Festival Opera is ready to unveil "About Face," the new two-act chamber opera that explores the issues faced by people with visible disabilities or afflictions.
The "opera experience" -- a multimedia show that blends classic opera and modern visuals -- was inspired by the life of Burlingame resident Heidi Moss. The award-winning soprano, who stars in "About Face," was struck with Bell's palsy in 2007, which resulted in permanent partial facial paralysis.
"About Face" will make its official world premiere with two shows Dec. 5 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Showtimes are 4 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$45 (925-943-7469, www.lesherartscenter.org.) It will also be performed at 7 p.m. Dec. 7-8 at Oakland Technical High School Performing Arts Center, 4351 Broadway ($25; 800-838-3006).
A preview is also scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday at Rossmoor Walnut Creek (Gateway Clubhouse), 1001 Golden Rain Road. It's free to members of Rossmoor's Opera and Ballet Club and $5 for nonmembers (www.festivalopera.org).
While preparing for "About Face," Moss took time out of her schedule to answer some questions via email about the new show and other aspects of her life:
Q: Before 2007, how much did you know about Bell's palsy?
A: That is a great question. Despite coming from a medical family and having a scientific
Q: What were some of the early signs that indicated to you that there was something the matter?
A: The most dramatic aspect of Bell's palsy is its sudden onset: literally overnight. You go to sleep looking fine and you wake up completely transformed. The morning I woke up after the damage I went to brush my teeth and realized I couldn't spit. I also couldn't close my right eye at all and my eye was dry, blurry and in pain (corneal damage is one of the biggest risks). Once that revelation hit me, I did other things in the mirror and saw the distortion: droopiness, lack of movement on the entire right side.
Q: What was your reaction to the diagnosis?
A: The flood of emotions are so overwhelming. I was reassured in the ER that I would get better, so that flood was temporarily quelled when I had hope I would recover (85 percent of all cases of Bell's palsy resolve). The permanency didn't sink in until three months later, when after little progress my neurologist ordered a CT scan and other testing which revealed that my injury resulted in severe nerve damage.
Q: Has the reality -- what you've actually gone through since being diagnosed -- differed from what you first feared?
A: I would say the main difference in reality versus my initial fears was in my own personal acceptance. The physiological annoyances, like taping my eye shut at night, became habit and normal. I learned how to interact with people. And of course, it changed my singing in a positive way. So my fears were quelled, although I still find myself shying away and being self-conscious on occasion. But at least I own it.
Q: How has the affliction impacted your career?
A: As corny as it sounds, I honestly feel this was a gift. It taught me resilience, to dig deeper into what music, singing and performing mean, to go beyond the superficial, and to rework my craft.
Q: At what point did you decide to take what had happened to you and use your experience as the basis for creating art?
A: Speaking with Sara Nealy at Festival Opera, we realized we had something here. What better way to bridge so many elements, create awareness, and make art? My intention wasn't to necessarily use my experience, or even point it out in an obvious way. We all go through affliction of one sort or another. It is a universal yet very personal journey. But I also had a new audience in my various support groups and medical groups who had never seen opera before. They were intrigued when I posted some videos of me singing. I saw an opening for a new level of interest.
Q: Tell us about the storyline.
A: I consider "About Face" a production of two independent one-act pieces. "Face on the Barroom Floor" is simply about love, jealousy and revenge. (Operatic, right?) I don't want to spoil it, so I will let that story speak in the production. The more complicated is the 'Faces of Affliction." We didn't want it to be just a series of "opera scenes," although we are using elements of "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto" within it. We wanted a "whole" that was unified as a triptych of characters and their journeys.
Q: I know this was inspired by your story -- but is it your story?
A: That is a great question. I truly want this to be EVERYONE'S story. That was the hardest dance in terms of creative conversation during this process: I am moved that so many are inspired by my story, but I, in no way, did I want to spoon feed emotion or influence. It is not about me.
Q: Was anything (or topic) off limits, in regard to your own experience, in putting together the show?
A: Ha! I am an open person by default for better or for worse. There is nothing off limits! Perhaps that gets me into trouble, but I would rather have it that way than ambiguity.
Q: What are your hopes for "About Face"?
A: Sadly, it is a challenge to sell tickets for a novel concept. I truly hope that people who love opera come to see it. I can promise it will have everything your grand opera offers and more. It is also my hope that people who never have seen an opera will come and get just the right taste to make them want more. Ultimately, I hope we can tell our story through art, move people, create awareness, open minds, and allow them to open the portal to see themselves a little deeper. A tall order, I know. But I was told I wouldn't sing again, so I am one for tall orders.
Q: What your hopes for Heidi Moss?
A: To live simply, love deeply, feel strongly and act boldly. And to keep singing as long as they let me. Oh, and to spread the word that we are more than our faces. We are more than our disabilities. I feel so grateful ... this dream has become a reality. Can I pinch myself now?
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