TWO YEARS AGO, when Mary Ann Cashman first offered her opera appreciation course at Arnold Senior Center through Anne Arundel Community College's Lifelong Learning Program, her students ranged from novices who had never been to an opera to lifelong aficionados eager to expand their knowledge.
It's a testament to Cashman's warm exuberance and expertise that in these two years, a core of students (including myself) have remained to take the noncredit course again, and enrollment has tripled.
Starting July 14, she will teach an eight-session summer-only version of the course at Arnold Senior Center.
Cashman has taught college classes in voice and acting, and is the founder of the Takoma Park Youth Drama Group and Opera Bel Canto, a professional opera company. Last summer she traveled to Italy to coach American singers at the Amalfi Coast Music Festival and Institute in Vietri sul Mare. She also coached at the Shaker Mountain Performing Arts Festival in New York's Berkshire Mountains. She also teaches a class in stage movement for singers at Catholic University in Washington.
With a doctorate in education and a passion for opera, she has found a new source of inspiration in her senior students.
"Love of music grows with age," Cashman says. "Music nourishes the soul and unlocks our creative spirit, and according to `The Mozart Effect' can even heal the body."
For opera addicts, she adds, "We never say about opera that we've been there and done that. One performance inspires us to see another and another."
Senior students enjoy a different video opera each week, hearing familiar and less-known operas. The spring series included favorites such as Gounod's Faust, Verdi's Nabucco and Puccini's Turandot, but instead of offering Strauss's familiar Der Rosenkavalier, Cashman served up his sensuous Salome to broaden students' experiences.
She also offered such rarely performed works as Verdi's Stiffelio, increasing its accessibility by selecting a video starring Jose Carreras in the title role. The tenor superstar played the charismatic Protestant minister who discovers that his wife - played here by diva Catherine Malfitano - had been unfaithful.
Using audio and video recordings in her presentations, Cashman adds excitement by offering more than one version of favorites. For Madama Butterfly, Cashman used videos recorded at Italy's Arena di Verona and La Scala. Inviting us to compare the two prima donnas' abilities to move gracefully despite kimono costume constraints, Cashman introduced aspects of stage techniques comparing their ability to fall naturally.
"It's important that singers fall without making any noise. The audience shouldn't be distracted worrying about the singer's well-being," Cashman says.
Dispelling "the myth that opera is the province of overweight singers," Cashman says, "singers are athletes who may be compelled to scamper up a ladder and sing a ringing aria from the top rung." Proving her point in doing precisely that was bare-chested bass Samuel Ramey, devilishly handsome in Boito's Mefistofele. As Salome, Maria Ewing was unforgettable in her multiveil dance, and baritone Michael Devlin equally memorable as John the Baptist.
Cashman's video choice proved serendipitous in a February class when we recognized the young, animated conductor of Kirov's opera Eugene Onegin as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Yuri Temirkanov. Discovering that BSO wanted a copy of the legendary video, we happily delivered one to a pleased Temirkanov.
Other fringe benefits have included trips to hear first-rate performances of seldom-offered operas. A dozen of us traveled to New York's Metropolitan to hear Placido Domingo in Sly, and a later trip to Kennedy Center offered Kiri Te Kanawa in perhaps her farewell performance in Vanessa at Washington Opera. Last month, we were invited to a dress rehearsal of Washington Summer Opera's Barber of Seville at Catholic University.
After two years of weekly opera classes, we have barely scratched the surface and look forward to continuing our studies this summer, anticipating the surprises that await.
Information: Arnold Senior Center, 410-222-1922.