This Saturday, the luxurious life and lonely death of Coco Chanel comes to the stage in the form of a brand-new opera, but this world premiere isn't having its grand debut at the Met or Palais Garnier. Instead, contemporary composer Nathan Felix is presenting No. 5, his first-ever full-length work, here in Orlando at the Timucua Arts Foundation.
If his name sounds familiar, that's because Felix's original outdoor one-act operas Fury in Sound and The Wizard of Loch Haven Park lit up the Orlando Fringe festivals in 2019 and 2021. And although the one-time indie rocker has earned acclaim from Austin to Albuquerque (not to mention New York City) for his orchestral creations, he's returned to Central Florida to launch his most ambitious project yet because of one thing: our people.
"I like to be able to come to Orlando two or three times a year because of all the friendships I've made, and the talent also," Felix told me at the start of our recent phone interview ahead of his first rehearsal with the cast of No. 5.
"I mean, it's cool to have friends that are also uniquely talented [and] believe it or not, Orlando was really the only place that I've done staged operas — at Timucua; they're the ones that gave me that opportunity." Since his last production there — 2021's Ribas-Dominicci and The War Bride — he's been focusing on immersive site-specific works for museum exhibits, like La Malinche: The Traitor, about Cortes' conquest of Mexico.
Felix's newest work — which, at 70 minutes, is his longest — was fueled by his second great love, after composing. "If I didn't go into music, fashion has always been something I've been very curious about and interested in," he says, and iconic entrepreneur Coco Chanel was always a particular inspiration. "I love her story, because she crosses paths with the Lost Generation that I love in Paris; Gertrude Stein and Dali and Buñuel, those are some of my heroes."
Although her story has been dramatized before, Felix decided to "try and find a little twist" by digging deeper into her romantic relationships with an English aristocrat, an iconoclastic composer and a Nazi diplomat.
"This woman — strong, independent — [who] really liberated a lot of women for multiple decades, she died one of the richest people in the world, and she died alone. That struck me, and I said, let me go back and explore, and see why."
The result of Felix's research stars soprano Molly Ann Anderson as a young Coco Chanel, with Claire Hodges taking up the role in her later years. Felix met Anderson during the 2021 Fringe and cast her as his own grandmother in The War Bride; he says he wrote the leading role for her after becoming "so enamored by [her] talent and skill set," and bonding with Anderson's aunt over their shared love of Chanel. They are joined by Jacob Pence as Boy Capel, Michaela Wright as legendary composer Igor Stravinsky, and Madison Marie McIntosh as Hans Günther von Dincklage, nearly all of whom have worked with Felix before. "I love working with the same people," he says. "That's just part of what I love about music: building the friendships, and working with the people I like."
Another important collaborator on No. 5 is conductor Ethan Lolley, who also held the baton for Felix's last Orlando appearance. "He combines talent, charisma, and a very genuine sort of nature that he creates in the rehearsals," says Felix. "That's really important for me, to have an environment that feels warm and welcoming. Yes, we're all here to work and make sure we get the best product, but I try and avoid friction, and Ethan just has this great way of working with each singer or instrumentalist and listening to them, [so] he was my first choice."
Finally, lest the label "opera" intimidate you out of attending, Felix insists that although No. 5's musical style is "not musical theater performance, it has this very upbeat pop sensibility tone ... whereas my other operas [are] very dramatic, so the music's a little heavier, this one is really light and it's fun, and I'm excited; I think the audience was really going to enjoy it."
Following the show, he's off to San Antonio to mount two more operas (one of which will be broadcast on Texas Public Radio), but with a little lottery luck he'll be back here for the 2023 Orlando Fringe. Perhaps he could write one of his immersive operas about a counterfeit artwork scandal; I can suggest the perfect venue for him to stage it ...