Opera Neo’s Cabaret Brings Choice Moments of Opera and Music Theatre to the Spanish VIllage

The spacious patio of Balboa Park’s Spanish Village Art Center and a balmy summer evening proved the ideal combination for Opera Neo’s annual Cabaret. Singers from this season’s Opera Neo Festival offered scenes and solos from both opera and musical theater while the audience seated around tables finished their buffet dinner. Dessert and coffee followed at intermission.

Opera Neo Cabaret Cast [photo courtesy of Opera Neo]

In sheer number, opera excerpts played a smaller role than usual in this year’s Cabaret, but the three chosen duets amply compensated with the caliber of each performance. Baritones Christopher Farley and Chancelor Barbaree as Don Magnifico and Dandini in the second act duet from Gioachino Rossini’s La cenerentola “Un segreto d’importanza” indulged this comic encounter with pananche. They complemented their eloquent diction and resonant voices with superb comic timing. In the duet “Quanto amore” from Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, Nini Marchese’s bright, supple soprano imbued her Adina with ample confidence to put the oily Dr. Dulcamara in his place and resist his offer of a magical potion, although Chancelor Barbaree  was vocally persuasive.

Soprano Julia Behbudov and mezzo-soprano Darya Narymanava gave a touching account of the delicate ballad “Uzh vecher” that opens the second scene of Act One of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame. Their beautifully matched voices communicated the deep poetic longing that is so quintessentially Russian, and Kelley Hart’s shimmering flute descant provided the perfect complement.

Anthems of cynical self-awareness are stock and trade in contemporary American musical theater, and Katherine Cosenza appears to have this attitude down pat. Whether she is Amy in Stephen Sondheim’s Company protesting vehemently that she is NOT “Getting Married Today,” or the bickering Edith in “Peas in a Pod” from Scott Frankel’s Grey Gardens, or whining  “Adelaide’s Lament” from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, Cosenza confidently belts in the magnificent Merman tradition, and the audience does not miss a single note or syllable.

Jeanine Tesori’s sophisticated musical shows have won Tony and Drama Desk Awards, so who is better equipped to send up the arduous practicing singers must endure to stay in vocal shape for the stage? The subject in Tesori’s song “Girl in 14-G” is the meek resident of a New York City apartment complex surrounded by raging vocalists, and Lisa Buhelos brilliantly captured not only her distress, but soared imitating the operatic snippets quoted in the song. Darya Narymanava built on Buhelos’ satiric energy with her caustic “Alto’s Lament” from Zina Goldrich’s Broken Broadway, a ruthless exposé of the dull vocal parts altos are forced to sing as they accompany graceful soprano melodies. Some might call it “melody envy.”

One of Opera Neo’s star countertenors, Keith Wehmeier, who sang a compelling Bertarido in the company’s May production of Handel’s Rodelinda, gave a moving, deftly shaded account of the aria “Epic III”  from Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, a contemporary revision of the traditional Greek Orpheus myth whose 2016 Broadway debut won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score. A new countertenor to Opera Neo, Chuanyuan Liu revived with intense commitment  Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,”  a classic from the Great American Songbook.

Every singer who essays “La vie en rose” must contend with the iconic Edith Piaf rendition. Julia Behbudov’s solution fused the intense vocal color of a Henri Duparc art song with Piaf’s traditional phrasing–certainly a possible combination, but it did not win me over. On the other hand, Lauren Randolph’s coy, slightly provocative interpretation of Claude Nougaro’s “La vie en noir”–his apparent answer to “La vie en rose”–could not have been more engaging.

Jason Robert Brown’s two-person 2001 musical The Last Five Years opened in Chicago and has played twice Off-Broadway, but is slated for a Broadway production next year. Nini Marchese skillfully mined the biting humor of a grueling road show tour in the musical’s song “Summer in Ohio.”

Strong ensembles opened and closed the production, starting with the unsurprising but suitably upbeat “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and closing with  “The Impossible Dream” from Mitch Leigh’s Man of La Mancha. Although Chancelor Barbaree’s heroic solo rendition of the theme opened with apt flourish for a grand finale, I never find this approach satisfying. This musical’s Man of La Mancha is a classic anti-hero, and this is why his dream is impossible.

Cabaret was fortunate to enjoy the services of three superb accompanists, Kelley Hart, Fumiyasu Kawase, and Korey Barrett, and stage direction of the ensembles was accomplished with finesse by Samantha Fox and Anne Sutton.

This performance was presented by Opera Neo at Balboa Park’s Spanish Village Arts Center on July 5, 2024. It was repeated in the same venue on July 6.


  1. Malou Rogers on July 10, 2024 at 9:05 am

    Sounds delightful, engaging and full of surprises!

  2. Paul Engel on July 10, 2024 at 9:16 am

    Best courtyard concert I can remember!! 😳😊
    Sorry, Sacra Profana, you are you are a close second.😉
    Fine review, Mr. Herman!

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