Summer Opera Preview

Cincinnati Opera at 95: stepping forward, looking back

click to enlarge 'Il Trovatore'
'Il Trovatore'

Twenty years ago, I wrote a cover story about Cincinnati Opera’s 75th season and the pending hire of a new artistic director following a multi-year series of self-studies and community forums.

Administrative and artistic staff, trustees and performers were all on the same page when it came to a new administration. They were mindful of the company’s history as the first American summer opera festival, but now faced competition for artists and visibility from dozens of other festivals. The Opera had to change its game.

The priorities boiled down to maintaining artistic excellence while seeking opportunities for expansion and innovation in every area, from production values to community engagement.

Two decades and two artistic directors later, the company has stayed on track, achieving many of its goals and, in notable instances, exceeding them.

The 95th season features the world premiere of Morning Star (June 30-July 19) by Ricky Ian Gordon and William M. Hoffman. Il Trovatore (June 18 and 20), Don Pasquale (July 9 and 11) and Turandot (July 25, 29 and 31) offer melodrama, high comedy and spectacle — in that order.

The lineup includes some of the world’s best singers, many on the cusp of major careers. And while spectacular singing is the basis for opera, sets, costumes and staging can be equally epic.

Leading off the season is Il Trovatore, Giuseppe Verdi’s melodrama based on that old staple of Italian opera known as “la vendetta,” or vengeance. Don’t focus on the plot, which was considered overblown even in Verdi’s day, though it does propel some of Verdi’s most familiar music, including the “Anvil Chorus.”

And what a cast: bass Morris Robinson, tenor Russell Thomas and the highly anticipated debut of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in the role of the vengeful gypsy Azucena.

With the imposing stature of an NFL fullback, Robinson is the perfect embodiment of the Count di Luna’s captain Ferrando, a role Robinson describes as “the Count’s right-hand man.” It’s a major minor role, crucial to what follows.

“I want people to be thrilled from the first note they hear,” says Evans Mirageas, the Harry T. Wilks artistic director of Cincinnati Opera. “That’s why, with these ‘first person out there’ roles, I try to cast the best singers I can find. The role may be small, but they’re the tone-setters for the evening.”

Robinson has been thrilling Cincinnati audiences since he sang Ferrando in the 2007 May Festival. He made a memorable Cincinnati Opera debut in 2010 as the night watchman in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. His rich, velvety bass and a sly, witty performance stole the show, and he’s returned three times since then.

Ferrando’s aria tells the assembled troops why di Luna is obsessed with finding his younger brother and the gypsy Azucena. “I like coming out and raising the bar,” Robinson says. “It’s hard when you sit in the dressing room while someone else sets the tone and then you have to go out and meet that level.

“I have a great cast behind me,” he says, “and besides, I don’t want to go after Jamie [Barton]!”

At 34, Barton has already performed throughout the world, winning the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2013 and, in March, the Richard Tucker Award — a major achievement for a young singer.

Barton has performed Act IV of Il Trovatore with tenor Russell Thomas twice, and she acknowledges that the role is a huge step up. “This is a big leap for me,” Barton says. “There’s a wish and a prayer that goes into it because it’s so different from what I’ve done.

“I trust my technique,” she continues. “I have great teachers, and everyone here has been wonderful. It makes it so much easier to step into a role of this size and succeed.”

When asked about her approach to the role, her response was immediate. “This is a straight-up case of PTSD,” she says, describing the character, who sees her mother burned at the stake, as well as her infant son. “She’s made into a caricature, which is easy to do because the music can lend itself to that. As an artist, it’s important to tell the truth. It’s taking those very real feelings of anxiety, stress and guilt, applying them to the character and making it true for me.”

Joining Robinson and Barton are Russell Thomas as the troubadour Manrico, Julianna Di Giacomo as the heroine Leonora and Stephen Powell as Count di Luna. But the cast member Robinson is most excited about is his 10-year-old son Miles, who’s a supernumerary in the second act.

University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music alum Jose Maria Condemi returns to direct and Cristian M

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celaru conducts.

'Morning Star' - Photo: Provided

Next up is Gordon’s and Hoffman’s Morning Star, opening June 30, the company’s first world premiere in more than fifty years. Based on the play by Sylvia Regan, Gordon says this is the work he was born to compose.

Gordon found echoes of his own family in the story of the Feldermans, Russian-Jewish immigrants struggling to assimilate into American culture. 

The tower of moral strength is the matriarch Becky Felderman, and the story cuts across bounds of cultures and ethnicities.

“Audiences will recognize themselves in so many of the characters,” Artistic Director Mirageas says. “We’ve all had a Becky in our lives, the indomitable mother figure who nothing keeps down. We’ve all had Irving Tashmans in our lives, this young, aspiring guy who never quite makes it, and Sadies, the child who feels unloved.”

Gordon is a prolific composer of songs and operas, including the 2007 Grapes of Wrath. His songs are recital staples, performed by aspiring and established artists including Audra McDonald, Judy Collins, Kristin Chenoweth and Nathan Gunn.

Librettist Hoffman, author of the award-winning play As Is and the libretto for The Ghosts of Versailles, says that Morning Star is his family’s story as well.

Beyond being a world premiere, Morning Star is a powerful affirmation of Opera Fusion: New Works (OFNW), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The innovative collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and CCM helped launch two successful operas along with Morning Star.

Since 2011, OFNW has offered composers and lyricists the opportunity to workshop new or previously unproduced operas. Two previous works have gone on to successful world premieres elsewhere: Doubt at Minnesota Opera and Champion at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Two more are in the pipeline.

“When Ricky [Gordon] proposed the piece, it didn’t have a home,” says Marcus Küchle, OFNW co-artistic director and Cincinnati Opera’s director of artistic operations. “Morning Star was originally commissioned for another company but never produced. Ricky wanted to rework it, and we were able to invest in it.”

“After the first workshop in November 2012, we were so excited about what we saw and heard that we funded a second workshop,” Mirageas says. “Ricky and Bill [Hoffman] continued to refine it and now we’re about to launch it.”

The music heard at workshop performances was vintage Gordon: richly melodic, setting the text with an emotional heft, and exquisitely suited to individual voices. Everyone involved is well aware of the risks, but there is also tremendous excitement and great confidence in Morning Star’s ability to make the leap to second and third performances.

Soprano Twyla Robinson returns to sing Becky Felderman, and she’s joined by a large cast of newcomers, including the exciting baritone Morgan Smith as Aaron, Becky’s confidante and would-be lover. Smith sang Starbuck in the premiere of Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick at the Dallas Opera.

Performances are at the School for Creative and Performing Arts’ Corbett Theater. The production makes extensive use of projections, particularly of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but Mirageas says the sets are deliberately spare. “We want to keep it simple,” he says. “It’s about the characters and we want them to tell the story.”

Ron Daniels makes his debut as stage director and Christopher Allen, newly appointed John L. Magro resident conductor, leads the orchestra.

Morning Star has already been featured in national publications, and Paul Cremo, head of the Metropolitan Opera’s Commissioning Program, will be among representatives from other companies attending performances.

'Don Pasquale' - Photo: Provided

Don Pasquale offers a break from unrequited love, tragedy and death. Nobody dies in Donizetti’s comedy, which is his most-performed opera during his lifetime. The tale of an old bachelor tricked into a fake marriage with his nephew’s sweetheart is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and its music is like limoncello on a sweltering summer day.

The physical production is a new one for Cincinnati Opera. “Arizona Opera has a production set in 1950s Hollywood,” Mirageas says. “I went to see it and I should have been thrown out because I was laughing so hard.”

In this iteration, Don Pasquale is a silent film star who wants a young starlet to help revive his career. Director Chuck Hudson studied with the great mime Marcel Marceau and, according to Mirageas, many of Marceau’s famed characters and routines will turn up.

The husband-and-wife team of baritone Burak Bilgili and soprano Eglise Gutiérrez are back as Pasquale and the spitfire Norina.

“Burak is naturally funny, and for him to play this character, henpecked by his own wife, is great,” Mirageas says, laughing. Korean tenor Ji-Min Park makes his debut as Norina’s true love, Ernesto, and Alexey Lavrov sings the scheming Dr. Malatesta.

Richard Buckley conducts Donizetti’s score, by turns witty, meltingly lyrical and occasionally cruel. The classic duet between Pasquale and Norina shifts from the comic confrontational to horrifying as Norina slaps her beleaguered “husband.” But, as noted earlier, lessons are learned and, one hopes, the Don is on his way to a revived career. 

'Turandot' - Photo: Provided

One of grand opera’s grandest closes the season. Puccini’s Turandot is the tale of a Chinese princess who poses three riddles to any potential suitor; wrong answers mean death. This is the one to see for spectacle, great choral singing and the now-iconic aria “Nessun dorma,” which was the anthem of the 1990 World Cup.

The new production is created and staged by the world-renowned team of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet, known for putting fantasy and reality on a collision course. Cincinnati Opera is one of five co-producers, along with Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Utah and Seattle.

“They’ve created a cartoonish universe, and the visual intensity is perfectly suited to the overheated plot,” Mirageas says.

Puccini died in 1924, before completing Turandot. His publisher enlisted Franco Alfano to finish the score, based on Puccini’s sketches. There are at least three other versions but Cincinnati Opera will go with Alfano’s ending, led by Ramón Tebar. Puccini wrote brilliant music for the chorus, incorporating Chinese folk tunes and some of his most passionate, opulent melodies.

Soprano Marcy Stonikas gave a highly acclaimed performance of the steely princess Turandot for Seattle Opera, and she reprises the role in her local debut. Tenor Stuart Neill is Calàf, the dauntless prince who solves the riddles and wins Turandot’s love, and soprano Norah Amsellem is Liù, the long-suffering servant in love with Calàf.

Be on the lookout for baritone Norman Garrett, who appears as the Mandarin. A CCM alum and former Cincinnati Opera chorister, Garrett was recently profiled in Opera News.

“We all remember him showing up for chorus rehearsals in basketball shorts and a T-shirt,” Mirageas says. “He had wonderful mentors at CCM and in board member Don and his wife, the late Donna Hoffman.

“Norman is one big reason I’m so proud to be part of Cincinnati Opera,” Mirageas continues. “We take care of our performers so that everyone has a good feeling about the company and the city and they’ll want to come back.”

Il Trovatore’s Robinson is a case in point. “Cincinnati’s like my second home,” he says. “I can do a lot of good work here at a very, very high level. The quality of voices is second to none.”

First-timer Barton agrees, adding, “We’re treated like queens and kings!”

Commitment to artistic excellence can only happen with the same commitment from administration: Cincinnati Opera’s staff is nationally recognized for its management style and community engagement programs, and now for promoting new works by American composers.

General Director and CEO Patty Beggs is in her 31st year with the company. “I had this feeling I belonged here,” she says, “and 12 years later, I was running the company.”

Under her leadership, the company has maintained a positive fiscal position, which Beggs attributes to long-range planning and securing funding for productions in advance. That has meant scrapping operas previously announced, but that’s not unusual in Opera World.

Beggs helped launch attention-grabbing campaigns that drove attendance and attracted younger audiences. Community engagement has been a passion since she moved to Cincinnati in 1970, and it’s been a mainstay of her 18-year tenure as chief executive.

“I was involved with the first Mini-Marathon, the first Taste of Cincinnati and the second Oktoberfest,” she says. “These were powerful experiences; they changed perceptions of the city and made Cincinnati more community-based. That was the approach we took for the Opera.

“This is not an inexpensive art form and it needs to deliver before, during and after the performances,” she continues. “But we also have to take our presence outside Music Hall and make it something that people want to include in their lives.”

Annual initiatives include Opera Raps, a community dress rehearsal, and, since the 2012 opening of Washington Park, the free Opera in the Park concert, which drew a sizable crowd on June 7.

In 2006, Director of Community Relations Tracy Wilson (another 30-year veteran) introduced Opera Goes to Church featuring Cincinnati Opera artists performing in area churches with their choirs. Rockdale Temple was added to the roster in 2013. The free tickets disappear within hours of availability.

Beggs says the Cincinnati Opera has the best team in the world and one of the most loyal. In addition to Wilson’s lengthy career, Director of Artistic Operations Küchle is completing his 12th year, Managing Director Chris Milligan his 14th season and Director of Production Glenn Plott has been with the company for 18 years. The company also boasts one of the community’s most effective and hard-working boards.

“I’ve served on national boards, on trustee and advocacy groups, and the level of commitment to the company is extraordinary, beyond financial,” Beggs says. “Our staff and board members are critical to thinking through what the next steps will be.”

That interplay will be vital as the company vacates Music Hall at the end of the season. For the next two years, productions will move to the Aronoff Center. If Music Hall renovations stay on schedule, Cincinnati Opera will return just three years shy of its centennial season.

More new works are definitely on the horizon, and the refurbished performance space at Music Hall holds the promise of better acoustics, state-of-the-art production technology, improved accessibility and more bathrooms. Beggs doesn’t make predictions, but she’s confident of one thing. “Challenges are what drive our team to work together to make this the best company it can be,” she says.


CINCINNATI OPERA’s 95th season runs June 18-July 31. Tickets and information: cincinnatiopera.org.


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