Though Opera Wilmington may be relatively new to our area’s arts scene, the art form’s impact on locals, even minorities, has a history long before the nonprofit launched in 2013. Take, for instance, the first African-American opera singer to make it to a worldwide stage: Caterina Jarboro. Jarboro—born in 1898, died in 1986—was the first female African-American to sing a major role in “Aida” with an all-white opera company in the U.S.
“She grew up in the post-Wilmington massacre days and moved to New York as a teenager,” tells Jenny Callison, president of Opera Wilmington (OW). Part of OW’s mission is doing educational outreach, one of which was presented in a symposium on Jarboro’s story in February 2018.
“[We want] to raise awareness of opera singers of color,” Callison continues. “[Jarboro] had a major career in Europe but sang in the U.S. later in her career. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hubert Eaton and publisher Thomas Jervay, she returned to Wilmington to perform at Thalian Hall. [Thalian’s executive director] Tony Rivenbark can tell some fascinating stories about her!”
As part of the symposium, OW hosted a concert with African-American soprano Jemeesa Yarborough, who performed selections from Jarboro’s repertoire. In addition, performances by the Williston Alumni Community Choir and the Snipes Academy Chorus joined the show.
Next February, per African American History Month, OW will host another symposium and award a Caterina Jarboro scholarship. Plus, they will welcome baritone Joshua Conyers, who sang the role of Rigoletto, the Italian libretto of the same name, written by Francesco Maria. (Opera Wilmington put on “Rigoletto” in 2015.)
“Conyers is an up-and-comer and will be a member of Washington National Opera’s Young Artist Program at the Kennedy Center for the 2018-19 season,” Callison notes.
But before they get into the 2019 year, OW is returning to the Lumina Festival of Arts at UNCW this week, with artistic director Nancy King overseeing the production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus (The Bat).” “We wanted to do something light, accessible and fun for everyone,” Callison says. “After last year’s highly successful tragedy, ‘Carmen,’ it was time for a change of pace and a work done entirely in English.”
The show takes a light-hearted look at revenge through comedy, and includes mistaken identities, pranks and hijinks, as well as colorful scenery and design, as the setting takes place in a costume ball. The overall show provides a nice respite of escapism.
“For a couple of hours, you can completely lose yourself in an intoxicating score and hilarious plot,” says King, who has performed in the show as both Adele and Rosalinda. King has cast Shannon Kessler Doley as Rosalinda and Michelle Lerch as Adele this go ‘round.
“Adele is a chambermaid with grandiose dreams of becoming an actress,” Lerch says. “I think the thing I love most about her is how spunky and brave she is. She’s never worried about fitting in with the upper class because in her heart she knows one day she will be just as famous.
Rounding out the main players are Melvin Ezzell (Alfred), Carl Samet (Dr. Blind), John Dooley (Dr. Falke), Jeffrey Jones (Frank), Suzette Hartsfield (Ida), and Natalie Pressley (Ivan), all of whom King praises for on-point chemistry and comedic timing. King even cast WHQR’s classical music host Gina Gambony, no stranger to theatre, in the role of Frosch the Jailer in Act 3. “It has been delightful watching her step into her first opera,” King tells.
“There will also be cameo singers, and high-profile individuals in Act 2, who burst into totally unrelated songs as part of the batty nature of this scene,” Callison notes.
Composed by Johann Strauss Jr.—nicknamed “The Waltz King”—the score’s energy is upbeat while the vocals are challenging. Cera Finney will play Prince Orlofsky, the host of the party in Act 2. The prince takes at his will, does what he wants, and respects the autonomy of others in doing the same. “I love how he simply observes and hardly interferes!” Finney tells. “And, yes, I am playing a man, and in my costume, I must say, I’m rather dashing.”
Joshua Collier will take on Gabriel von Einstein and appreciates the surface-level simplicity of Strauss’ composition. “However, in actuality, there is a great deal of musical specificity and complexity in creating the appearance of simplicity and ease,” Collier explains. “Musically, the finale of Act 2 is some of the most beautiful but also the most virtuosic. Also, the final trio in Act 3 has difficulty due to a duality of character, but you’ll have to come to find out exactly what I mean.”
The ensemble numbers have been most challenging, according to Finney. The coordination of choreography, composition and vocal arrangement of 30 people can be tough. “But when it comes together, it’s extremely satisfying,” she adds.
For King, overcoming obstacles in editing dialogue and translating it to English from German has been time-consuming. “The end result is a much tighter story, and a faster pace,” King promises.
Conducting the orchestra will be Dr. Joe Hickman who has had only four rehearsals to tighten the sounds from 21 orchestra members. Local and regional professionals are a part of the lineup, which was led by concertmaster and UNCW music professor, Dr. Danijela Zezelj-Gualdi.
OW’s show has been designed by costumer Mark Sorenson, with set by Max Lydy, to reflect 19th century Vienna. OW hosts Opera Camp every summer to introduce young students to the art form.
This year’s class constructed a chandelier, which will be a highlight in Act 2’s ball scene. “I won’t give away the materials used, but I would encourage the audience to look up and try and figure it out themselves,” King says.
“Die Fledermauch” opens Friday night, with four shows taking place through July 29. On Friday, July 27, Poor Piggy’s food truck will be on site selling barbecue and brisket. Beer will be for sale, as well.
OW will continue hosting more shows in 2018 to help fulfill their goal of bringing quality opeartic works to greater Wilmington. They cast seasoned and emerging artists, and strive to appeal to a wide range of ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, and ages.
“[We have a] second smaller winter production [coming] on December 2,” Callison foretells. “We’ll stage ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors,’ a short opera Gian Carlo Menotti wrote in the 1950s for television. The plot concerns a crippled, impoverished boy and his widowed mother who unexpectedly house the three kings on their way to visit the infant Jesus.”
They’ll also host a house concert in October and a Parisian-themed concert at a local restaurant next spring, alongside other informal events like a musical wine tasting. Ticket sales from the Lumina Festival opera will cover only about a third of stage costs for “Die Fledermaus.” The nonprofit always accepts donations and sponsorships to continue their mission.