Cincinnati Opera’s 90th anniversary season already has more drama than a Verdi potboiler in an Italian opera house about to go on strike. But despite casting woes for the opening work, there’s plenty to celebrate: a gala and three great operas with world-class performers, conductors and directors.
The festivities kick off with a gala concert Saturday featuring acclaimed performers from Cincinnati Opera’s past and present.
“Once we decided to stage Meistersinger, we knew that for this one summer, we only had room for three operas,” says Artistic Director Evans Mirageas. “A gala is the perfect opportunity to create something very festive to begin the season.”
He describes the program as “celebratory but not a marathon.” Acclaimed singers will perform highlights from each of the company’s nine decades. The roster includes sopranos Christine Brewer and Angela Brown, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, tenors Richard Leech, Antonello Palombi and Russell Thomas, baritone Carlo Guelfi, the choruses of the Cincinnati Opera and Allen Temple A.M.E., led by conductors Edoardo Muller, Steven Reineke and Henri Venanzi. Plus we’re promised “a couple of surprises.”
On June 23, the curtain rises on the long-awaited (and beleaguered) production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg with — thanks to early exits from some key players — an entirely new slate of singers in leading roles, not to mention a different maestro in the pit. Richard Wagner’s only comedy has obvious links to Cincinnati’s German choral singing traditions but there are even deeper ties. Mirageas recalls flipping through the local phone book and finding the names of several of Meistersinger’s characters: Beckmesser, von Stolzing, Schwarz and, of course, Sachs.
The replacement cast might not have immediate name recognition but conductor John Keenan has impressive credentials with both the Met and Wagner’s home base in Bayreuth, Germany. Taking over the role of Hans Sachs is James Johnson, a bass-baritone internationally acclaimed for singing Wagner. Tenor John Horton Murray, also a veteran Wagnerian, is the aspiring singer Walther von Stolzing. The dark horse is soprano Twyla Robinson, making her role debut as Eva.
Meistersinger (pictured above) is outsized in every respect: a larger orchestra, huge choruses (the May Festival Chorus is part of the cast) and a running time of over five hours (starting time is 6 pm). Not to worry, though, as food and drinks will be on sale during intermissions.
Two weeks later, Cincinnati Opera roars back with Verdi’s Otello on July 7 and 10. Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito limned Shakespeare’s tragedy into an even more gripping drama of jealousy, greed and pure evil. The cast features Italian tenor Antonello Palombi, who garnered huge ovations in Tosca four years ago, making his stage debut as the doomed Moor. Soprano Maria Luigia Borsi makes her U.S. debut as Desdemona, and bass-baritone Carlo Guelfi is the arch villain Iago.
Look for fireworks in the pit as conducting phenom Robert Spano leads the orchestral forces.
“It’s a real conductor’s opera,” Mirageas says, “and (Spano’s) a sucker for Verdi.”
The season winds down with the ideal opera for newbies and anyone curious about Rent’s back story: Puccini’s La Boheme, that evergreen weepie of young love and young attitude. Cincinnati Opera scored a major coup in bringing eminent British director Sir Jonathan Miller to stage his production that originated with the English National Opera (Cincinnati Opera is now a co-producer). Once again, Mirageas’ connections pay off.
“Jonathan and I go way back,” he says, referring to the days when Mirageas cast Miller’s productions for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Jonathan has never been to Cincinnati, and he’s delighted to be coming.”
What about the documented reports of Miller’s acerbic comments on singers, producers and artistic directors?
“I think Jonathan talked to some of his colleagues and found out that this is an enjoyable and congenial place to work,” Mirageas says. “He likes working with smart singers, and I think we have a cast that is brainy, beautiful and with gorgeous voices.”
No doubt. Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello — who happen to be a real-life married couple — should make an extremely loving Mimí and Rudolfo. Both singers have major international careers, and Costello was the 2009 recipient of the Richard Tucker Award.
The production of La Boheme is set in 1930s Paris, “true to the original atmosphere but was more up to date for audiences,” Mirageas says.
The 90th-anniversary season also marks two other significant milestones: 25-year anniversaries for Company CEO Patty Beggs and Director of Community Outreach Tracy Wilson.
Beggs’ promotional savvy and leadership garnered regional and national acclaim for marketing campaigns. Cincinnati Opera’s board is among the most effective in the local arts community and the younger, more diverse audiences are tangible results of her commitment to community outreach.
But nothing has been a bigger challenge than the current economic downturn, which Beggs admits is the worst she’s experienced.
“None of us expects it to change rapidly,” she says. “Today, people don’t have the same resources or the same sense of optimism.” Staff took pay cuts and productions were cut back, but “there was no compromise on the music.”
Although Beggs doesn’t foresee a return to the “halcyon days of 10 percent returns on investments,” she and the board are working on long-term plans to ensure the company’s fiscal viability.
“With a company that’s 90 years old,” Beggs says, "it’s our responsibility to make sure the organization is healthy and moving toward a better future."
That would include the 95th anniversary season, and planning is already underway.
CINCINNATI OPERA’s 90th anniversary season kicks off with a “Gala Concert” Saturday at Music Hall, hosted by Ryan Seacrest. Get show and venue details and buy tickets here.