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Whatever LOLA wants: heartbreaking pop-up opera in Austin

by Michael Barnes,
Liz Cass is executive director of Armstrong Community Music School and executive producer of of Local Opera Local Artists, known colloquially as LOLA. [Michael Barnes/American-Statesman]

Liz Cass is the executive director of Armstrong Community Music School and executive producer of Local Opera Local Artists, known colloquially as LOLA.

Since 2014, LOLA has produced five chamber operas and more than 50 concerts in the community, including a regular gig at Fourth Tap Brewery.

LOLA’s next chamber opera, produced in collaboration with Panoramic Voices, is Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” to be performed Feb. 14 and 15 at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, a large space with excellent acoustics on West 15th Street.

We recently caught up with Cass at Trianon Coffee on Bee Caves Road.

American-Statesman: Once upon a time, Austin had two outlets, basically, for opera, Austin Opera and the Butler Opera Center at the University of Texas. Now opera is everywhere. Do we call it pop-up opera?

Liz Cass: Now, what we do is thoroughly thought-out, but there is something in the term “pop-up” that implies we are light on our feet and we don’t have a lot of overhead, which is correct. For instance, our budgets are conceived project by project. That has given us more flexibility, and 97 percent goes directly into the productions themselves. Going back, some of the expansion of opera groups in town grew out of the 2008 financial crisis. All the big arts groups had to scale back, so all these creative people found opportunities to bring arts to more people. Then the city grew again and the funding became more robust, at least for a time.

And you can do operas that the big companies generally can’t, like “Dido and Aeneas.”

Newer pieces, one-act operas, 75-minute operas, we can take some risks that larger companies can’t take, as well. “Dido and Aeneas” is only 60 minutes, but we’ll do first a new choral piece by Carlos Alberto Cordero Garcia. He’s super-gifted. Very joyful. It’s called “Forgiveness.”

So how is all this new opera activity affecting the traditional opera world?

All of us in the opera world in this town are very collaborative. It’s unique, but I hope it’s spreading. It feels like a real community. And people in the opera world are collaborating with people outside that world, so it’s a really healthy ecosystem right now. I had a small part in “Rigoletto” at Austin Opera this season, and I was stunned, excitedly so, when the curtain went up and I could hear the audience go wild every night for this huge 40-year-old opera set. What is causing that? It’s great. I wonder if it’s because Austinites can hear so much opera and new music, it’s giving new life to the old traditional pieces with traditional scenery.

What will we see and hear at St. Martin’s?

Oh my goodness! It’s a theatrical opera. We have Sadie Langenkamp designing the lights, so really fabulous lighting including a dramatic thunderstorm. Our costume design is by Benjamin Taylor-Ridgeway. It won’t be exact period costuming, so not baroque or ancient. Rather minimalist with references to an earlier period. The singing with be glorious. These are voices we selected very carefully. The music itself is stunning. And we will be using baroque tuning. It’s considered a baroque masterpiece, but it’s also Purcell’s only through-composed opera, meaning no talking in between the singing. Remember, this was written less than 100 years after opera was invented, so there’s something naturally minimalist about. And that keeps the music closer to the human emotions. It breaks my heart in an instant.

If you go

‘Dido and Aeneas’

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 24-15

Where: St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, 606 W. 15th St.

How much: $10-$15

More information: