Recently, we were introduced to Pepito, an animated dog opera, and found it to be entrancing, touching and inspiring. Since we’re opera fans as well as rescue advocates, it especially hit home with us, so we were curious to find out how it came about. We reached out to the co-founder of the New Opera West company, Emily Thebaut, who gladly shared its origin story with us. We are sure that you will find both the opera and its message of what it means to be “the right dog” resonating with you, too. Bravo!
The Bark: Tell us something about your opera company, and about this dog-opera project’s backstory. How did it come about? Whose idea was it? Has your company produced other animated/video projects?
Emily Thebaut: New Opera West, which I co-founded with composer Mark Weiser, is a nonprofit dedicated to the creation of new operatic works. We strive to engage multiple art forms (in this case, animation and opera) in the creation of a new type of opera, one that explores timely themes and includes stories that feature opportunities for diverse artists and, most importantly, that will attract new opera audiences.
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I learned about Pepito from the composer, Nicolas Lell Benavides, who’s a good friend of mine. When he played it for me, I instantly fell in love with it; having adopted two dogs myself, I connected to the story. From then on, I knew I wanted New Opera West to produce it. I never thought I would be able to combine my two passions in life—dogs and opera—but I found a way!
I had originally planned to do a live, in-person performance of Pepito to which people could bring their pets, and to invite a local shelter to hold an adoption event after the performance. But once Covid-19 hit, I had to think of a way to present the opera in a virtual format. I had always wanted to create an animated opera, and thought Pepito in particular would be a perfect candidate for this, since one of the main characters is a dog.
This was New Opera West’s first animated opera but it will definitely not be our last.
The Bark: Pepito’s theme of the “right dog” is particularly apt. How did you develop it?
Emily Thebaut: Pepito was written by librettist Marella Martin Koch and composer Nicolas Lell Benavides as part of the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. It premiered at the Kennedy Center during their 2018/19 season.
In producing the animated version, I worked with Marella and Nicolas to find the specific clip we were going to use and then to assemble an animation team. Nicolas and I are both doctoral students at the University of Southern California, which has a strong film school, so that’s where we looked for the animators. We ended up with three USC alumni: Esperanza Guevara, Connor Jacobs and Chun Chun Chang.
While I always knew I wanted to partner with an animal rescue for this production, it wasn’t until the final stages that I started to think about which organizations would be a good fit. I was absolutely thrilled when Muttville responded. Since Pepito is an older shelter dog, the fact that Muttville works with senior animals made it a perfect match. Also, having been to some of Muttville’s events in the past, and knowing how fun and creative they are, I thought this could be a really good fit.
The Bark: Please tell us about the collaboration necessary to create such a work.
Emily Thebaut: As I mentioned, the opera was already written, and the composer had won a grant the previous year to put together a top-notch recording of the work, with singers from the Washington National Opera and instrumentalists from USC. Nicolas, Marella and I were very involved in the process, which took around seven months in total. Once Chun Chun Chang created the character design, Marella and I wrote the specific stage directions and then Esperanza Guevara and her husband, Connor Jacobs, did the animation. It was truly a team effort.
The Bark: Has anyone in your organization adopted a rescue dog?
Emily Thebaut: Yes! I adopted my first Chihuahua mix, Nala, from SF SPCA in 2014, and then adopted my second, Milo, three years ago. I could not imagine my life without my dogs; they have dramatically changed it for the better. This summer, I accompanied our board treasurer to Pug Nation Rescue of Los Angeles to adopt her first dog. And our board vice president has two rescue dogs who are as sweet as can be. Also, the composer, Nicolas, adopted a real-life Pepito shortly after writing the opera. In LA, my co-founder Mark Weiser and his partner rescue and foster cats from a local shelter. So, pretty much everyone in our organization has adopted animals!
The Bark: What message do you hope viewers take away from Pepito?
Emily Thebaut: People often want a very specific type of dog—a particular size, breed, age, color and so forth. In fact, I was one of these people. When I first moved to San Francisco, I was obsessed with French Bulldogs, and thought that would be my first dog.
However, when I accompanied my friend to the animal shelter so she could adopt a dog, I locked eyes with my Nala, an older Chihuahua mix, and we just had an instantaneous connection. I’m so thankful that I had that experience, that I didn’t look for the “right dog,” or at least what I had envisioned as the “right dog.” I did find the “right dog” for me and I’m so appreciative, because I could not imagine my life without her.
When I interviewed Sherri Franklin, founder of Muttville, she said the same thing—that so many people come in looking for, say, a Chihuahua, but leave with a Lab.
I hope Pepito shows viewers that each dog has a unique personality, and that when you’re looking to adopt, be open to meeting all types of dogs, not just puppies and purebreds. Look for the animal who you have that “connection” with and who will be the “right dog” for you.
I also hope people recognize that senior dogs have so much love and life to give, and how incredible Muttville is, from the work they do with senior animals to their events and the role they play in their community. I hope to collaborate with them again on future projects!