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Nicolas Reveles is in jeans in his living room in Bonita, in a blazer and tie in a Chinese garden downtown, in a cycling suit riding up to Oceanside, where he grew up. No matter where you’ve seen him, or in what outfit, “Dr. Nic” preaches the same message: He wants you to know the stories of opera.
This marriage of music and spectacle and words is Reveles’s passion. He’s utterly exuberant about it, making podcasts and television programs to teach the stories of what San Diego Opera is presenting next, like the stories of the Chinese folk tunes that composer Giacomo Puccini wove into the opera Turandot. He throws educational dinner parties and hosts forums. And from this work for 13 years as the Geisel director of education and outreach for San Diego Opera, Reveles has gleaned more than a few ideas for what makes opera work, and has funneled them into his own compositions. Earlier this year, Diversionary Theatre hosted the premiere of Reveles’ Sextet, a six-scene “queer opera.”
We’re on the cusp of an opera season. How do you get ready for that?
You mean, me personally? Oh dear god. Let’s close the door. (Laughs, and really does close the door.)
Because I’m in education and because a lot of what we do is with school kids, our downtime is the month of August and that’s pretty much it. We’ve also increased our adult outreach offerings in the off-season. So we’re going all the time.
I feel it is absolutely crucial for me, then, to make sure to make sure that I’m healthy. That I’m exercising regularly, that I’m not, you know, going to one gala dinner after another and eating too much. I’m a cyclist and so I’ve been trying to find time twice a week to go to my class, my indoor classes, and then on weekends to do my riding.
How far do you ride on the weekends?
I’m training for a century right now. I’ll be riding 100 miles this Saturday for the first time.
Whoa. Where do those 100 miles start?
Well, I live in Bonita so I’ll start in Bonita, go up to Oceanside and come back. And then I’ll do an official century ride, a tour in February.
And that’s not terribly different from what a singer would have to do. Singers today are just really adamant about physical exercise, being healthy, being in tip-top condition. And many of them are runners or they go to the gym. I don’t know any that are cyclists, dammit. (Laughs.) I’d ride with them! They’re very, very serious about keeping their bodies in shape because their bodies are their instruments, after all.
Because all of these public appearances that I have to do, I’ve got to be in active physical shape. Every lecture I give is a performance.
Who would you most challenge to get into opera — fans of which genre? Death metal? Jazz?
Country western: That’s really all that opera is. Telling a story through powerful music. And every three-minute country western song does that. And they do it in a sometimes overly dramatic or overly emotional way.
I should think I would have an easier time with an aficionado of country western music than I would of just about any other form. But every society and every culture has an indigenous form of telling a story through movement, word and music. So I don’t think for any human being it’s a huge stretch to get them to understand opera even at a basic level and to get something out of it.
There’s something so lavish in this art form.
Well, spectacle from day one has been part of the definition of opera. It was meant to be.
But I find you wearing jeans, sitting in your living room, telling the high-schoolers of San Diego County about (the opera’s upcoming first performance of the season) Turandot or something. And then you’re riding up to Oceanside on a bike this weekend. So how often are you living in that lofty world, or are you trying to define opera in kind of a relevant, daily-life kind of way?
Opera only lives when it’s onstage. But I am not, for instance, the kind of person who will go home and listen to a recording of opera because I love it so much I want to surround myself with it. Listening to recordings was a way for me to get into opera in the first place, because I just didn’t have access to it when I was a kid, growing up. But now, it seems like the silliest thing in the world.
What do you listen to?
(Laughs.) I, uh, listen to talk radio. I love liberal talk radio.
If it’s nighttime and I know that the Met is broadcasting something live that night, I’ll tune in just to hear a bit or a portion of it. But I won’t listen to it in my home. I’ll listen to it on the road.
And then I’ll turn to Jason Mraz, whom I absolutely adore, and he lives in my hometown of Oceanside. I am a huuuuuge Elton John fan. And a lot of the music of my youth — I’ll listen to the Beatles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I have even been known to listen to the alternative rock station on Sirius.
But I’m really a political junkie.
Well, talk about melodrama. Politics, right? You may be escaping the trappings of opera —
— but you’re never away from the drama.
You said that some of the scenes for your opera Sextet came to you in a dream. What else do you dream about? And can people hire you to dream up their long-nagging pet artistic ideas that they need fleshed out?
Ha! I’ll get an idea but it’ll fester and worm around in my brain and in my soul for months. I am not a disciplined composer. They will just work and work and work until something happens. In this case, it literally was a dream that woke me up at 2 or 3 in the morning and I just went to the computer and started typing.
That has happened to me a number of times, but I can only count on two fingers the number of times I’ve actually been able to take it and do something with it. To be awake right away and think, Yes! I’ve got to write that down! Usually I just roll over and think, “Yeah, whatever,” and I’ll fall back asleep and forget about it.
You’ve got this forum coming up on Monday about the Chinese tunes in the Turandot score. I just heard the story of Carl Sagan and his colleagues in the 1970s putting together these golden records that would go up into space with the Voyager, their attempt to chronicle the sounds of humans up to that point. They struggled to find a Chinese song that would be authentic, that hadn’t traveled through all of the layers of Westernization. And that’s kind of what Puccini was doing with Turandot, right? But the 1920s would’ve been a way crazier time to try to do that!
Well, the story is that Puccini went to Baron Fassini, who was a diplomat in China. Fassini had brought back with him a music box that had been built in China. And it had eight or nine tunes that were all authentic Chinese folk tunes. And it was from this music box that Puccini got these tunes that were used in the score of Turandot.
Today, you don’t go to a Western composer for an opera about China. (Laughs.) You go to a Chinese composer who knows what he or she is really doing with those instruments. But Puccini is writing this stuff in the early ’20s, and although Orientalism and Chinoiserie and all of these things were extremely popular during that time, not a whole lot was known about the culture in a deep way.
Puccini, I’d have to say, only scratches the surface. Despite the fact that he went to some extent to discover these tunes, to use them, and to use the Pentatonic scale, which is what Chinese music is based on, he doesn’t go very deep. He does it in a brilliant way for 1924. But we’ve come a long way since then!