Two heads are better than one, or so they say, and Festival Opera of Walnut Creek and West Bay Opera of Palo Alto are bending theirs together, for the first time ever, over a joint production of Verdi's masterful "Otello."

It's no great secret that mounting a full-blown opera production is a very expensive proposition, and the regional companies are happy to split that burden in a collaborative venture that may expand audience awareness for both.

Festival Opera's executive director was near chirpy with delight when asked about it. "The great part is that it is truly a value-added proposition, and we both are benefiting, as is everyone involved," Sara Nealy said. "Plus, we get along so well. It's something we have been talking about doing -- threatening! -- for ages."

The companies will share the cast -- tenor David Gustafson as Otello, soprano Cynthia Clayton as Desdemona and bass-baritone Philip Skinner as the evil schemer Iago. They're also using the same advertising imagery, costuming, designs and stage director, Daniel Helfgot. Each company uses its own venue and retains its own orchestra, chorus and conductor -- Michael Morgan, Festival Opera's artistic director, will be at the podium in Walnut Creek; Jose Luis Moscovich, West Bay's general director, conducts in Palo Alto.

The choice of "Otello," Verdi's penultimate work, is an apt one for a year that is observing the 200th anniversary of the great Italian composer's birth. It is also a rich and complex opera that puts demands on performers both in the pit and on the stage -- there's an amazing Act III finale with seven principals singing over one another with injections from the chorus and a continually active orchestra.


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For this production -- Festival Opera's first foray, although West Bay mounted an "Otello" in 1969 -- the partners have called upon stars they are familiar with. Although Gustafson is making his Festival debut, he is a known entity at West Bay, where he has had principal roles in "Turandot" and "Aida." Clayton is a recurring figure at Festival Opera, having sung in "Don Giovanni," "La Boheme" and the title role in a fine production of Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah." Skinner, a Festival Opera favorite and alumnus of both the Merola and Adler Fellow training programs at San Francisco Opera, has sung in some 50 productions there and is on the roster of bass-baritones that the New York Met calls upon.

West Bay Opera will be first out of the box with "Otello," opening it in the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto at 8 p.m. Friday, with performances at 2 p.m. Sunday and June 2 and 8 p.m. on June 1. Festival Opera's production in Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts opens at 8 p.m., June 28, with a repeat performance at 2 p.m. June 30.

Tickets, $36-$83, are available at 925-943-7469 and www.festivalopera.org or 650-843-3900 and www.wbopera.org.

PASSION IN THE AFTERNOON: Another of the Bay Area's feisty little companies, the Livermore Valley Opera, is showcasing three singers for "A Passionate Afternoon" of arias at the Firehouse Arts Center in downtown Pleasanton at 2 p.m. Saturday. Following their vocal theatrics, baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez, mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland and tenor Michael Dailey, along with conductor Alexander Katsman, LVO's artistic director, will mingle with the audience at a reception. Tickets, $10-$25, are available at the theater box office, 4444 Railroad Ave., or online at www.firehousearts.com.

A NEW VENUE: Chamber Music Sundaes, that felicitously named outlet for San Francisco Symphony musicians who like to gather in small groups and concertize, has, in its 33rd season, moved its performances into the Crowden School, Berkeley's little crown jewel of a music education facility. For their next performance, violinist Victor Romasevich, violist Nancy Ellis and cellist Jill Brindel will be joined by Marilyn Thompson on piano for a program of music by Smetana, Ravel and Georgy Lvovich Catoire. The concert is at 3 p.m. Sunday at 1475 Rose St. in Berkeley. Tickets are $11-$28 at the door, and more information is available at www.chambermusicsundaes.org.

Contact Sue Gilmore at sgilmore@bayareanewsgroup.com