Two small operas open new seasons

Undaunted despite their tiny budgets and spaces

Stage: theater, music, dance

November 06, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Aweek after Halloween, ghosts are still causing trouble, at least on two local stages. A fake channeler to the spiritual world gets an unexpected fright during a seance in Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, being presented by the Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore. And the specter of an unattainable love haunts Jules Massenet's Werther, being presented by Opera Vivente.

These are the season-opening productions for both companies, whose enterprising efforts provide a complement to the larger-scale operatic activity in the region. Municipal Opera, which began in 1991 primarily as an outlet for minority singers to perform major roles, regularly engages vocalists from across the local community's ethnic spectrum. Opera Vivente, billed as "Baltimore's chamber opera company," is entering its sixth season of featuring young professional singers mostly from the mid-Atlantic.

There are distinct artistic differences between the companies, but they have a few things very much in common - minuscule budgets, intimate performance spaces and a preference for performing operas in English.

Language isn't an issue for Municipal Opera's season-opener, since The Medium and another short piece by Menotti on the same bill, The Telephone, were written in English. These two operas from the mid-1940s are among the most popular Menotti wrote.

In The Telephone, a two-character, one-act comedy, phone-addict Lucy drives boyfriend Ben to distraction - and to a fit of if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em desperation.

Traditionally, The Telephone is paired on a double bill with The Medium, which makes a fascinating contrast. This compact two-acter introduces us to Madame Flora, who is aided in her deception of gullible folks by her daughter Monica and a mute boy named Toby. When Flora feels a hand on her throat during an otherwise routinely rigged seance, she blames Toby - with tragic results.

"Menotti seems to be one of the best choices for Municipal Opera," says company founder and CEO Dorothy Lofton Jones. "His operas just seem to work well for us and are easy to cast. This year, I came across some very grand talent. We have singers from Peabody, Towson University and Morgan State."

Like most arts organizations large and small, Municipal Opera has had its share of trouble raising money. "It has been kind of slow," says Jones. "We're struggling with it." One result is that the Menotti double bill will be accompanied by piano rather than orchestra, as was the case in the charming production of Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief last spring.

"It gets depressing sometimes," Jones says of the budget strain, "but when I see all these young people looking for a place to sing and willing to work with us, to do whatever it takes to keep the company going, I'm happy."

There will be alternating casts for the Menotti operas. In The Medium, the role of Madam Flora will be shared by Diana Cantrelle and Joan Dunn; Alexandra Phillips and Kelli Young will alternate as Monica; Brock Pilkerton, David Peck and Andrew Nuckolls will alternate as Toby.

In The Telephone, Rebecca Gordon and Jocelyn Taylor will take turns as Lucy, Marvin Lynn and Kevin Carr as Ben. Ron Oaks is the director. Charles Hayes will conduct.

The Municipal Opera's 2003-2004 season includes performances of Handel's Messiah next month and Puccini's Madame Butterfly in March.

At Vivente

While Madame Flora struggles with something she cannot see, the unfortunate character of Werther struggles with something he can see but cannot have - his ideal woman, Charlotte, betrothed to another man. After she is married, she is haunted by the memory of Werther. He tries one more time to kindle her love, but ends up borrowing her husband's pistols to put himself out of his misery.

Although dismissed by some as a lightweight, Massenet could bring characters to life on the stage in memorable fashion. Werther (pronounced vair-TAIR), an 1892 work based on a Goethe novel, is a case in point.

"I love Massenet's music," says John Bowen, Opera Vivente's founding director. "We've always tried to present as broad a spectrum of works as possible, but 19th-century repertoire is the hardest for us to do because so much of it is on a grand scale. But Werther is really just about two people, especially after the first act, and that increasing intimacy works well in our space."

That space, a hall at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, does not allow much room for an orchestra.

"For this production, we will have the largest orchestra we have ever used - 17 players," Bowen says. "Logistically, we found out that's the absolute limit." That's less than a quarter of the number of musicians used for Werther in a regular opera house, but Bowen has had considerable experience and success in reducing the dimensions of an original score to chamber size without losing the essence.

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