Life after death: San Diego Opera’s ‘Ghosts’ a fitting epitaph for its composer
Nicolas Reveles died last month, but vowed to be there in spirit for the premiere of his opera triptych on Friday at the Balboa Theatre
Nicolas Reveles believed in ghosts — not just his opera triptych, “Ghosts,” which makes its world premiere with San Diego Opera on Friday, but also the spectral beings that bewitched him from early childhood.
The San Diego composer did not live to see the premiere of “Ghosts.” He died March 1, five months after being diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer at age 74. But Reveles said in a late January interview that he was determined to see “Ghosts” come to life — even if he was no longer here to enjoy it.
“It depends on how this disease progresses, but obviously I want to be there in person. I’m not too worried about it. One way or another, I will be,” said Reveles, who retired in 2018 after spending 20 years as San Diego Opera’s director of education and community engagement, and an additional 22 years before that as a volunteer opera educator.
Reveles composed the score for all three one-act horror-themed operas that make up “Ghosts.” He also wrote the libretto for one of the pieces. The librettos for the other two were written by John de los Santos and Michael Vegas Mussman. All three works are stand-alone ghost stories set in different eras of the 20th century, and all draw in some way on Reveles’ personal beliefs on spirituality, his memories and his Mexican heritage.
Obituary: San Diego Opera’s longtime arts educator Nicolas Reveles praised for his passions, wit and kindness
Raised in Oceanside and was once a Catholic priest and a touring pianist for dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Reveles was 74
One Reveles family heirloom that may show up as a projection in all three operas is a painting by Reveles’ grandfather of a gnarled and crooked tree that looks like a crouching man with sharp-clawed branches for arms. His grandfather — also named Nicolas Reveles — fled Zacatecas, Mexico, during revolutionary times in the early 1900s and ended up working as a scenic painter in Hollywood.
Reveles said his grandfather’s spooky tree painting terrified him as a little boy but helped fueled in him a lifelong passion for horror.
The monster’s face
Reveles inherited his love for scary movies from his mother, Grace Larsen of Oceanside, who introduced him to the 1931 film classic “Frankenstein” when it made its television debut in the late 1950s. He was in grade school at the time.
“She said, ‘You have to stay up with me tonight and watch this movie,’ so my brother and I stayed up and it changed my life,” he said. “There’s this scene where the creature backs out of the laboratory and turns very slowly toward the camera — it’s the first time the audience sees his face — and that did it for me. In that moment I experienced such pity and horror at the same time. It made me a devotee of the horror genre for life.”
Reveles’ wide-ranging passion for horror ranged from Stephen King books to TV’s “The Twilight Zone” to the movie “Creepshow.” He also relished classic operas with horror elements like “Lucia di Lammermoor,” with its famous mad scene, and “Pagliacci,” with its grisly finale.
But his fascination with the supernatural skyrocketed 31 years ago when he had his own encounter with a ghost.
In 1992, Reveles was in Tucson composing a mariachi song cycle inspired by the Beaumarchais play “The Marriage of Figaro” for Arizona Repertory Theatre. After an evening rehearsal, he was walking away from the theater into a dark neighborhood when he said he saw in the distance a woman in white standing in front of a ramshackle house.
As he got closer, he could see that the sad woman was wearing a wedding dress that was blowing in the wind. At chorus rehearsal the next morning, the Mexican women singers told Reveles he had seen La Llorona, the legendary ghost of a woman searching for her children whom she drowned.
“I remember when I saw her feeling a little frightened at the time, but I realized later that she was benign and she meant me no harm,” Reveles said.
Three ghostly tales
Reveles wrote the first of his six operas in 2005, the San Diego Opera-commissioned “The Sleeping Beauty” for children. Five years later he wrote “Sextet,” a queer opera that had a brief scene of horror. Reveles was so pleased with how the scene turned out that he vowed to one day write a full-length horror-themed opera.
In 2018, Reveles met San Diego playwright Michael Vegas Mussman and they talked about collaborating on a horror piece inspired by the 1955 French horror film “Diabolique.” That became the basis of the one-act opera “Dormir,” with music by Reveles and libretto by Mussman. It’s about a Mexican caregiver and her patient, a prejudiced dying man, and their conflicts over religion vs. superstition and fear of death vs. acceptance.
In 2019, San Diego Opera General Director David Bennett agreed to produce “Dormir” as part of the company’s Detour Series of nontraditional works. But it was too short to fill an evening. So, when the pandemic forced everyone into isolation, Reveles wrote both the music and libretto for a second short opera, “House,” which is about a traumatized woman with secrets and delusions moving into a haunted house.
The third part of the triptych, “Eden,” was created after San Diego Opera hired director-choreographer-librettist John de los Santos to direct “Ghosts.” De los Santos, who lives in New York, also had an encounter with the ghost of a woman while staying at the historic Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Ariz. That experience became the basis for a full-length 2021 opera he co-wrote with composer Clint Borzoni.
De los Santos felt that San Diego Opera’s “Ghosts” was a strong piece of operatic theater, but it felt incomplete. He proposed that Reveles write a third short opera to create a triptych. “Eden” — for which de los Santos wrote the libretto — was created in just two weeks in February 2022. Inspired by the Reveles family’s spooky tree painting and the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock, it’s about a wealthy man who obsessively collects paintings and plants and doesn’t recognize the effect these objects have on him.
Reveles said he was grateful to have put the final touches on “Ghosts” just a few weeks before he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in October. His condition declined rapidly, and when de los Santos realized Reveles was likely to pass away before opening night, he flew out to San Diego and spent Valentine’s Day by Reveles’ hospice bed.
“I just pulled the bed guards down and sat next to him, held his hand and told him, ‘Whatever you want to give me, give me.’ I told him, ‘If you’re in the hospice room or in the audience of somewhere else, you will be there at the opening,’ ” de los Santos said. “Even though Nic is gone now, I do believe he’ll be there on opening night.”
A musical through-line
San Diego Opera chorus master and conductor Bruce Stasyna will lead a nine-piece chamber orchestra of San Diego Symphony musicians and a singing cast of four in “Ghosts.”
He said the music of “Ghosts” is as diverse and interesting as the man who composed it.
Stasyna met Reveles when he joined San Diego Opera in 2016. Until Reveles retired two years later, the two men had side-by-side offices and they quickly bonded over their shared passion for the piano. Stasyna said he also grew to appreciate Reveles’ encyclopedic knowledge of music.
“He was such an oracle,” Stasyna said.
Stasyna said the score for each of the three operas in “Ghosts” is unique, but the orchestrations and use of percussion in the score have a commonality. There are elements of baroque, classical and Romantic styles, Latin rhythms, Russian influences and nods to the composers Béla Bartók and Alexander Scriabin. The musical ensemble will include a string quartet, clarinets, marimba, timpani and glockenspiel.
“One thing that is very clear to me about Nic’s style is that it’s very Nicolas Reveles,” Stasyna said. “One of the things that’s really commendable is that everything is lyrically conceived for the voice. ... These are very friendly to the singers. Challenging, yes, but vocally appropriate in the way he set it up and paced it.”
The cast includes mezzo-soprano Emily Fons (Rosina in San Diego Opera’s 2021 production of “The Barber of Seville”), baritone Michael Sokol, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero and tenor Andres Acosta.
The evening will begin with “Eden,” an opera for one singer, set in the early part of the 20th century. The centerpiece is “Dormir,” written for three singers, set in the mid-20th century. And the finale is “House,” another piece for one singer, set in the latter decades of the 20th century.
The running time for “Ghosts” is 90 to 95 minutes. The operas will be sung in English, with English and Spanish supertitles projected above the stage.
Although “Ghosts” is inspired by horror, de los Santos said its three stories are not gory or terrifying. Instead, they’re eerie in the style of a Hitchcock movie, and they’re focused more on pondering deep questions about life, death and the prospect of an afterlife.
“I feel like, after (Reveles’) passing, ‘Ghosts’ is more connected to him in a way,” de los Santos said. “They’re all about thinking about death, the imminence of death ... and how does thinking about your own mortality affect how you view the world.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 p.m. April 16
Where: San Diego Opera at the Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., San Diego
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 533-7000
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