Elizabeth Sutphen as Anna Morichilli, Luca Pisaroni as young Lorenzo Da Ponte, Lauren Snouffer as Brigida Banti.

Image: Lynn Lane

Composer Tarik O’Regan is an immigrant to this country. He came to the States as a visiting faculty member at Columbia University, where he found in New York City an environment in which he could thrive, and stuck around. Coincidentally, that's the rough path of the central figure in The Phoenix, O'Regan's new opera that explores the American life of Lorenzo Da Ponte and premieres at Houston Grand Opera this week.

Known to opera lovers as one of Mozart’s most frequent librettists, the real-life Da Ponte led a notorious life. Born Jewish in Venice in 1749, he was a priest, librettist, poet, sometime grocer, and, across his life that spanned two continents, built the first opera house in the U.S.

“That’s really at the heart of it; it’s finding one’s identity in the New World,” says O’Regan about the opera. “The parallel appeal to Da Ponte is that he lived so long, he lived across what seem to be impossible moments of history that never should have aligned in somebody’s life. But they do.”

O’Regan says the show is structured as an opera within an opera. In his quest to open a U.S. company, Da Ponte holds a fundraiser for the venture, in which he presents an opera that is the story of his life. That allows O’Regan to explore something how we all revise and edit our own stories about our lives. When Da Ponte emigrated to New York City—where he, like O'Regan, also served on the Columbia faculty—no one knew who he was. He was free, says O’Regan, to tell whatever story he wanted about himself. Of course, as more and more Italians came to the States, they’d heard of Da Ponte’s exploits.

O’Regan hopes that audiences find in Da Ponte’s life not a straight-on biography (although certainly biographical details are there), but the idea that there are multiple stories within this nation of immigrants we’ve built. He also thinks opera is a wonderful vehicle for telling this one.

“Opera is gloriously bizarre,” he says. “It’s this wonderfully over-the-top art form. The themes of this opera are very real, but the engagement with them, the way you spend this evening, take you to a totally different level.”

April 26–May 10. Tickets from $26. Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.

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