On a stage near you: Cal Performance’s new season

John Malkovitch will star in Cal Performances' "The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer" in October

[Update, 04.27,11: Watch a video of director Peter Sellars talking about "the Desdemona Project”, the upcoming theatrical event he is producing for Cal Performances.]

Cal Performances knows how to serve up a star-studded arts menu. Names such as Peter Sellars, Toni Morrison, Mark Morris, Keith Jarrett, John Malkovitch, Roz Chast and Susan Graham are just a few of the many all-star monikers that pop out on the new season line-up of the UC Berkeley-based culture powerhouse.

But even more impressive is the sheer spectrum of the offerings Berkeleyans have to look forward to this year and next. In presenting the new season, Cal Performances Director Matías Tarnopolsky said there were 25 new artists and companies coming to Berkeley this year, as well as a new series focused on family-friendly performances.

Recitals will center on piano works, the dance program will be mostly modern and the theater focus in on Samuel Beckett, Tarnopolsky said. And he stressed the organization’s commitment to early music, a personal passion, as an example of the range on offer.


“Cal Performances has always prided itself on offering adventurous and compelling work,” he said Tuesday. The underlying mantra, he continued, is “artistic excellence, advocacy and accessibility”.

Singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, right, who is collaborating with Peter Sellars and Toni Morrison on The Desdemona Project

One of the centerpieces of the season is undoubtedly The Desdemona Project, the US premiere of a theatrical collaboration between director Peter Sellars, Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison and singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré.

Sellars was beamed in from Vienna via Skype video to this morning’s press conference, his trademark wild hair-do in place, to explain the journey that lead him to tackle Othello. It’s a play, he said, that he had always had a “major problem” with.

“This is a play that says interracial marriage has to end in strangulation,” he said. “What relevance does this have to the 21st century?”

Sellars said he was persuaded by Morrison to revisit Shakespeare’s work, and to home in on the reasons Desdemona might have fallen so hard for Othello, in particular a one-line reference in the play to an African maid who may have raised her. The new piece, for which rehearsals started today in Austria, focuses on Desdemona and that maid, speaking together from the other side of the grave about the things they weren’t allowed to say when they were alive.

“It gives you a frisson,” said Sellars, “to see the missing African links of Shakespeare’s Othello.” The production comes to Zellerbach Hall on October 26-29.

Other season highlights include jazz icon Herbie Hancock; dance maestro Mark Morris conducting the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale with soprano Stephanie Blythe in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; John Malkovitch appearing in what Tarnopolsky described as the “powerful and scary” The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer; Chinese pianist Lang Lang playing works by Bach, Chopin and Schubert; and an evening of images and conversation with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast as part of Cal Performances’ “Strictly Speaking” series.

Tarnopolsky, who came to Cal Performances from the New York Philharmonic in 2009, announced that the Fall Free for All open house which he inaugurated last year as a way of introducing the community to Cal Performances, will be repeated this year on September 25.

New this year is First Stage for Families, a series of one-hour events on Sundays targeted at a young audience. The Cashore Marionettes kick off the program on October 23. Other events include Cambodia’s Khmer Arts Ensemble and “certified lunatic” Tomáš Kubínek.

Visit the Cal Performances website for the full 2011-12 season schedule.