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POWERFUL PASSION: Opera Wilmington stages Puccini’s famed tale of love, “La Bohème”

Americans for the Arts (AFTA) conducts the Arts and Economic Prosperity study every five years to examine the relationship between the arts and spending in the United States. The last study was conducted in 2015, so we are coming up on another next year. The 2015 study reported arts and culture generated $2.12 billion in direct economic activity in North Carolina. Spending supported almost 72,000 jobs and generated $201.5 million in revenue for local governments and the state.

Jemeesa Yarborough performs as Mimì in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” produced by Opera Wilmington. Photo courtesy of Opera Wilmington

It should come as no surprise to residents of the Cape Fear area. A lot of the growth we have seen has been driven by people relocating here in recent years.  Over and over again, the cultural attractions are what tips the scales in our favor.  Beach towns up and down the coast may come with one or two entertainment options seven nights a week, but in ILM we have a plethora nightly. It makes us a great place to relocate. As I say frequently, “If you are staying home, it is because you want to.”

In addition to a local (and state) symphony, multiple theatre companies, jazz and blues groups, an abundance of visual artists, Cinematique art house film series co-sponsored by Thalian Hall and WHQR, and several film festivals, we have a resident opera company: Opera Wilmington.  It’s a natural fit with the connection between light opera and musical theatre— and all the elements that have thrived in our arts community for many years. Yet, it took until 2014 to make it happen. Nancy King, artistic director of Opera Wilmington, is an accomplished performer in her own right.

As part of their 2019 series, King will direct Puccini’s “La Bohème.” It is one of the great favorites for both opera lovers and musical theatre fans alike. The powerful story follows the exploits of the bohemians, a group of artists living in Paris, in the 19th century.

The world met “La Bohème” in 1896 at the premier directed by Arturo Toscanini.  It remains the only Puccini opera with an existent recording of the original conductor, because 50 years later in 1946, RCA Victor recorded Toscannin directing the show. Fifty years after, at the 100-year anniversary, in 1996, Jonathan Larson‘s modern adaptation, known as the rock musical “Rent,” debuted on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre.    

Since its inception, the opera has continued to hold people’s imaginations, with its romantic depiction of the artistic life.  In “La Bohème,” Marcello and Rodolfo shiver in their Paris garret on a winter’s night. In desperation they burn a script in progress to keep warm. Slowly, their friends join them until the landlord arrives demanding their rent. As artists they seem to be trying to figure this piece out.

Others depart to explore the nightlife and leave Rudolfo alone to work. Enter the beautiful, mysterious and seriously ill girl next door, Mimi. She seeks out a living embroidering beautiful pictures, and she and Rudolfo hit it off, to say the least.  But she has Tuberculosis. So young love, tragic impending death, artists pursuing their passions, and the struggles to eat while staying true to  self comes to powerful life with Puccini’s passionate music.

Jonathan Kaufamnn as Rodolfoas Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” produced by Opera Wilmington. Photo courtesy of Opera Wilmington

“La Bohème” has everything: love, passion, struggle, death, redemption and beauty, all in the midst of chaos. Even though she is busy getting this epic show on stage, Nancy King took the time to answer encore’s questions about Opera Wilmington’s “La Boheme.”

e: Why “La Bohème”—why now?

Nancy King (NK): We’ve been dreaming of producing “La Bohème” since the company formed. Arguably the most popular and famous opera in the repertoire, the company was lucky enough to have found the right combination of singers to produce the heart-wrenching drama. The story itself, centered on struggling artists trying to live and love in 19th century Paris, feels timeless. For audience members who have loved “La Bohème” for a long time, and for those who are new to the opera, we hope to transport them into a story of love and loss, and the expression of those emotions that comprise our everyday lives.     

e: Have you performed in it or directed it before?      

NK: I have personally loved “La Bohème” for over 30 years, mostly because of the immediacy of the musical emotion and Puccini’s superbly written melodies, which fit the human voice so well. Alas, I’m not a Puccini singer (and if you don’t quite understand that statement, please, come to the production this summer and you will), so I’ve never performed any of the female roles.

It is my first time directing the show, and it’s intoxicating getting to know all the characters intimately. It’s a fascinating journey into the lives of each artist, and finding out what really motivates them.

e: Tell us about the guest artists you are bringing in: How did you select them?

NK: Our production features two outstanding lead singers, Jemeesa Yarborough as Mimì (who was our guest artist in the 2018 Exploring Opera Symposium, which celebrates the life of Caterina Jarboro), and Jonathan Kaufmann, who is new to the company. We heard both singers in auditions last September, and they took our breath away. 

At the end of Jemeesa’s audition, the entire panel was crying. The singers are just true professionals who embody their craft, [and] possess staggeringly beautiful voices full of emotion and power. They are in short remarkable. 

e: At what stage of the rehearsal process do they arrive?

NK: Opera traditionally has a very short rehearsal process, and many of our performers come with one or two productions of “La Bohème” already under their belts.  All the leads arrive with their music learned and memorized, ready to put finishing touches on it by our new conductor, Daniel Brier.  We’ll stage for a couple of weeks, and then move into dress rehearsals and performances.  It a stressful schedule, but a labor of love!

e: What is the experience like for local performers? Why is it important to the production and our community?

NK: Community members of Opera Wilmington take up several roles in our production: Carl Samet and David Williams, both well-known singers in our area, round out the cast. We have many new members in our chorus this year, which comprises 30 local singers, teachers, UNCW students and alumni. Of course, we have a fabulous orchestra of professional musicians in the area. Opera Wilmington is happy to support the work of over 80 people during the summer, often many of whom wouldn’t have theatrical/musical employment during that time.    

e: Tell us a little about your Opera Camp and how it fits in with the production? How can people get involved?

NK: Another perk of producing “La Bohème” is the appearance of a children’s chorus in Act Two. Students enrolled in Opera Camp work on all aspects of the production, including learning their music, choreography and staging, helping construct a portion of their costume, and the scenery in Act Two, and learning all about what it takes to put on an opera.

The students are brought in prior to beginning rehearsals with adults, so they can get a taste for how the opera world works. New this year are two camps: June 24-28 for rising 4th-7th grades; and July 1-5 for rising 8th-12th grades. Folks who want more information can email Nancy King at kingn@uncw.edu.     

e: What do you have on the horizon for the next five years for Opera Wilmington?  What do you need from the community to make this happen?

NK: We’ve just chosen our opera for July 2020, but you’ll have to come to “La Bohème” to find out what that is! The main goal of the company over the next five years is to keep increasing the production values of our shows and our audience reach. I’m still in shock at how much money it takes to put on an opera (no secret here, our budget averages approximately $85,000-$90,000 per summer). My hope is the community will continue to support our cultural gem for many years, with individual and corporate support, and by attending our productions. 

We’re also looking for new ways to build our audiences, involving as many community partners as possible on different events during the year, so we can ensure longevity. 

DETAILS
Opera Wilmington Behind the Scenes
July 13, 10 a.m. • Free
La Bohème, July 19, 26, 7 p.m.
July 21, 28, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $25-$60
operawilmington.org

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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