Notes of Spice

USD alumnus Basil Considine


To say that Basil Considine ’03 (BA) is the musical sort is an understatement. For one thing, he began viola lessons at the age of five, playing on a small-sized instrument meant for ease of use for tiny-fingered youngsters.

ONe of 11 children — he has four brothers and six sisters — he says that a love of music is shared by his siblings. “It’s very common in the family,” he says. “My elder sister does experimental pop music in the Portland, Oregon area. I followed more of the classical music track.”

Spoiler alert: His path eventually led to the creation of Game of Thrones: The Musical, a production he describes as involving the “killing a lot of puppets very quickly.”

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Rewind. At the age of eight, Considine auditioned for and was accepted into what was then known as the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School (subsequently renamed the St. Paul’s Choir School), the only boys’ choir school in the U.S. affiliated with the Catholic Church.

“Because of that, some opportunities were opened to me at an unusual age, including to sing as a soprano soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and other groups like that,” he says. There’s a sense that the conversation is warming up, which is a good thing, given that he’d mentioned (via Zoom) that the high is 50 degrees on this fall day in Minneapolis. This likely explains why he’s wearing a scarf — and what may very well be a jacket — indoors.

“I grew up knowing John Williams, who conducted the Boston Pops. I would go sing holiday concerts with him a couple times a year. And then when I learned that he had written soundtracks for Star Wars and things like that, I thought, ‘Oh, everyone has a conductor like this in their town, right?’ Little did I realize.”

In conversation, Considine manages the neat trick of being both erudite and personable without coming across as pedantic.

USD alumnus Basil Considine looking pensiveWhat’s evident is the love he has for his craft. While music was always part of his life, it began to take on a different form when he got to high school. “That’s when theater entered my life,” he says with a laugh. “With great protest, I was drafted into the choir for a show to reinforce the voices. And I mumbled and grumbled my way through it, until the first dress rehearsal. And then I fell in love.”

But not, as it turns out, with a fellow cast member.

“It was when I saw the costumes, the lights, the acting, as opposed to just singing the music. The musical was Li’l Abner, and I had no prior familiarity with the comic strip. I just thought, ‘Oh, these, songs are so hokey and cheesy.’” But when the show came together on stage, Considine was most definitely smitten.

By the time he became a senior, his family had moved to San Diego, and he spent that year at Coronado High School, “A school with a very active theater program,” he notes. “I was in four shows and worked on three or four more. When I arrived at USD, I ended up getting hired to be the theater manager’s assistant. I was able to move into that professional part of the theater world almost immediately upon arriving, which was a great experience.”

Considine’s grandparents lived across the valley from the University of San Diego in Mission Hills. From their house, one could see the white buildings of the USD campus.

“When I told my grandfather I was applying to USD, he took me out to the backyard and pointed out the names of the different buildings. As it turns out, he’d been on one of the steering committees for the College for Women,” he recalls. “And one of my aunts, Sister Trudy Considine, went to USD as an undergraduate and then became a member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.”

After taking a gap year between college and high school, he arrived at USD certain he would pursue a major in … accounting? Say what?

“My grandfather founded Considine & Considine, which is the largest independent accounting firm in San Diego,” he explains. “But as it turns out, one of my roommates was an accounting major, and I helped him work on his homework. That’s when I realized, ‘I can do this, but it’s not fun. It doesn’t interest me. And I really don’t see myself doing this in years to come.’”

What would continue to be fun was music. Considine joined the Founders Chapel Choir (“and an a cappella group or two”), participating in each of his eight semesters at USD. He looks back on that time with particular fondness. “Choir Director Annette Welsh has been like a second mother to thousands and thousands of USD students, but especially those in the choir.”

While he notes that belonging to the choir was required for music majors — which, somewhat unsurprisingly, turned out to be his choice — he hastens to add that for him, being involved with the choir was most definitely for pleasure. For her part, Welsh remembers him well. “Basil was one of those people who always showed up, worked hard and came prepared,” she says with genuine fondness.

Considine cites USD’s academic rigor as preparing him well for life. As a second-year, he worked with then-Choral Program Director Ondine Young. “She had us do a lot of really complicated Baroque music. By the time I got to graduate school, I’d already learned how to navigate this incredibly difficult music. I can’t tell you how important it is for a musician to have good sight reading and music learning skills.”

Retired music professor Ron Shaheen also had a profound effect on Considine’s path. “When I first arrived at USD, he was directing the Choral Scholars; it was no secret that his great love was opera. When I saw his class on the history of opera on the schedule during my sophomore year, I thought, ‘I don’t like opera, but every time I’ve heard Dr. Shaheen give a guest lecture, it’s been riveting. So I’m going to take his class and see if he can prove me wrong and convince me that I do like opera.’”

He shakes his head, a bit rueful. “And well, here we are. This is the 15th anniversary year of my opera company, Really Spicy Opera. He really is a brilliant speaker.”

After graduation, Considine expected to go into the St. Francis Seminary, which he recalls as being “right in USD’s backyard,” but the seminary had frozen admissions. By the time the doors reopened, Considine had been offered a full scholarship and stipend to go to the Boston University School of Theology to study sacred music and composition. He ultimately earned his doctorate in music and drama from Boston University, with a concentration in historical musicology and ethnomusicology.

“I wrote my first opera in 2008,” he says. “But you don’t write an opera because one day you’ve decided, ‘Hey, I have no experience with this. Let me give it a try.’ You do it on the foundation you’ve built by everything you’ve ingested, you’ve absorbed, you’ve learned to love.”

Before he wrote that first opera, he founded Really Spicy Opera in Boston, ultimately moving the company to Minneapolis.

“It began with the performance of the oratorio that I wrote for my master’s final project. But really, I was trying to create opportunities for all these very talented people around me, mostly women, who had been attracted to Boston University by its opera program, but there just weren’t enough slots,” he explains.

USD alumnus Basil Considine“This is a problem that many opera programs have around the country; the number of productions just doesn’t match the size of their student body. I saw it as an opportunity to say, ‘I would like to write an aria for your specific voice, to play to your strengths, maybe challenge you a little bit in some areas, and give you an opportunity to have the spotlight.’ And well, I thought that would run for maybe two, three years. And we’re at 15 years now.”

The company’s first season took place in Boston, with artists split between that city and Minneapolis. “We slowly shifted over so that we were hiring locally; basically remaking ourselves as a Minnesota organization,” he explains. “I think it’s a very important thing to do to invest in your community.”

When asked what advice Considine would give someone who wanted to start their own performing arts company, a hint of the onetime would-be accountant emerges.

“The most important thing to keep in mind is live within your means,” he says. “History is full of opera companies — and theater companies in general — where the budgets keep climbing every year. They want to make it brighter, fancier, flashier and larger. That is definitely the most expensive way to do it, and it will probably put you in a cycle of deficit spending that will eventually kill your organization. All it takes is one recession to throw your sales off, or one season that could be critically acclaimed, but just not a huge hit with audiences.” He pauses, reflecting, then continues.

“And it can sink you.”

In 2015, Really Spicy Opera celebrated its 10th anniversary. “So, something old, something new,” Considine says with a laugh. “The something old was Rigoletto, a big opera by Verde with a huge cast, difficult to cast voice parts, expensive. I knew it would be a critical hit, but I was also pretty certain that the box office returns would not exactly be stocking the coffers.”

As for the something new? “I said, half-jokingly to someone, ‘You know, if I just wanted to sell a lot of tickets, I’d write Game of Thrones: the Musical.’ And they said, ‘You should do that! And if you do, can I direct it?’”

Firmly tongue in cheek, the show — self-described as “a massively inappropriate children’s show” — garnered this review from the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “One of the best moments was the HBO series’ theme song played on kazoos. If that doesn’t get you into the theater, nothing will.”

The award-winning show ran for two years. “It’s very much a parody, but we told the story from the perspective of the female characters. What does it mean to be a woman in this world? And while we’re at it, let’s make it ridiculous and kill off a lot of puppets.”

And that decision — the use of puppets, not the killing of them — opened up a whole new direction in children’s theater for Considine.

“I did a number of shows where we’re building puppets for the kids to use,” he says, warming to the subject of the oft-overlooked value of puppetry. “That’s something that you can give young people — especially young girls — who are at an age where they feel like they’re either being discouraged or are afraid of speaking up. When you give them a puppet, they can move things and have the puppet speak for them or speak the things that they want to do. That can be really empowering. They say, ‘Oh. I can say these things. Why don’t I do that with my whole voice as myself?’” 

Like virtually the entire arts world, Really Spicy Opera found itself turned upside down in 2020. But intrepid sorts are finding ways to circumnavigate the challenge of presenting work without in-person audiences.

“We quickly realized there was a hunger to make art,” says Considine. “We decided to see if we could make some humor out of the situation.” The company ran a competition dubbed Quarantine Opera Scenes. The idea was for winners to be recorded, edited and released on social media.

“When we thought (this pandemic) would just be for a couple of months, the plan was to push them out quickly. But then we realized we should communicate with our audience over time.”

Less reactive to current circumstances is the company’s ongoing work on its Women in Opera Initiative. Considine sees massive inequities on the casting opportunities for women in opera and saw a need to develop some rules about what operatic works they’d get behind.

“We won’t perform a work where the female lead dies at the end. And two-thirds of the characters must be women, with a prohibition against them being nuns or maids or prostitutes.” Thus was born Really Spicy Opera’s current main endeavor, the Aria Institute. “It’s an online training program to train composers and librettists to write opera arias,” he explains.”

The institute started out by surveying performers about what they do and don’t want in new operatic arias and operas in general. “We then took that to people and said, ‘We’re not trying to tell you how to write music. But we do want to tell you what other people — those who will actually be doing the performing — say they want to have.’”

For the Aria Institute’s soprano edition, in July 2020, 12 new arias for sopranos were written. “We had a showcase, and then we did an expanding Aria Institute for mezzo-sopranos, and they created 28 new arias. Mezzo-sopranos are the lower female voices in opera, and they’re mostly stuck playing supporting characters. And they never succeed at love. Some mezzos, these are professionals, have been working in opera for three or four decades, saying ‘I’ve never had a love ballad.’ I think that’s a shame.”

In the end, it’s all about the love of the art. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” Considine says. “Serious art is true work, but we’re trying to create a structure where artists are set up to succeed. But it’s important to pay attention to what makes you happy. You know, life is too short to be unhappy all the time.”  — Julene Snyder

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