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Palm Beach Opera makes friends with 'Enemies'

Palm Beach Opera director Daniel Biaggi has a word to describe "Enemies, a Love Story," the Holocaust-themed dark comedy making its world premiere this weekend in West Palm Beach: "risky."

To mount the first original opera in the company's 53-year history, Palm Beach Opera had to replace its board of directors, hunt for stage props in thrift stores and build from scratch a 60-by-10-foot video wall to evoke the mood and scenery of subways, zoos and apartments in 1940s New York.

"It's normal for the rest of the opera world, but it's rare that a regional opera company of our size can put on a world premiere. It's very unprecedented to have a video screen that huge," Biaggi says of the opera, running Feb. 20-22 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. "It's a big risk. It's also very exciting."

And more expensive: The show has cost $1.2 million to produce. Compared to Palm Beach Opera's past mountings of century-old operas ("La Traviata," "Cosi Fan Tutte"), which Biaggi says cost "about $750,000" each, "Enemies, a Love Story" is an ambitious gamble. The new production, from composer Ben Moore and librettist Nahma Sandrow, boasts a billboard-size video wall that replaces physical stage sets with 24 digital ones, including apartments in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn; a subway; a rabbi's office; a telephone booth; and the Bronx Zoo.

"We don't ever lower the curtain, so you'll see us rolling set pieces on- and offstage during quick scene changes," Biaggi says. "The video wall facilitates the sense of movement and acts as a distraction. We've never tried any of this before."

"Enemies, a Love Story" is spun from Isaac Bashevis Singer's 1966 novel about Herman Broder, a Holocaust survivor and intellectual who juggles two wives and a mistress. Herman, no surprise, is not very happy. The book also spawned a 1989 Oscar-nominated movie, directed by Paul Mazursky and starring Ron Silver and Anjelica Huston. But to compose his opera adaptation, Moore leaned on Singer's book, and also Mario Puzo's "The Godfather," the films of Ingmar Bergman, and other source material featuring immigrants uprooted by force from their home countries.

"I was also thinking about my Aunt Trudy, who is not a Holocaust survivor, but escaped from Nuremburg before they closed the borders in 1940," Moore says. "Nahma [Sandrow], my collaborator, also has a family full of survivors. If you contemplate what the Holocaust experience was, you have to be haunted by the atrocities that took place there. 'Enemies' is a story about their legacy."

In 2012, Palm Beach Opera tapped Moore to compose a slimmed-down version of "Enemies" for its One Opera in One Hour series. The company also replaced and expanded the board of directors with a staff who agreed with Biaggi's vision for the opera's future. Biaggi says the opera's success convinced the organization's new board to experiment with premieres and bulk up its family appeal with waterfront shows at West Palm Beach's Meyer Amphitheatre.

"We're not going to make a habit out of this. Maybe if all the stars line up again," Biaggi says of "Enemies." "This has gorgeous melodies and klezmer music, not what people expect when they think of new music."

"Enemies, A Love Story" will be staged 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. Admission is $25-$195. Call 561-833-7888 or go to PBOpera.org.

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