WNRN Culture Connection for July 28 – August 3

The second show of Ash Lawn Opera’s season and the Dragon Boat Festival at Rockett’s Landing are hallmarks of summer rolling right along.  Plus a tribute to Patsy Cline rounds out this week’s WNRN Culture Connection.

For information on these events, click on the links below.  To hear a podcast of this week’s Culture Connection click here.

Always Patsy Cline in Lynchburg:

http://www.newsadvance.com/calendar/performing_arts/endstation-theatre-company-s-always-patsy-cline/event_7ca0f750-e115-11e3-a650-10604b9ffeb6.html

Fiddler on The Roof in Charlottesville:

http://www.ashlawnopera.com/summer/fiddler-on-the-roof/

Dragon Boat Races in Richmond:

http://www.gwndragonboat.com/Default.asp?id=161&l=1

FYI:  I saw Avenue Q (part of the Heritage Theatre Festival) over the weekend at it was very good.  If you like irreverent musicals you might want to check it out.

Have a great week and get out there and get cultured.

Mary

The Culture Maven

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Walgreens Richmond International Dragon Boat Race

Extreme Week

I AM FEELING A LITTLE BORED AND NEEDING SOMETHING TO RATTLE MY CAGE  SO THIS IS WHAT I PICKED TO DO THIS WEEK:

 XTREME FEST, A CELEBRATION OF THE AREA’S ADVENTURE SPORTING OPPORTUNITIES HAPPENING IN WAYNESBORO ON SATURDAY OFFERING A TASTE OF WHAT THERE IS TO DO IN CENTRAL VIRGINIA’S GREAT OUTDOORS. THIS KID FRIENDLY EVENT FEATURES A CLIMBING WALL, KAYAKING, AIR BUNGEE TRAMPOLINE AND A HIGH FLYING BMX STUNT BIKE SHOW.

IF YOU ARE A MADMEN FAN, OR YOU ARE JUST LOOKING FOR SOMETHING EXTREME AND INDOORS I SUGGEST THE TOM WESSELMAN SHOW: POP ART AND BEYOND AT THE VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ART IN RICHMOND.  WESSLEMAN, THE DON DRAPER OF THE POP ART SCENE, IS OBSESSED WITH SEX, SMOKING AND ADVERTISING AND IT SHOWS IN THIS EXHIBITION, HIS FIRST CAREER RETROSPECTIVE.  ROCKY HORROR FANS WILL APPRECIATE THE RED LIPS PAINTINGS IN PARTICULAR.

ON THURSDAY NIGHT, ASH LAWN OPERA IS HOSTING BRAVO BOHEME AT LIVE ARTS IN CHARLOTTESVILLE.  THIS EVENT IS SUPPOSED TO BE FOR YOUNG PROFESSIONALS WHO WOULD LIKE TO CULTIVATE A TASTE FOR OPERA.  MAY NOT SOUND SO EXTREME BUT IF YOU ARE SINGLE, CULTURED AND LOOKING THIS  EVENT COULD BE A CONTACT SPORT.

WNRN logo

2013 Season At Ash Lawn Opera

This arrived in my mailbox yesterday.  I am looking forward to seeing both operas, particularly La boheme – which is, of course a favorite.

ASH LAWN OPERA FESTIVAL ANNOUNCES 36TH SEASON

WITH FIVE ARTISTS FROM THE METROPOLITAN OPERA

 

Artists who have worked at major opera houses in the U.S. and abroad perform Puccini’s beloved La bohème and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ever-popular Carousel; tickets available March 8th 

Ash Lawn Opera is proud to present its fifth season at The Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville, VA with a total of nine performances in July and August of Giacomo Puccini’s touching La bohème, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ever-popular Carousel. The ‘two-hankie season’ features major artists, including five who have worked at The Metropolitan Opera.

 

In addition to selling out performances and expanding its season to include holiday performances, the company garnered high praise for its last season, including: “The Ash Lawn Opera outdid itself in 2012….” (C’ville), “How could this perfection be? How could it happen here?” (Echo), and “If you’re not an opera fan, the new Ash Lawn Opera, under the artistic direction of Michelle Krisel, just might change your mind.” (Daily Progress).

 

Ash Lawn Opera opens its thirty-sixth season on July 12th with four performances of Puccini’s La bohème, sung in Italian with English surtitles, and accompanied by a full orchestra of symphonic musicians drawn from across the country.  With its soaring melodies, all too human characters, and touching love story, it’s no surprise La bohème is one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide.  Stage director, DANIEL RIGAZZI (Metropolitan Opera), and scenic designer, JOHN POLLARD (Brevard Music Festival) are re-united after their success with The Magic Flute here last season.  They are joined by costume designer, LESLIE BERNSTEIN (Brevard Music Festival) and lighting designer, JEFF BRUCKERHOFF (Washington National Opera).

 

The nationally recognized cast includes: Mimi / MARIA D’AMATO (Sarasota Opera, Seattle Opera), Musetta / MONICA YUNUS (Metropolitan Opera, concerts with Domingo, Carreras & Bocelli), Rodolfo / SERGIO BLAZQUEZ (Prague State Opera, New York City Opera), Marcello / LEVI HERNANDEZ (Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera), Schaunard / SIDNEY OUTLAW (English National Opera, New York City Opera), Colline / TYLER SIMPSON (Metropolitan Opera, Castleton Festival), conducted by STEVEN JARVI (Virginia Opera, Kansas City Symphony), in his third consecutive season with Ash Lawn Opera.

 

The season continues on August 3rd, with five performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic hit, Carousel, named the Best Musical in 1945 by the New York Drama Critic’s Circle and recently affirmed the Best Musical of the Twentieth Century by TIME.

 

The exciting cast features Billy Bigelow / LIAM BONNER (Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera) who returns after his success in the title role of ALO’s Barber of Seville in 2011, Julie Jordan / EMILY ALBRINK (Washington National Opera, Carnegie Hall) who returns after her success as Marian in ALO’s Music Man in 2012, Nettie Fowler / AUNDI MARIE MOORE (Washington National Opera, Virginia Opera), Carrie Pipperidge / KATHRYN LEEMHUIS (Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Theatre of St. Louis), conducted by JON KALBFLEISCH (Signature Theatre, Helen Hayes Award), in his third consecutive season with Ash Lawn Opera.  The stage director / choreographer is JOHN DE LOS SANTOS (Dallas Opera), LILIANA DUQUE PINEIRO (Opera de Colombia, Bogotá) is the scenic designer, SHON LEBLANC (Ovation Award for I Love Lucy Live on Stage) returns to design costumes after his success with ALO’s recent productions of The Music Man and Amahl and the Night Visitors, and JEFF BRUCKERHOFF (Washington National Opera) is the lighting designer.

 

Over 300 young opera singers competed nationwide to become one of the 16 Young Artists or Apprentice Singers who cover the main stage roles and perform in the Ensemble.  They also perform leading roles in outreach performances at the Louisa Arts Center, the Orange Music Festival, The Haven, Albemarle County Rotary Club, University of Virginia’s Fralin Art Museum, among others. The cast is rounded out by 30 local children and several local adult performers.

 

Ash Lawn Opera also provides enriching Education Programs throughout the entire year at no charge to underserved children in area public schools, public libraries, the Department of Parks and Recreation, Boys and Girls Club, and Boy and Girl Scouts.  The company continues its tradition of providing a free lecture before every performance at The Paramount Theater.

 

Anne Fife, President of the Board of Directors, comments, “After the tremendous success of last summer’s season and our first holiday family opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, we are delighted to announce our upcoming summer season. I know that our General Director, Michelle Krisel, will present to our ever-growing Charlottesville audience two very imaginative productions with exceptional singing that will appeal to the opera aficionado and newcomer alike”.

 

General Director Michelle Krisel adds, “I am gratified that the greater Charlottesville area has responded so enthusiastically to our productions, including sold-out performances of our first holiday season of Amahl and the Night Visitors, and a 93% growth in the summer opera audience. Our Education Programs continue to expand, and the cast, orchestra, and production team have risen to a new artistic level.  Finally, I would like to thank the Board, Guild, and donors who have made this possible.”

 

Ash Lawn Opera is deeply grateful to the generous support of:

La bohème

RoseWood Village

Reines Jewelers

 

Carousel

Wells Fargo

 

CALENDAR

La bohème* Carousel*

July 12 @ 7:30 pm Aug. 3 @ 2 pm

July 14 @ 2 pm Aug. 5 @ 7:30 pm

July 17 @ 7:30 pm Aug. 7 @ 7:30 pm

July 19 @ 7:30 pm Aug. 9 @ 7:30

Aug. 11 @ 2 pm

*The public is invited to attend a free lecture 45 minutes before every performance at The Paramount Theater.

 

Louisa Arts Center  The Haven

La bohème (excerpts in English with piano) Noon-time Recitals (FREE)

June 22 @ 7:30 pm July 30 & Aug. 6

 

TICKETS

Tickets for La bohème and Carousel range from $11 – 65, with a mid-week discount, and will be available on March 8th at The Paramount Theater.  Purchase tickets online at www.theparamount.net or call The Paramount Theater box office at 434.979.1333.  The Paramount Theater box office is open weekdays from 10 am – 2 pm.

 

To obtain a discount for groups of 10 or more adults, please contact boxoffice@theparamount.net.

 

Tickets for the performance at Louisa Arts Center range from $15 – 20 and are available now at www.louisaarts.org or 540.967.220

 

No tickets or reservations are necessary for the free noon-time Recitals at The Haven.

 

Things are Booming in the Virginia Opera Scene- and it’s not just Ari

Music: Opera on the Rise in Virginia

By Mary Burruss
ART TIMES Online August 2012

Emily Hedrich
Emily Hindrichs (Moore-Coll Photography)

In one season under Michelle Krisel’s direction, Ash Lawn Opera is attracting top emerging talent to perform in its summer festival season.  Artists who have worked at the Met, La Scala, Frankfurt Opera, San Francisco Opera, and New York City Opera are camping out with host families in Charlottesville, Virginia just to be a part of this rising company, which is thriving in a time when many arts organizations are faltering. But Ash Lawn Opera’s story is just a piece of the growing opera scene in Virginia.

Since 2009, 11 opera companies have shut down across the nation (including three thus far this year) compared to a total of three companies closing in the two years prior  — a seeming epidemic. Even long standing organizations that had persisted through other economic slumps, including the Baltimore and Connecticut Operas (founded in 1950 and 1942 respectively), succumbed to dwindling donations and falling ticket sales.  Regardless of the reasons those 11 failed, opera companies in Virginia seem to be blossoming.  Three out of the eight opera companies in The Old Dominion have opened since 2007, including The Castleton Festival started in 2009 by world famous conductor, Lorin Maazel.

The three largest professional companies in Virginia  —  Ash Lawn Opera, Lyric Opera Virginia and Virginia Opera  — are all showing signs of growth.  Ash Lawn Opera is expanding its season to include a production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” this winter. Virginia Opera is recovering after a public relations debacle it experienced over the dismissal of Artistic Director, Peter Mark and has added a show to its season. Lyric Opera of Virginia, which is Mark’s new venture, survived its inaugural year and is in the planning stages for expansion. The Castleton Festival added 250 seats to its concert hall reaping an overall increased attendance of about 30% this season.  Even a new training facility for would be opera singers, Urban Arias, opened this year in Arlington demonstrating a growing need.  How is opera gaining ground as a performing art in Virginia when companies elsewhere are struggling? The answer lies in some smart business strategies.

Programming is a key element of success according to Ash Lawn Opera General Director, Michelle Krisel.  “We take great care in selecting repertoire people want to see,” she says. Ash Lawn Opera currently presents a standard opera, a musical and a shortened version of the selected standard each season. The newly added winter opera will “…reach an audience who is out of town in the summer,” says Krisel. Though, at this writing they were just beginning their season, Ash Lawn Opera ticket sales have increased a whopping 56% from last year.

Emily Hedrich
Jennifer Zetlan and David Portillo
(Moore-Coll Photography)

Lyric Opera Virginia’s programming formula is almost identical to Ash Lawn Opera’s, with the exception of the new winter addition. Having a musical in the season has long been a formula for success for European opera companies while considered uncouth by their American cousins. But commercial success is beginning to trump Yankee snobbery and musical theater appears to be a good lure for second tier ticket buyers. Joseph Walsh, General Director of Virginia Opera explains, “People come to the musicals and like them then buy tickets to the operas. We sold more tickets to our Jewel Box version of Carmen (which followed the musical production) than we did to our full length La Traviata our first opera of the season”  A Jewel Box format is a 90 minute presentation of  highlights from an opera designed to attract first time opera goers and families. “People got very excited about the Jewel Box production, particularly those who had never been to an opera before,” says Walsh.

Virginia Opera is a bit more ambitious with its programming offerings. “Our audiences have a vast range of tastes from those just beginning to appreciate opera to long time fans who need more than standard fare. We aim to keep them all happy,” says Virginia Opera’s Marketing Director, Anna Russel. Virginia Opera is now committed to having a freshly staged company premier for its first show every season and staging a new American opera each season as well adding a dash of avant garde and adventure to their programming. The more varied program mix is having significant success. “Subscription ticket sales are currently 24% ahead of same time last year,” says Virginia Opera’s President and CEO, Russell P. Allen, “a good indication that programming strategies implemented last season are working.”

Programming goes a long way in increasing ticket sales but other strategies are needed to fill in budgetary gaps. “For most companies, ticket sales provide 40% of their budget; our ticket sales only cover one-third of our budget because our ticket prices are low and we only do 10 performances,” explains Krisel. “We purposefully have this ticket sales to budget ratio in order to keep the shows accessible to the public,” says Krisel. Ash Lawn Opera tickets range from $11 to $54. For comparison, bigger houses like The Metropolitan Opera of New York earn 50% of their budgets through ticket sales as a result of offering many performances and charging high prices per ticket ($37 – $480). For Ash Lawn Opera, sticking to the budget and thinking outside the box are keys to success. “Our budget is so lean there is no room for someone to sneeze because we couldn’t afford to buy a Kleenex,” laughs Krisel. Krisel makes all sorts of deals like borrowing band uniforms from a local high school for this season’s production of The Music Man to facilitate the high quality production values she demands for her audiences. Lyric Opera Virginia is re-assessing its budget constraints to be a bit leaner and meaner in its second season to accommodate higher artistic goals.  The schedule is shrinking to 12 performances form 21 with tours to fewer cities. “We found that after our first year we needed to make some adjustments, which is common for new companies,” says Walsh.

Aggressive outreach seems to be the most important factor for growth in the current economy. Opera on the James, a smaller company located in Lynchburg, increased its educational outreach program from 12 to 30 performances in one year. Opera on the James President, David Neumeyer explains, “We have really been focusing on a new young artists program and public awareness.”   Ash Lawn Opera instigated a pre-broadcast program for local Metropolitan Opera HD performance ticket holders to capture an audience already interested in opera but not attending Ash Lawn Opera performances en mass.  But one of Ash Lawn’s most effective strategies is to include children in productions.  Offering children opportunities to perform in productions attracts families who will hopefully turn into patrons and long-term donors. This year Ash Lawn Opera there are 44 local children appearing in Ash Lawn Opera’s summer season. “Having kids in the shows means that the parents and grandparents and friends all buy tickets to see them while encouraging a love for opera in the kids themselves.” Opera Roanoke has increased their ticket sales by roughly 20% in the past year by focusing marketing efforts on young professionals according to Marketing Director, Theresa Carpentieri. “We will be able to put on two full scale productions this year, which we are very proud of,” she reports as a sign of prosperity.

Virginia Opera, which delivers 32 performances of four operas per season has a $6 million budget to generate with only 1/3 of the budget raised through ticket sales. Allen and Russell upgraded and increased communications with existing and potential subscribers and Board members including re-instating telemarketing as their means for encouraging growth. “Adding new marketing strategies for digital promotion and better targeted mail campaign have helped significantly in subscription sales efforts,” says Allen.  “The Opera experienced early success with both its 2012-13 Challenge Campaign and Annual Fund Campaign and also increased contributions from Board and non-Board alike have been forthcoming.” The results: four added employees and higher subscription sales. “Four-opera subscribers renewed at an amazingly high renewal rate of 86%,” Allen beams. “Similarly, regular Annual Fund contributions are ahead of the same time last year by almost 20%. These signs are all good.” In terms of reaching the next generation of opera lovers, Virginia Opera has extended its education program from last year’s 97 schools to 140 schools this year.

Lyric Opera Virginia  has a $2,000,000.00 budget of which 45% is raised through ticket sales. As a rookie company who needs to build a brand, they used extensive community outreach to earn their impressive1500 subscribers their first season. “We had as many as five education and cultural events in each location during the run of each show,” says Walsh, proving the effectiveness of “getting out there”.

Through the use of programming, good fiscal management and extensive  and well targeted outreach, Virginia opera companies seem to be debunking the perception of loftiness to a much needed second tier ticket buyer giving them means to prosper despite economic threats.  By attracting new support for the operatic medium business — and arias — continue to boom across the state.

(Mary Burruss is an Arts & Culture journalist and blogger in Central Virginia who fell in love with opera when she saw Placido Domingo sing at the Washington National Opera Company.)

 

Music Muddle Pleases the Crowd

It is imperative that I begin this review with a disclaimer:  I personally dislike the show, THE MUSIC MAN and have ever since the first time I saw the film version and further disliked it as a play.  It is important for you to understand that position, gentle readers, because my distaste for it is an important factor in my approach to this review.  In order to maintain some sense of professional balance regarding the reporting on this production, I did a lot of listening at intermission and chatting with other patrons who were unaware of my status as a reviewer plus I asked the design team a bunch of questions at the opening party.

Here is what I discerned:

The crowd L O V E D it.

Me… not so much BUT I understand why it invoked such a reaction from the audience.

The main issues here concern ALO’s budget vs. what they want to achieve in terms of community inclusion in their productions. There is an old adage in the theatre that there are three important factors in production: Cost, Time, and Quality.  You can have two of those factors all the time but never all three.  So if you have lots of time, you can put out an inexpensive production with a high level of quality but you cannot produce something quickly at a low cost with a high quality level. It goes on but you get the idea.

Big casts cost lots of money to costume, need lots of time for learning choreography, blocking and their songs to turn out a stellar show. The cast which is normally 20 something in size was doubled for this show counting in around 50 performers.  There were also loads of scheduling conflicts in this large cast making it an extremely rare occurrence to have all the performers present to learn and practice in the short rehearsal period. So cost and time were elements already working against this show.

It is important to both ALO and the community that as much of the community be involved as possible so that factor of this equation should remain a constant.

Anyway…

Here are my thoughts:

WHAT WORKED:

The singing:   There were songs in this show but I never heard them at all til there was Emily Albrink who played Marion Paroo.  Albrink  sang her songs so enchantingly, with such a sparkling soprano she made tired tunes fresh for my ears.  Her on-stage love interest, Trevor Scheunemann, was also a pleasure to hear as Harold Hill styling his tunes to similar effect, engaging ears in his speaking parts as well.  Both are  fine actors which helps as “opera acting” seems to be somewhat different than “regular musical theatre acting”. Both were aptly directed by Cate Caplin (also the choreographer) who is from Charlottesville and has done some work with The Heritage Theater Festival at UVA but now hails from LA.

Ladon Duval as Winthrop:  This kid was engaging, articulated his purposely (and masterfully) lisped lines in a strong supported voice (which was more than I could say for all the actors) and sang with the wholesome sweetness of a church bell.  I would go see him in anything from now on I liked his performance so much.

The choreography and general delivery of the “Marion the Librarian” song. It was visually appealing as a tableau with the slamming shut of books emphasizing different phrases of the song to great effect.

Meredith Awardy’s comical antics: Awardy, a world class opera singer, was hysterical as Eulalie Mackencknie Shinn often stealing scenes with her zaniness.  She has a stellar voice which was put to poor use as she was asked to sing as poorly as she could to be convincing in her role. (Disclosure:  Awardy is also my houseguest for the duration of the run of this show.)

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT:

The set.  The Lechettie designed set was a nightmarish jumble of countrified stuff with antique painted American flag- like props hung on giant blue and red drapes giving the impression that they were just floating in space for no reason.  The stage was simply littered with crate like boxes, trunks and other unnecessary props- all junky and to use a Southern word, tacky. Cheap and Quick but not good.

The costumes:  I understand that it is hard, even under the best circumstances, to create a cohesive look on a large cast but this was a mish- mash of styles and seasons that often distracted the eye rather than please it.  The play is set in the summer of an Iowa town.  There were light cotton frocks standing next to long sleeved jacketed dresses and even a velvet gown (for day? in summer? seriously?) amongst the costumes.  Designer Shon LeBlanc admitted to pulling many of the costumes from other sources – a common practice for dressing a crowd on a low budget) but even some of the original creations lie Marion’s final gown (supposedly copied from a pattern from the period) failed to convince me. Cheap, Fast, not Good.

The lighting:  I was so busy hating the costumes and set that I forgot to observe Stevie Agnew’s lights -which were gorgeously designed for FLUTE.  Someone else brought to my attention the numerous shadows on faces as I was walking out of the show.

Perhaps I am overly harsh but the set and costumes for ALO’s previous production of the season, THE MAGIC FLUTE, were so stunning it made the inconsistency painfully apparent.

WHAT OTHER PEOPLE WERE SAYING:

The couple sitting next to me just happened to be from Maryland and frequent the Washington National Opera, had just seen Arena Stage’s production of THE MUSIC MAN two weeks prior (read: credible opinions).  They thought ALO’s production was much better.  They liked the connection the performers seemed to make with the audience, the operatic voices and singing, and the mastery of Marion’s and the townspeople’s story arcs. They also enjoyed the enlarged cast because they said it gave the play a feel that the story is as much about the town as the love interest.

The audience went bananas at the end of the show- a cheering, rallying standing ovation.

Everyone was talking about Albrink and Duval how wonderful they were.

SUMMARY:

This is a classic musical and many people adore it and don’t care so much as I do about the production elements.  If you go you will most likely enjoy it and at the very least get off on the energy of the rest of the audience eating it up like a bowl of hand cranked ice cream on a hot summer afternoon. I would even go again (perhaps with blinders on) to hear Albrink and Scheunemann sing.

Since most of the production problems had to do with time or money issues, and we have already seen what ALO is capable of  design wise,with its last three productions,  it would be fun to muse about what the show could have been with a bigger budget that would offer the design team to showcase their talents more fully.

The Magic Flute- Highlights

Despite a week of power outages and an un-expected heat wave which rendered humid camping like conditions for guest -housed artists and a four day shut down on set building, Ash Lawn Operas production of THE MAGIC FLUTE turned out to be a stunning testament to the high level of artistic merit the company strives to achieve.  It was magical, entertaining and frankly AWE -SOME!

It was especially fun for me as I had spent hours interviewing staff and artists,  hanging out at rehearsals, trying on costumes and even hosting two of the imported orchestra’s musicians that needed emergency shelter due to a lack of electricity and running water at their host home.  (Click here to link to the story I wrote for C-VILLE.)

The Magritte inspired, John Pollard designed, set of giant hanging frames and light poles entwined with vines was stunning under Stevie Agnew’s flawless lighting and well used by Stage Director, Dan Ragazzi, who created dynamic visuals and the occasional intended joke through adept blocking.

Nuria Carrasco’s fantastical costume designs served to dress the otherwise sparse stage and allow the audience to focus on the performers via lots of sparkly details. Most stunning was her creation for Emily Hindrich’s Queen of the Night, a half black and half white gown made as though halves of two different dresses were sewn together.  The visual result was one person walking onto the set and another walking off.  It was totally cool and completely fitting for Hindrich’s INCREDIBLE singing.  The audience was boondoggled by her amazing ability to sing that crazy coloratura trill and staccato, nailing the high notes with a power equal to a train whistle ( but 1000 times prettier) and giving out equally strong hot chocolatey lower ones.  She ROCKED the house illiciting loud applause and bravo cheers from the audience.  (I heard at least a dozen people marveling over her performance as I left the theater.- Way to go Em!)

Margie Jervis’ clever Wild Animal Costumes worn by local children added to the fantastical feel reminiscent of Julie Taymore’s Lion King animals but on a black and white and much smaller scale.  Particularly marvelous were the two man rhino and the birds.

Other highlight performances were : Jennifer Zetlan as Pamina – her singing voice as clear and true as Pamina’s love for Tamino, Kevin Thompson’s stately Sarastro, David Portillo’s lovely tenor Tomino, and yummiliscious Craig Verm’s Papageno.  Verm so obviously loves what he does for a living it simply exudes that energy in  his performance making it clear that he is not only a fabulous singer but a crowd pleasing actor as well.  He could easily have a career in film, television, radio (but that would be a waste of his good looks) or stage (dramatic or musical theater).

Other notable performances were David Portillo’s steadfast Tamino, Jennifer Zetlan’s pure -voiced and well acted Pamina, Kevin Thompson’s booming bass and regal presence as Sarastro and Emma-Grace Dunbar’s as Papagena.  I must admit, I was jealous (along with every other woman and gay man in the audience) of Dunbar who got to wear the charmingly  flirtatious costume I tried on during my story research PLUS she got to sing a duet with Verm with his arm around her waist. “Sigh.” Well that is all part of the joy of fantasy after all.

THE MAGIC FLUTE  was so well done that I find myself actually looking forward to ALO’s production of THE MUSIC MAN (not my favorite musical) which opens July 29th at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville.

For more info click here.

 

Me in Nuria Carrasco’s costume design for Papagena in Ash Lawn Opera’s production of THE MAGIC FLUTE.

Ash Lawn Opera: Krisel Raises the Bar

 

 

I am ecstatic to share my first cover story with you today.  It is about the Ash Lawn Opera Company here in gorgeous Charlottesville, Virginia.

I had a great time researching this story.  I re-discovered my of the processes involved in live production (I studied theatre production at Boston University , acted, danced and sang in many shows and produced some live shows  including the World Premier of Bill C. Davis’, AUSTIN’S BRIDGE which starred Jeremy Jordan who was nominated this year for a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical) and deepened my admiration and adoration of opera.

If you are anywhere near Charlottesville when Ash Lawn Opera is performing this summer or you love opera and want to hear some of the top rising stars of opera sing for cheap (like $35.00 a ticket- seriously) I strongly suggest you go see them.

Click here for a link to the story. (or you can read it below)

Click here for more information on Ash Lawn Opera.

Click here for ticket information.

Thanks for reading!

Mary

Issue #24.28 :: 07/10/2012 – 07/16/2012
Ash Lawn Opera draws big-city talent to a regional stage

The people’s opera

BY MARY BURRUSS

 

Forty-four local children will perform in Ash Lawn Opera’s 2012 production season. Six of them are pictured wearing Margie Jervis-designed wild animal constumes during a recent rehearsal of The Magic Flute at Charlottesville High School’s black box theater. (Photo by John Robinson)

The air-conditioned stillness of the black box theatre at Charlottesville High School is a refreshing contrast to the oppressive summer heat outside. As I enter the rehearsal space for the Ash Lawn Opera Festival’s opener, The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), a small entourage of handlers greet me and escort me to my seat. It takes my eyes a minute to adjust to the indoor lighting. Members of the cast and production team–a group that includes expats from Korea, Russia, and Colombia—take their seats in the audience as Dan Rigazzi, the stage director, addresses the group. The electric energy of the talented, young artists is palpable, and I feel a giddy sense of privilege at being able to spend the next few hours watching a performance in its first phase of incubation, weeks before the final production will reach the stage on opening night.

Rigazzi works at The Metropolitan Opera in New York as an assistant stage director for re-mounted shows, which means that at one of the premier stages in the world, his job is to render nearly exact copies of productions that have been performed before. In this modest high school theater you can feel his hunger to put his own artistic stamp on a classic opera. He begins his inaugural rehearsal speech with a classic director’s trick, using the work of an inspirational artist (in this case Rene Magritte) as a window into his creative vision for the show.

“Magritte is a master of the marvelous,” he says. “His work is filled with portals. Through these portals, he takes us from our reality into the world of dreams.”

Rigazzi moves from a conceptual notion to concrete prerogatives—a set design of floating frames entwined with vines suggests Magritte’s benevolent surrealism. There are no hundred thousand dollar sets here. The idea of entering a magical world through a picture frame doorway is visually effective and relatively inexpensive.

This is the goal of the Ash Lawn Opera, as expressed by general director, Michelle Krisel: to produce high quality opera on a comparatively minuscule budget. The opera is thriving despite the obvious challenge of an economic climate that has many companies struggling to survive. The secret to the ALO’s success, according to Krisel, is a rare combination of high quality local and imported talent and the tireless efforts of the Charlottesville community.

If you ask her board members, the secret is Krisel’s vision, enthusiasm, and big-league connections. Whatever it is (likely all of the above), Ash Lawn Opera is singular testimony to Charlottesville’s defining juxtaposition: where small town charm meets big city sophistication.

 

Issue #24.28 :: 07/10/2012 – 07/16/2012
Ash Lawn Opera draws big-city talent to a regional stage

The people’s opera

BY MARY BURRUSS

The air-conditioned stillness of the black box theatre at Charlottesville High School is a refreshing contrast to the oppressive summer heat outside. As I enter the rehearsal space for the Ash Lawn Opera Festival’s opener, The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), a small entourage of handlers greet me and escort me to my seat. It takes my eyes a minute to adjust to the indoor lighting. Members of the cast and production team–a group that inclues expats from Korea, Russia, and Colombia—take their seats in the audience as Dan Rigazzi, the stage director, addresses the group. The electric energy of the talented, young artists is palpable, and I feel a giddy sense of privilege at being able to spend the next few hours watching a performance in its first phase of incubation, weeks before the final production will reach the stage on opening night.

Rigazzi works at The Metropolitan Opera in New York as an assistant stage director for re-mounted shows, which means that at one of the premier stages in the world, his job is to render nearly exact copies of productions that have been performed before. In this modest high school theater you can feel his hunger to put his own artistic stamp on a classic opera. He begins his inaugural rehearsal speech with a classic director’s trick, using the work of an inspirational artist (in this case Rene Magritte) as a window into his creative vision for the show.

“Magritte is a master of the marvelous,” he says. “His work is filled with portals. Through these portals, he takes us from our reality into the world of dreams.”

Rigazzi moves from a conceptual notion to concrete prerogatives—a set design of floating frames entwined with vines suggests Magritte’s benevolent surrealism. There are no hundred thousand dollar sets here. The idea of entering a magical world through a picture frame doorway is visually effective and relatively inexpensive.

This is the goal of the Ash Lawn Opera, as expressed by general director, Michelle Krisel: to produce high quality opera on a comparatively minuscule budget. The opera is thriving despite the obvious challenge of an economic climate that has many companies struggling to survive. The secret to the ALO’s success, according to Krisel, is a rare combination of high quality local and imported talent and the tireless efforts of the Charlottesville community.

If you ask her board members, the secret is Krisel’s vision, enthusiasm, and big-league connections. Whatever it is (likely all of the above), Ash Lawn Opera is singular testimony to Charlottesville’s defining juxtaposition: where small town charm meets big city sophistication.

 

Ash Lawn Opera’s general director, Michelle Krisel, who served as Placido Domingo’s assistant and has over 40 years of opera experience, has raised the festival’s profile by luring top national talents to its new stage at the Paramount Theater. (Photo by John Robinson)
Madame director
Michelle Krisel was hooked early, listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the family car radio as her mother ran errands in Los Angeles.

“Something about it thrilled me, although I had no idea what the people were singing about,” Krisel said. “There was so much energy and passion and excitement that when it was time to get out of the car, I would ask if I could stay and continue to listen.”

She began her professional career as a kid, playing piano for a ballet school where she learned she could inspire people to do beautiful things and get paid for it. Fluent in French by middle school, Krisel knew she had two great loves, language and music.

“I wanted to combine music with language but I didn’t know how,” she said.

A member of one of the first classes of women at Yale, Krisel took a year off to attend the Hochschule fur Musik in Vienna, where she witnessed live opera for the first time. She was awed.

“Opera has not only the acting but the singing, the chorus, the dancers, the set, the costumes, the orchestra…it’s the most complex of the performing arts,” she said. “I think of it as the most democratic art form because there is something for everybody. It’s full of amazing stories that make you either laugh or cry.”

She went on to study piano in Paris and via a lucky connection, landed an internship at the Paris Opera. She deduced that the people making artistic decisions were vocal coaches and accompanists and saw a way to combine her knowledge of language, affinity for analyzing music, and love of opera to make a career. She became a vocal coach and spent the next decade as an assistant conductor, working in opera houses all over the world.

In 1985, she returned to her hometown to work with the newly formed L.A. Opera. During a production of Otello she met Placido Domingo and decided that after working with “The best singer/musician of our time” she needed to rethink her life. She started a family and worked as a freelance music writer and vocal coach until she landed a job in New York City with Thea Dispeker’s agency as an artist representative for its European division managing the careers of opera singers and conductors.

Krisel ran her own agency for a while, then got a call from Domingo asking if she would like to work as his assistant at the Washington National Opera. In 1996, she moved with her family from New York City to Washington, D.C., and started what she describes as the experience of a lifetime. Working as special assistant to Domingo, she designed and led the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and oversaw his philanthropic education and outreach pursuits. Having learned the opera business, Krisel got the chance to interact with its fan base.

When she arrived in Charlottesville in 2010 to take over at Ash Lawn Opera, Krisel brought the trade experience that has made her a regular panelist on the Metropolitan Opera’s Opera Quiz, which takes place during intermission on broadcasts, but she also brought the know-how to build community programming.

“ALO is a hybrid company. It is the high end of the industry combined with the local community, the best of both put together,” she said.

Krisel feels that education is the key to sustaining and nurturing the company’s relationship with the community. Ash Lawn Opera has had an education program for 18 years, which Krisel has tweaked to be more like the ones she created for WNO. She added a family-friendly short program to appeal to newbies of all ages (this year, Mozart’s Magic Piccolo). She hired D.C.-based teaching artist Mary Gresock to run The Artists in Residence program, which introduces children ages 5 to 15 to the world of opera through costumes, character development, and singing exercises. And she’s expanded the reach of the Young Artist Program, which engages 12 to 13 young artists from all over the country to sing in short program performances at the Louisa Performing Arts Center, the Wintergreen Music Festival, and various smaller events. She has also revamped a special program for educators called Opera Connects for Teachers and upgraded KidsFest, which brings children enrolled in summer programs offered by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the local Boys & Girls Clubs to the final dress rehearsal of an opera.

The feedback?

“Michelle has brought an incredible amount of energy from the standpoint of getting out in the community and being an ambassador for Ash Lawn,” said board member Pat Davis.

 

Nuria Carrasco, the Spanish-born costume designer for Ash Lawn Opera’s production of The Magic Flute, created a 7’-plus outfit for Emily Hindrichs, the Queen of the Night. Carrasco cut a deal with a costume house in Miami to keep the costs down and the wow factor high. (Photo by John Robinson)
Talent search
“Michelle is bringing the greatest young singers in the world to Charlottesville,” said Steven Jarvi, the conductor of ALO’s The Magic Flute and a veteran of the Kansas City Symphony and the New World Symphony in Miami Beach. “These are people that I will work with for the rest of my life and I promise you will hear their names again and again… at the Met and around the world.”

Bass singer Brian Kontes, who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the 2009-10 season in the acclaimed William Kentridge production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, is returning this summer to sing the role of Der Sprecher in The Magic Flute. Krisel found Kontes through a personal/professional friendship with one of his managers, Angela Maria Blasi, whom she knew from her days as a pianist.

“The difference between Ash Lawn Festival Opera and most regional houses is how well it functions and the extremely high level of artists they bring to the stage,” explained Kontes. “Not only are the singers amazing, but the entire production team is of the highest quality.”
ALO has become a place people use to kickstart their careers.

“Young singers not only have the chance to sing and cover roles for the first time, but they get to work with more established singers, conductors, and directors who have come to prepare new operas for themselves as well,” Kontes said. “It is at festival opera companies where lifetime professional relationships are established.”

About half of the principal singers come to ALO to learn a new role; the other half come for the thrill of working with young talent in a fun setting.

Back in CHS’s black box a week into rehearsals, the show’s metamorphosis from script to stage is well underway. Rigazzi’s crisp, clear stage direction is almost alarming in contrast to the rich, free-flowing style of Jarvi’s musical direction, but the cast is clearly comfortable with the dynamic tension. Professional opera is a serious world, but Krisel wants the Ash Lawn Opera to be a playground for emerging talent.

“I enjoy the history and nature of the area, but first and foremost it is the musical fun factor that makes ALO so great,” Jarvi said. “We are having a blast and it’s an environment that is very creative, open, and enjoyable.”

Craig Verm (Papageno) playfully sticks his tongue out at David Portillo (Tamino) across the stage, while Rigazzi confers with Kontes. Dominating the set in stature and voice is bass Kevin Thompson, who plays Sarastro. It is a good thing Thompson is an opera singer because, at 6’5″, he is physically too big to look normal on a traditional stage. But here he looks great. Opera is, after all, musical theater on steroids.

The singers use sotto voce (soft voices) during staging, to save their voices for performing, but the quality of their singing is still readily apparent. The mood of the music—the tone and timing—come together, and while I don’t speak German, I get the gist of the story.
“The first full music rehearsal we had with all the principals was an apocalyptic moment,” said Krisel. “They are a dream team, the quality of their voices surpassing anything I could imagine. They were so good.”

When the cast finally does sing in full voice during the rehearsal, with only piano accompaniment, I regret that I have chosen another career. Why couldn’t I have run away to join the opera like other people join the circus?

Making magic
Later in the day, I sit in a makeshift fitting room at the Ash Lawn offices (too expensive to rent a designated space elsewhere), eavesdropping on an exchange of costume war stories between Emily Hindrichs, who came from Boston to play the Queen of the Night for the 10th time, and her “cover,” or understudy, Gillian Hollis.

“Always ask if there are stairs and how many, if the stage is raked and what type of shoes you will be wearing,” says Hindrichs, who is majestic in her blue and white floor-length cape and peacock feather headdress.

Costumes are an integral part of opera’s over-the-top experience. They help transform the performer from her everyday self into her character, visually transporting the audience from real life into a fantasy land.

“Costume, hair, and makeup day is my favorite day because I get to see how the audience will see me,” Hindrichs said.

All of designer Nuria Carrasco’s costumes are handmade and my experience in the Fashion District tells me they cost considerably more than the $3,000 the budget affords.

“I had to be creative and find a way to make my designs happen despite the money,” said Carrasco, a petite powerhouse from Spain with a killer sense of style. “So I made a deal with a costume house in Miami, so we can make really beautiful costumes for this show but not have to pay for the extra cost.”

This is the kind of out-of the-box thinking that makes the astonishing level of quality in the opera’s production elements possible.

“The half dark and half white design implies the yin yang of good and bad in all of us,” explains Carrasco, as she admires Hindrichs in her 7′-plus costume. A special arrangement has been made for her to don the headgear in the wings due to architectural obstacles between the dressing room and the stage.

From field to stage: A brief history of Ash Lawn Opera
Founded by Priscilla and David Little in 1978, the Ash Lawn Opera Festival started out as a way for a small group of local artists to perform baroque operas with piano accompaniment in the beautiful boxwood gardens at Ash Lawn-Highland, the former home of President James Monroe. Patrons drank in the relaxed, bucolic atmosphere, picnicking under a canopy of aged trees and stretching out blankets on the manicured lawn as the music of Mozart or Vivaldi drifted through the air.

In the mid-1980s, the Littles invited out-of-town singers to perform with a handful of local musicians. Community members were asked to house the guest artists, and thus the tradition of host families began. Pat Davis, a board member, was an accompanist during those early days, and she fondly recalled the challenges of performing al fresco: “We performed through the most horrendous storms, the lightning, the cows mooing, the peacocks shrieking. It would rain and we would push the up-right piano across the lawn through the mud to a tent.” Only once, according to Davis, was a show cancelled, because the piano filled up with rain water, preventing the internal hammers from striking the chords. Despite occasional weather issues, the outdoor experience of community-supported opera at Ash Lawn-Highland swiftly became a summer highlight in Central Virginia.

In 1987, Judy Walker started her 23-year run as general director and began importing conductors and small orchestras. Walker raised the profile of the company, transforming its stage into a proving ground for young talent. With the support of The College of William and Mary (the owner of Ash Lawn-Highland) the company expanded, producing two operas and a standard musical each year while simultaneously developing educational and outreach programs.

In 2002, The Ash Lawn Opera Festival Foundation became a registered nonprofit, separated from William and Mary and defined its mission: “To produce high quality opera and musicals at affordable prices; to provide training opportunities and experience for young artists and interns; to provide educational nourishment for all sectors of the community; and to enrich the cultural vitality and quality of life in Virginia.”
While the reorganization signalled the company’s ambition, the challenges of outdoor performance were proving problematic. At one point, the singers requested that the vocally competitive peacocks, a hallmark of the Ash Lawn-Highland estate, be rounded up and sent away for the summer. An editorial in a local paper instigated public outcry, and the peacocks were reinstated, but the tension between the ever improving artistic quality of the production and the public’s fondness for the venue’s ambiance became apparent.

“The performances at Ash Lawn were fun and enjoyable, but you have that open space and the voices, which are lovely, have to fill the universe rather than the theater,” explained Allen Hench, a first year ALO board member and veteran guest-artist host.

After years of debating the possibility of building a performance structure at Ash Lawn-Highland came to nothing, the ALO board voted to leave the company’s pastoral home and relocate to the Paramount Theater in 2009. Walker retired the next year, leaving the opera poised for growth but yet to establish its identity in a new home. The move furnished resources unavailable at Ash Lawn-Highland—a stage with a proscenium arch, an orchestra pit, a backstage area, and professional lighting—signalling the company’s intent to move beyond its image as a regional, outdoor festival opera. Michelle Krisel was hired as general director in 2010 and oversaw her first season of production last year.—Mary Burruss

Krisel suggests I try on a costume to get the feel of their transformational power and gain a sense of Carrasco’s genius. Carrasco selects Papagena’s dress, the most fun of the women’s costumes, complete with feather-lined mid-length tulle skirt with a plumed bustle and elaborately hand-decorated bodice. It is every girl’s fantasy and the favorite costume amongst the costume crew. Though it is fairly small, the outfit is heavy, built more like a tank than a garment.

Opera costumes require more support than traditional theatrical costumes because the singers must be able to breathe deeply into their diaphragms to generate remarkable volume. Papagena’s costume is literally constructed on a paneled, boned corset to keep the bodice in place while singer Emma-Grace Dunbar does her thing.

I slip into it and it fits as though it were made for me. I stand a little straighter, my body recalling its dance training. Carrasco adorns my head with a fanciful bird-beak headdress and invites me to slide my feet into whimsical feathered shoes. The effect is intoxicating. I am 6 years old again, prettied and poised, waiting in the wings before my first dance recital. Hindrichs, recognizing the look in my eyes, tells me what it feels like to walk on stage wearing something like that.

“It’s like you’re coming out of the tunnel at the Super Bowl! It’s like nothing else,” she says.
Recalling her own fascination with opera as a child, Krisel longs to open the world of opera to as many children as possible. Out of the 66 local artists involved in Ash Lawn Opera’s 2012 season, 44 are children.

Through a goof-up in last summer’s production of The King and I, Katherine Kahler, a third grader at St. Anne’s-Belfield, learned that in show business, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. During the King’s dramatic death scene, there was an awkward delay in which the leads, Elizabeth Roberts and Seth Carico, were forced to ad-lib lines.

“The stage manager forgot to cue the Kid Wrangler and everybody all ran out and they were all way faster than me,” Kahler said.

She had to decide whether to remain off stage or go on out and do her part.

“I was standing backstage and knew I had to go out there so (after a while) I just ran out and got in my bowing position,” she said, adding that the late arrival instigated welcome laughter from the audience during a rather emotional point in the show.

Most opera singers are not living a dream they identified as children.

“The profession chooses you,” said Verm.

Verm, whose movie star good looks (check him out on barihunks.com, a blog featuring the sexiest baritones in opera) and dreamy rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” coaxed girlish sighs from grown women during a recent fundraiser, had dreams of being a concert pianist, but gave it up due to an injury. Seeking a musical outlet, he tried singing and a voice teacher suggested he give opera a go.

Hindrichs has a similar story. Planning to teach music, she was discovered after deciding she should audition in order to explain the process to her students.

“I wouldn’t even say it was a choice,” Hindrichs said. “It was sort of an inescapable path that opened up in front of me.”

One day she was a doctoral student and the next she was on a plane to London to sing with the English National Opera. When Hindrichs sings, it is apparent why she was hired to deliver the difficult coloratura soprano part of the “Queen of the Night.” Coloratura (yes, I admit I looked it up) is very fancy singing with trills and great leaps, which requires a high level of skill to deliver effectively.

Krisel beams as she watches Hindrichs.

“Not only can Emily do the high F’s and the coloratura, so that the high notes are like stars in the sky, she also has a warm womanly beautiful voice,” Krisel said. “So you hear this warm and womanly middle, then those fireworks. You just get the whole package with her voice.”

And I get the same sense hanging around Krisel. She’s the full monty.

“Her dream is to make Charlottesville a destination for people who love opera,” said Davis, who hopes the company will eventually produce a concert opera with the local symphony and expand to a year-round performance schedule.

Allen Hench, first-year board member and a veteran guest-artist host, thinks that kind of grand vision is possible.

“This community is fertile ground for this kind of thing,” said Hench. “There are a lot of folks here who love classical music and opera. There is interest in attendance and in financial support.”

Krisel, like Magritte, hopes we will cross over into the world she discovered as a child and then learned to create as an adult. The same place I went for the briefest moment in a peacock dress: the opera.

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