Rolando Sanz. Photo courtesy of Rolando Sanz.

“For the first five years of my life, we might have well been in Havana. We ate exclusively Cuban food. We exclusively spoke Spanish…my Cuban culture has been central to my life,” said Rolando Sanz, Executive Producer of I Am Anne Hutchinson/ I Am Harvey Milk.

A first generation Cuban American having grown up with two Spanish speaking parents, Sanz and his brothers always had a lot to say—in both languages. His parents settled in the Washington, DC area after leaving Cuba. Having his first role as a child at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, Sanz grew up with an appreciation for musical theatre and opera. In the car from suburbia, he used to make his trek to rehearsal to Washington, DC. He now finds himself in the unique position of producing a “concept opera” at Strathmore.

Who are we as Americans? What is the Other? How do you see the Other in yourself? It is a pressing question for the Latin community, but relevant as we look at the passage of time and the convergence of populations. In a large scale event at Strathmore, a 2,000-seat music center in the Washington, DC area, artists consider identity.

I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk is a new “concept opera” starring Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked, On the Twentieth Century) and Composer/ Lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, Big Fish, The Wild Party). The opera looks at one’s role in his/her community in an ever-evolving America filled with different races and ethnicities. This opera takes place at two points in American history—the year 1634 and the late 1970s. While analyzing the lives of Puritan Spiritual Leader Anne Hutchinson and Civil Rights Activist Harvey Milk (based in a heavily Latin California), this opera looks at the framing of society. It asks: how does one speak for the silent—the overlooked, and the oppressed?

Rolando Sanz explained further, “It’s the same dialogue. People that have not had a voice, now have a voice.” Dealing with inclusion and exclusion was important to the work.  Andrew Lippa was up to the challenge. Sanz decided to produce these “two separate stories that are now this one complete work…The two stories are tied together, musically and thematically, character wise…even though they were 350 years apart, they were both American stories.”

Sanz explained, “While melding in the Anne Hutchinson story does introduce a spiritual angle to the story, the deeper connection between Anne and Harvey is that they both spoke out for those that had no voice. Anne taught women that they too were worthy of receiving God’s grace and interpreting the Bible for themselves, while Harvey encouraged gay people to no longer hide in the shadows.”

As times change, there’s so much to say. Artists need to stand their ground and be heard. Courage is important, particularly when dealing with complex issues of identity.

I Am Harvey Milk had its NYC premiere at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in October 2014. Sanz expressed, “I was blown away by what this piece was.” After that, Sanz reached out to Composer Andrew Lippa. He spoke at length about why this important work should be premiered in the Washington, DC Metro Area.

“Developing this concept opera was a 16-month process, which should have taken twice that amount of time. So there was a lot of detail work to do in a short span of time,” Sanz said. After much preparation, there was a two-week rehearsal process in New York and Bethesda, MD. “This process was treated more like an opera production; all the actors came fully prepared with their music learned on Day One of rehearsal, and we dove straight into staging,” Sanz recounted. He further notes:

“I would say the exceptional part of our process for this show was how the cast became a close- knit family, because of the subject matter and message of the work. Every single person in the cast wanted to be there and believed wholeheartedly in bringing this work to the world. Amazing things happen when every single person is laser focused towards the goal.”

Kristin Chenoweth and Andrew Lippa performing in I Am Harvey Milk. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In actuality, Andrew Lippa kept Broadway singer Kristin Chenoweth onboard for the DC production. Sanz said, “Kristin is a joy. We’re so lucky that she signed on at the beginning. It’s given Andrew a lot of freedom knowing exactly who he was writing for…When you are working with a big name like Kristin Chenoweth, the initial reaction is you are working with a celebrity…But, she is such a team player… She is a wonderful artist both in the rehearsal room and on stage.”

Performances of I am Anne Hutchinson/ I am Harvey Milk were held at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, MD on April 23 and 24. Always interested in problem solving, Rolando Sanz continued answering 200 e-mails a day, and handled the nitty gritty of production, including coordinating all 175 performers. In addition, Rolando kept up with day-to-day matters, while juggling rehearsal schedules and technical meetings. From the wings of the theatre to the production office to center stage, it’s a long journey for a Cuban from the Metro DC area. Looking from the wings, he is able to witness this work from his vantage point.

To speak out, and speak loudly is key. Sanz said, “I am still getting lots of e-mails days later from audience members (and cast and chorus members!) sharing how this experience changed their life. Our cast, orchestra, chorus, and crew were made up of people of every race, color, and creed and what this production proved is that we are all the same. And that no matter who we are, we need someone like Anne Hutchinson or Harvey Milk to speak up for us when we are at our weakest.”