A Rare Opera Finds the Spotlight as the New Numi Opera Theatre Debuts

Der Zwerg is the first production from Numi Opera Theatre. It follows a singing dwarf who meets the Infanta and her attendees (including one played by Shana Blake Hill, above). 

For decades, opera in Downtown has been dominated by L.A. Opera, which makes its home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This week, a new player is entering the scene, with a short run of a rarely performed work.

Santa Monica-based Numi Opera Theatre is coming to the Theatre at Ace Hotel for two performances of its inaugural production, a presentation of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s 1922 work Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”). Based on Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Birthday of the Infanta,” the opera explores blind love, perceptions of beauty and social acceptance. Shows are on Thursday, May 30, and Sunday, June 2. Tickets start at $35.

Gail Gordon, artistic director of Numi Opera Theatre and director of Der Zwerg, said she was immediately struck by the work when L.A. Opera mounted it in 2008. It was the first time she had heard of Zemlinsky.

“It was so incredibly moving to me,” Gordon said. “I wanted to learn more about this composer.”

For Gordon, the backstory of Der Zwerg is just as compelling as the music and the plot. The 90-minute work was composed by Zemlinsky, an Austrian Jew who fled Europe in the 1930s following the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. His works, and the artistic creations of many others, essentially disappeared during the ensuing years, and many were not heard for decades.

“Zemlinsky was part of the school who were suppressed under the Nazi regime for being Jewish or politically unattractive to the Nazi way of life, who were too gay or too leftist,” Gordon said.

The opera, sung in German with English supertitles, follows the Infanta, a young noble woman who is given a dwarf for her birthday. The dwarf falls madly in love with her, but is rejected due to his appearance.

Gordon said the story is semi-autobiographical, as Zemlinsky fell in love with a woman named Alma Schindler, who broke his heart. Gordon said that Zemlinsky considered himself to be small and unattractive. That, coupled with Wilde’s short story, sparked Der Zwerg.

Soprano Shana Blake Hill, who plays one of the Infanta’s attendees, acknowledged that few of the cast members were familiar with Zemlinsky before embarking on the work. She added that they have come to appreciate him, and the way that, as a Romantic era composer, his compositions carry a musical sense of wonder.

Modern Resonance

Der Zwerg launches Numi Opera Theatre’s debut season. The company, founded by Gordon, is focused on reviving lost or suppressed works from lesser-known composers. Gordon, who previously led a company called Opera Nova and the Santa Monica College Opera Theater, said that she is drawn to these works not just for their artistic quality, but because they deserve to be restaged and not lost to time.

Unlike L.A. Opera’s opulent La Traviata that opens this week at the Music Center, Der Zwerg is restrained. Hill said Numi Opera is keeping the staging minimal, and is setting the production at a vague time in the past. The Infanta and her handmaids will wear flowing dresses. The stage itself will be somewhat bare, with only a few props such as a large ball for the handmaids to play with, and a mirror the dwarf sees himself in.

Gordon said Numi Opera will differentiate this production by incorporating Wilde’s work directly into the show. A narrator will read excerpts from “The Birthday of the Infanta” between scenes.

While the age of the work and the setting don’t resonate as modern, Gordon thinks Der Zwerg will connect with today’s audiences.

“It’s incredibly relevant,” Hill said. “It says everything about Instagram culture, the othering of people based on gender, sexuality, race or religion, and the tragedy of being rejected for who you are.”

Gordon also pointed to the resonant political and societal elements associated with bringing back Der Zwerg and Zemlinsky. Gordon, the daughter of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe, said that Zemlinsky composed at a time of political instability. She said she hopes the opera makes people reassess some of their biases.

The Numi Opera Theater’s inaugural season will include other lesser known-works, among them Erich Korngold’s Der Ring des Polykrates in December (a venue is still to be determined).

Der Zwerg runs May 30-June 2 at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway or numiopera.org.

nicholas@downtownnews.com