Calrep rehearsal

California Repertory student actors rehearse a scene in "In The Penal Colony" at the Studio Theater. Matthew Limas is on the gurney.

They're calling it a mash-up.

A collaborative production of Philip Glass's opera "In The Penal Colony" is in rehearsals now in Cal State Long Beach's Studio Theater, home to California Repertory Company. Students from CalRep are on stage while singers from Long Beach Opera run through songs — performers from both companies started joint rehearsals last week.

Work is intense — opening night is next Thursday, April 25. And in many ways, this is a brand new thing.

Glass's opera, premiered in 2000, was itself an interpretation of Franz Kafka's short story "In The Penal Colony" published in 1919. This Southern California version incorporates stories from a group of formerly incarcerated students at Cal State Long Beach called "Rising Scholars," turned into a script by Juliette Carrillo to bring a contemporary sense to the opera.

"Glass's opera was itself an interpretation," said Jeff Janisheski, chair of the Theatre Arts Department and artistic director of CalRep. "Adding the students from Rising Scholars' stories gives us a comment on the modern prison-industrial complex."

Janisheski came to Long Beach a little more than three years ago from Australia. He said he was familiar with Long Beach Opera's reputation for cutting-edge productions, and began conversations with LBO artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek more than a year ago about a collaboration.

"I've always wanted to find a way to collaborate with the university," Mitisek said. "When Jeff got here, it seemed natural. We looked for a piece of opera that could involve actors…

"This fits in well with our season emphasis on justice. And this (the Studio Theatre) is a great space. It fits the piece perfectly."

There are nine student actors in the cast, including one, John Pizzini, who also is a member of Rising Scholars. Easily 15 years older than his fellow actors, Pizzini still has the excitement and energy of the others.

"I was in and out (of prison) from ’97 to 2013," Pizzini said. "I got tired of being a knucklehead."

Pizzini earned an AA degree from Orange Coast College, then surprised himself by getting accepted to Cal State Long Beach. A combination of disability from Social Security and financial aid from the university allows him to live and study, he said.

"I saw there was a call for auditions," Pizzini said. "I read the book, and auditioned, and they picked me… There are 10 to 12 of my lines in the play. Lines from my life. That's something."

Janisheski said the collaboration with LBO is a great opportunity for his students to work with professionals and watch how they do things. Freshman Matthew Limas agreed.

"This is definitely a new experience," Limas said. "We started interacting with the opera singers last week. The process has been the most interesting in my experience."

Limas pointed out that part of CalRep's mission is to push the boundaries of theater, and "In The Penal Colony" with LBO does just that. Mitisek and the opera have a national, sometimes international, reputation for trying new things, and Mitisek said this one is working particularly well.

"We're taking two worlds and infusing the performance with some of each," he said. "I hope to continue these collaborations — it benefits both. It's bringing us to new audiences… It's still doing opera, but we're putting opera in a contemporary context."

Janisheski was as effusive.

"We're smashing these two elements together," he said. "I think it's astounding. The purpose is to bridge two worlds. That exposes us to new audiences, and exposes the opera to new audiences. At the same time, the students get a Master Class with the professionals. It doesn't get much better.

"In The Penal Colony" will be performed April 25-28 and May 2-5 (7:30 p.m. curtain except Sundays, when it is 2:30 p.m.) at the Studio Theater in the Theatre Arts building on the Cal State Long Beach campus. Easiest access to the theater is off Seventh Street. 

Some performances already are sold out. For ticket availability and purchases ($23 to $150), call (562) 470-7464 or go to longbeachopera.org/tickets.

Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at hsalt@gazettes.com.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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