Since 2012, opera has been turning up at The Famous Neons Unplugged, the Arts Center at Dunham, Westwood Presbyterian Church and beyond. Three companies with tiny staffs and huge ambitions demonstrate the art form’s enormous range and potential, creating innovative, high-quality productions of 17th and 18th century operas, world premieres and even Wagner, the operatic summit.
Sample all three groups — Queen City Chamber Opera, NANOWorks and Cincinnati Chamber Opera — during a collection of fall performances that’s been dubbed OctOperFest.
Queen City Chamber Opera (QCCO) was first on the scene, co-founded by Isaac Selya, a University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) grad student in conducting, and Antoine-François López, a CCM undergrad. Since its first production in June 2012, QCCO has staged three operas and found a home at the Arts Center at Dunham in Price Hill. Selya took over after López moved to Europe and plans to produce Wagner’s Siegfried for OctOperFest.
Siegfried is the third installment of Wagner’s massive four-part “Ring of the Nibelungs,” a series whose outsized performance and technical demands are beyond most companies (including, to date, the Cincinnati Opera). That doesn’t faze Selya, who masterminded an astoundingly impressive Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre last May (this year’s performance of Siegfried will also focus on the first act).
Siegfried’s cast calls for two tenors with non-stop music, but Selya found singers up to the task, again via CCM. Because Wagner is so rarely staged, Selya gets his pick of top orchestral musicians, especially brass players. “They never get to play it, so they come to me,” he says. “We’re developing a sound, and it’s the best orchestra I’ve conducted.”
The QCCO is working with the Walküre production team, including the Wagner Society of Cincinnati, whose president Jim Slouffman directs the show at Dunham theater this fall.
NANOWorks debuted in the autumn of 2012, founded by composer Jennifer Jolley, a CCM grad student in composition, and writer Kendall A. as a forum for new works. Its first production was Jolley’s opera Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens, presented as part of Classical music movement Classical Revolution.
In October, NANOWorks presents Day of the Dead (location to be determined), an evening of four operas that are national and regional premieres.
None last more than 45 minutes and the storylines bend the standard themes of love and death. Apoidea recounts the life and death of a queen bee, Lifespan of a Fly says it all and two operas — jointly titled She, After — imagine the lives of Nora from A Doll’s House and Alice from Alice in Wonderland after their stories end.
Some operas have only one singing role and the instrumental forces are equally small. Jolley recruits her casts from local musicians.
“Singers are always challenged by new music,” she says, “But they’re eager to create roles and that increases their facility with contemporary scores.”
Cincinnati Chamber Opera is the creation of singers Shawn Mlynek and Autumn West, both CCM alums. Their first production was in February 2013, and this past February a surprisingly large crowd braved a snowy Friday night to hear a moving, beautifully sung performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in Christ Church Cathedral.
The Chamber Opera’s October production is a double bill of Brundibar, a children’s opera, and Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung (The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death), works written and performed by Jewish prisoners in Theresienstadt, the Czech concentration camp; the opera’s composers and most of its participants were murdered by the Nazis.
“This is stepping out from what we usually do, but that’s what art is about,” Mlynek says.
The casting is also a departure — Brundibar is written for children’s voices. “We have two fantastic high school students for the brother and sister, and we’re recruiting for the children’s ensemble,” says Mlynek, who performs in these productions with CCM students. CCM alum Omer Ben-Seadia returns to Cincinnati to direct.
Cincinnati Chamber Opera is collaborating with the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education for the show. “They’ve been immensely helpful in getting the word out and securing grant funding,” Mlynek says.
The QCCO, NANOWorks and Cincinnati Chamber Opera have much in common. Their founders virtually echo each other when describing their respective points of origin, missions and challenges.
“Kendall and I wanted to create our own operas and we realized we had to do it ourselves,” Jolley says of NANOWorks. “And along the way, we could help other composers, librettists, directors and especially singers who want to create new works.”
The Chamber Opera’s Mlynek recalls that he and West were discussing upcoming roles and discovered they both wanted to sing Handel’s Acis and Galatea. “We stumbled into creating a company,” he says.
In a similar notion, QCCO’s Selya says, “Why not do it on my own, where I can choose the repertoire I want, handpick the musicians and put my name on it?”
There’s persistent hassle in finding rehearsal and performance spaces, securing performers, arranging publicity and marketing, and the never-ending concerns of funding.
No one is doing this full-time. Jolley teaches at Ohio Wesleyan University, Mlynek and West have singing and teaching gigs, and Selya serves as assistant conductor for the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and is on the Cincinnati Opera’s music staff.
But there are signs of growth in the organizations’ structures. Jesse Leong, a CCM senior, handles a variety of roles for QCCO. “I couldn’t do it without him,” Selya says. AikKhai Pung, a CCM alum and faculty member, is NANOWorks’ music director. And Cincinnati Chamber Opera will have two CCM arts administration interns during its next season.
The QCCO has their aforementioned home at Dunham Arts; Cincinnati Chamber Opera and NANOWorks seek out small venues throughout the community. QCCO and the Chamber Opera have 501(c)(3) status; NANOWorks hopes to be approved soon. Defying the odds, the companies pay performers a small honorarium. And all are passionately committed to sustaining Cincinnati’s artistic community.
“There’s no place like Cincinnati for balancing its size, the level of talent and audiences interested in opera.” Selya says.
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