this happen. We’ll do this commission.’”
From there, it was all about recruiting Cabrillo’s finest musical and theatrical talent including director Robin Aronson, set designer Skip Epperson, costumer Maria Crush and others. All together, the production uses about 45 performers, musicians and singers to tell the enchanting story, with a lesson that will hit home with many.
“We get so caught up in all these things that we think we have to do,” said Mechem, reflecting on the lessons of the fable, “that we sort of forget what life is all about. We catch ourselves sometimes saying, ‘What am I doing with my life? There are things more important than work.’”
Does that remind you of a spirit exclusive to Christmas time?
Yeah, me neither.
Murmurs from the Mermen
I’ve bored people for years with my fanboy natterings about my favorite band, the great Santa Cruz trio the Mermen. The Merms have been around for decades, of course, producing astonishing albums of moltenly mellifluous music. But they now have their own YouTube channel.
If you haven’t yet discovered the psychedelic wonder of the Mermen, you’re welcome. Check ’em out and be sure to catch them live in 2022. I’ll let you know when that’s possible.
Return of the AGP
An honorable (and very fun) Santa Cruz tradition is set to return in 2022. The Avant Garden Party, the summertime musical outdoors celebration hosted by the artists of New Music Works, is coming back from the pandemic layoff. Save the date June 5 for the live show at a fabulous local private garden, with all kinds of enticements, not the least of which is catered food from Jozseph Schultz of India Joze fame.
In the meantime, New Music Works, under the direction of Philip Collins, is in the midst of its current season (the 43rd!), which picks up March 5 with “The Music of Sound” at Peace United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz.
Aptos library’s fabulous February
Lots going down with the Friends of the Aptos Library. The group’s “Our Community Reads” events have been focused on McCarthyism of the mid-20th century, and upcoming online events include a panel discussion called “Red Diaper Babies: Growing Up During the HUAC Years of the 1950s,” featuring UC Santa Cruz professor emerita Bettina Aptheker, retired Cabrillo College faculty member Julie Olsen Edwards and author and poet Dena Taylor. That happens next Thursday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. Then on Monday, Feb. 28, writer Claudia Sternbach will discuss the hunt for communists in the 1950s and the role of women in that era. Both events are free, but require registration.