Dramatic history

Annapolis Opera marks 35 years of high notes, some tense moments

January 30, 2008|By MARY JOHNSON | MARY JOHNSON,Special to The Sun

At the opening event of Annapolis Opera's 35th anniversary season, President Leah Solat announced that it also was marking the start of the 25th season for the company's artistic director, Ronald J. Gretz.

Her remark inspired me to delve into the history of the company, with the help of Jean Jackson, who began the first of three terms as president when Gretz was chosen as director in 1983.

The opera was founded in 1972 when Martha Wright brought The Medium to the Annapolis Hilton, followed by The Beggar's Opera at the Naval Academy and Madama Butterfly at St. John's College's Key Auditorium. Eventually operas were performed at Annapolis High School until Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts was established in the early 1990s.

Richard Getke acted as general manager, coming from New York to direct and bringing most of the singers with him, Jackson recalled of those early years. After initially serving as production manager in this all-volunteer company, she signed on as Getke's assistant, doing all the rehearsal notes. She recalled Braxton Peters, now the longtime Annapolis Opera stage director, in 1982 "singing Schaunard in La Boheme and the following year the lead in Man of La Mancha and Ron serving as rehearsal pianist and the local person who had access to local singers."

After financial difficulties precipitated Getke's departure, Jackson recalled the opera board turning to Gretz, who had been a popular and dependable guest conductor.

"We recognized his talent, and we also got two for one with Brax as the stage director," Jackson said.

In an interview last week, Gretz recalled being a rehearsal pianist for Don Pasquale and in 1983 conducting Rigoletto with tenor Richard Leach (later of the Metropolitan Opera) and later doing Cosi Fan Tutti.

"I love opera, and I love conducting," he said, recalling that the first operas he conducted were The Telephone for Peabody Opera and Die Fledermaus for Annapolis Opera in 1981 when contacted by Getke.

"Ron was always absolutely easy to work with, never temperamental," Jackson said. "I've never seen Ron agitated. He's gracious even when he must be annoyed."

At Peabody, Gretz recalled directors who yelled at singers and vowed that he "would never yell at a singer. We want to make singers happy, to be relaxed to do their best on stage." He added, "Everybody who auditions for us knows we're a nice company to work with."

To this day, he said, the board controls the opera company and raises money. He recommends five or six operas to the board and leaves it to the members to choose.

"I prefer it this way because the choice is their decision based on cost factors like the number of acts, how large an orchestra is required, how many pieces are in the sets and difficulty of moving them," he said.

He and Peters are what Gretz describes as "in total agreement about singers. In six days of Carmen auditions we heard over 200 singers, and separately we each came up with exactly the same singers for each role in the upcoming production."

Recalling challenges, Gretz said, "Almost with every opera we've done, we've lost singers -- often the day before. Every opera we have a calamity -- a singer gets sick and needs to be replaced -- from Carmen to Fledermaus to Don Giovanni to Magic Flute."

Gretz has repeatedly snatched triumphant performances from the jaws of looming tragedy as he did with a 1997 Carmen, widely considered a "jinxed opera" that struck in Annapolis when an ill baritone felled nearly the entire cast. And in spring 2006, the actor playing Papageno in The Magic Flute lost his voice one day before the opening. Fortunately singer Peter Couchman could call upon his friend baritone David Adam Moore, who'd recently sung the role at New York City Opera, to travel to Annapolis to sing the part while Couchman acted the role on stage.

More recently, Gretz has honed his multitasking talent the last two weekends by attending a production meeting for Carmen before screening singers for the opera's annual Vocal Competition scheduled for next weekend. Eight finalists were culled last weekend from more than 100 applicants to perform at 2 p.m. Sunday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. This popular event is offered at no charge to the public.

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