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Fresno’s cultural scene sizzles for summer

by Fresno Bee
07-30-2011

As summer heats up, Fresno’s cultural scene shows no sign of cooling down. I slipped out of town for a two-week vacation earlier this month and have been running myself ragged ever since trying to catch up on the stuff I missed. (The theater scene, in particular, is especially vibrant this month – a far cry from previous summers.)

With that in mind, here’s a selected look at the weeks ahead, which have some rich offerings in opera, theater and art.

California Opera

Each year, the California Opera Association’s summer arts and education festival brings an astonishing number of public performances to local audiences – and they’re all free. (Donations are cheerfully accepted, of course.) Artistic director Edna Garabedian, who through sheer willpower and the myriad connections she still maintains in the opera world after a career as an international diva, manages year after year to bring an intriguing blend of up-and-coming voices to Fresno, often joined by distinguished faculty members with a wealth of performing experience.

This year the festival settles into two venues: the Bonner Auditorium at the Fresno Art Museum; and the Mercedes Edwards Theatre in Clovis.

If you’re interested in big-scale, fully-staged works, then the Mercedes Edwards productions are probably for you. “Lucia de Lamermoor,” which will be performed 2 p.m. Aug. 7, features two well-known California Opera names in leading roles: Zachary Sheely and Jamie Bonetto. I’ve listened to both over the years, and they just keep getting better.

“Così fan tutte,” which will be performed 2 p.m. Aug. 14, also at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre, will feature San Francisco soprano Suzanna Mizell (who was stellar in last year’s “The Medium”) in a leading role along with festival newcomer Alix Jerinic.

Along with the fully-staged productions, there’s a lot to admire in the more intimate shows staged at the Fresno Art Museum as part of the festival’s Free Summer Opera Series. Here you get a chance to experience lesser-known one-act titles.

At 2 p.m. today, you can catch Bela Bartok’s only opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle,” featuring Angelina Billington and Nicolaus Schiffman. This week’s schedule includes “Destination Deutschland” at 7 p.m. Friday, highlighting Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 one-act opera “The Dead City,” and “An Evening in Memory” at 7 p.m. Saturday, highlighting Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.”

A full list of performances can be found at calopera.org; details are available at (559) 225-6737.

Whatever the performance, I encourage any and all opera fans to experience the homespun warmth and dedication of the participants in this annual festival. And if you aren’t an opera fan, consider expanding your horizons. You might like what you hear.

‘Centralism’

In an uncertain economy, Gallery 25 continues to provide a vibrant venue for its member artists. With its annual “Centralism” show, now in its third year, the gallery combines an important fundraiser – it makes money from entry fees from participating artists – and a chance to highlight names that aren’t on the roster of Gallery 25 members. The exhibition opens 5 p.m. Thursday as part of ArtHop, the monthly open house of studios and galleries in the downtown and Tower District areas.

Gallery vice president and Fresno State art professor Edward Gillum conceived “Centralism” both as a geographical comment, reflecting Fresno’s location in California, and as a take on the art world’s never-ending quest to find the next “ism,” or artistic movement. (Think of primitivism, expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, post-modernism, etc.) Why not go the other way, he thought, and seek to include rather than exclude?

“I sought to show as wide a variety of art from as diverse a population as I possibly could,” Gillum says. “This bringing in as much of what is going on peripherally toward the center became Centralism.”

This year’s show was slated to be juried by Los Angeles artist Jay Lizo, but those plans fell through because of financial constraints, Gillum says. Instead, he took over as juror, selecting 45 artists in a wide variety of media including painting, drawing, performance art, sculpture and video art. About 60% of the artists are local, while most of the rest are from different parts of the state. All but five are non-Gallery 25 members, so there will be lots of new names to discover.

After ArtHop, the exhibition continues through Aug. 28. Details: gallery25.org, (559) 264-4092.

More theater

Could these be the “Glory Days” of local theater? It sure feels like it this summer. With a mix of brisk new titles and old favorites, there’re a lot of ways to experience the joys of live performance. One of my current picks is the small musical “Glory Days,” presented by Organic Theater Factory, which is finishing up its first weekend with a 4 p.m. performance today at The Voice Shop, 1296 N. Wishon Ave. After today, there are only four performances left. Don’t miss it. (Details: otffresno.com, (559) 696-2122.)

And reinforce the barricades: Children’s Musical Theaterworks tackles none other than “Les Miserables” (a slightly scaled-down school edition), which opens Friday and runs through Aug. 13 at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. The show is directed by Skyler Gray, the company’s new artistic director, and I for one am anxious to see what magic he can work with this big-spectacle material. (Details: cmtworks.org, (866) 973-9610.

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