“For me, Italy is the place in the world where world peace can take root – especially in the small hillside towns where ‘italianità’ still thrives”. Karen Lauria Saillant has a special, deep connection with Italy, and not only because of her strong ties to the Opera.
Karen, a native of Philadelphia, is the founder, the director and the tutelary deity of the International Opera Theater of Philadelphia, that since 2003 has an ambitious mission: blending the Italian Opera tradition with the innovative spirit of modern America. The result is a fascinating artistic lab oof experimentation, the International Staged Opera Live, that each year since 2004, has staged the world premiere of an Opera – traditional or contemporary – in Città della Pieve, near the lake Trasimeno in the heart of Umbria.
This year would have been the 17th edition of the festival, but the pandemic has turned everything upside down. “With the whole world in lockdown”, Karen says from her Philadelphia house, “even planning a single rehearsal has become unthinkable. I was truly in despair, as this festival and Città della Pieve means the world to me. But it’s true when they say ‘it’s not over til it’s over’. And even though it’s not quite the same, the City has found a way that sounds like ‘we are still here, and we will come back’. And this is the message I value most”.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the death of Raffaello, and the company had already planned to produce an opera that would celebrate the Maestro from Urbino. In its place, however, from September 10th to the end of the month Città della Pieve will host “Immagini d’Opera itineranti 2020”. In this special edition there won’t be any show on the stage of the Accademia degli Avvaloranti, the little cozy theatre in the centre of Città della Pieve.
But the whole town will be an open-air stage, with projections, photographic exhibitions and even the shop windows of the city center decorated with images and posters from the productions of the International Staged Opera Live that have been performed in the last 16 years.
Karen, who says she is very grateful to the City of Città della Pieve for having devised this concept for her festival, adds that, “Any photo has a QR code that can be scanned to listen to some of the ‘arias’ of the Opera portrayed in the picture”.
This special edition has been made possible thanks to the effort of the people who usually assist Karen during the productions: Ornella Tiberi, the official photographer of the festival, and Diego Parbuono, the filmmaker who has shot “Fantasia e Realtà” as a homage to the International Staged Opera Live (details of the event on internationaloperatheater.org and cittadellapieve.org.
“Besides the artistic relevance, what I love most is the possibility of bringing together people from all over the world to celebrate not only music, but life and creativity”.
During its first 16 years, the International Staged Opera Live Festival has brought together artists coming from more than 75 different countries all around the world.
“And we’re not just talking about professionals. In eleven of our sixteen productions we have been able to allow more than 70 children to travel from the US to Italy to sing in the Operas.
And you know what? Some of them had never sung onstage, none of them had ever studied Italian… to me this is another little big magic of the Opera”.
Musician, soprano, librettist, vocal coach, and theatre director: Karen’s multiple skills say just a little of her private life, which has sometimes been very hard but always enlightened by her endurance and her profound love for beauty. Adopted as a child, she met her biological mother when she was 13 and found out on that occasion that she had Italian ancestry.
“That was the first sign of the special bond that ties me to Italy. Now I’m very proud of being Italian, but back in the day it was hard because we were called ‘greaseballs’ where I lived…”.
Maybe it’s thanks to her Italian roots that she has dedicated her life to music and to Opera. In 1976, she was the first American singer to represent the US in the International Opera Competition in Sofia, Bulgaria.
She has also sung and studied in Italy; “I performed in Fiesole, on the outskirt of Firenze, at Teatro del Giglio in Lucca and at Teatro dei Differenti in the nearby Barga. And I studied antique intavolatura (a kind of baroque music) at the Accademia Chigiana and Italian at the Università di Siena”.
Back in Philadelphia, she and her husband took over the ownership of “The Fire”, the city’s oldest venue music-bar, a legendary place for music lovers, while at the same time continuing with her singing and raising her kids.
This went on until life took a tragic turn. She explains, “My husband was struck while trying to protect me and my son from a vicious attack. He survived, but was in a vegetative coma for a year and a half. After he passed away, I knew I had to return to Italy for healing. My plan was to go back to Florence, but a friend of mine invited me to Città della Pieve. And since 2002 this has been my second home”.