Opera Grand Rapids, the state’s longest-running professional opera production company, is celebrating its 50th season with pride in the past and expectations for the future.
“This organization is a treasure,” said general director Anne Berquist. “It’s very rare in a city this size to have an opera company that has continued for 50 years. We are proud of what we’ve been, but we are moving forward. It’s a combination of tradition and all the new innovations. Both are exciting.”
“We can continue another 50 years and beyond,” said James Meena, the new artistic director. “We are working on developing quality not just in our productions but in our administration and board. We are building the kind of company that will continue.”
The 50th season includes something for everyone: two grand, fully staged, classical operas; the local debut of a new work about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; a collegiate choral contest and a celebration gala featuring an opera-crossover trio from “America’s Got Talent.”
As a nod to its history, Opera Grand Rapids will close its 50th season by presenting “The Marriage of Figaro,” which was the organization’s first production years ago. Although the music will be the same popular piece composed by Mozart in 1786, the 2018 production will be very different from the show presented at Calvin College on June 2, 1967.
“It’s amazing how opera has been changing over the 400 years of the art form,” Meena said “It’s constantly changing as audience and societal tastes demand.”
For instance, acting styles have changed over the years. Think how different the acting is in an old black-and-white movie compared to a current sitcom. Similarly, today’s audiences expect more dramatic acting from opera singers.
“Our productions are cast with singing actors to meet the expectations of drama today,” Meena said.
Today’s audiences also have technical expectations. Back in 1967 performances of Italian operas didn’t offer English subtitles projected on the stage. Such projections have become common since the 1980s. Audiences have also come to expect elaborate sets and costumes.
“‘The Marriage of Figaro’ is visually stunning,” Meena said. “It relies on lighting and digital projections to create the ‘wow’ factor.”
One way opera companies can afford these improvements is through partnering with other companies. The basics of “The Marriage of Figaro,” which will be presented at DeVos Performance Hall May 4-5, were developed for a production last spring in Toledo, where Meena is artistic advisor for the Toledo Opera. Meena is also general director for Opera Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. Opera Grand Rapids is partnering with both opera companies on the productions in this year’s season.
“It helps us elevate our artistic standards and saves money, 10 to 30 percent,” Meena said. The partnership increases bargaining power in booking talent, he explained, and greatly reduces the expense for costumes, sets and marketing.
But a partnership is not the same as creating a touring production, Berquist pointed out. The local production still has its own finishing touches such as local chorus and local orchestra.
“It’s still an Opera Grand Rapids show,” she said.
The season opens Oct. 13-14 with “Rigoletto,” one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most recognized works. Based on a tragic tale by French writer Victor Hugo, it’s the story of a conniving court jester, a promiscuous duke, and the innocent daughter caught between them.
“When it opened in 1851 it ran for five hours,” Meena said. “Our production will run three hours, not by cutting the music but by compressing production elements and not having as many intermissions. That is the beauty of great art. It’s adaptable.”
Meena said the show also features a young, attractive leading man, Raffaele Abete.
“The duke is played by a tall, handsome, Italian tenor,” he said. “Most of the women in the audience will fall in love with him.”
“I Dream,” a new work by Douglas Tappin, was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. More than any other production in the season it will transport the audience back to the era of 1966-1968 when the Opera Association of West Michigan was being born. “I Dream” concentrates on the last 36 hours of Dr. King’s life and will be presented at Fountain Street Church as a “concert with action,” Meena said. In addition to a compelling story, the production combines classical music with jazz and pop, he said. It will be performed on Jan. 15, the holiday celebrating King’s birthday.
“Part of our mission is to create new works and challenge our community as to what kind of community we will be,” Meena said. “We are reaching into the community, bringing people together for a shared experience.”
Opera Grand Rapids will also take a step into popular culture with a celebration gala May 18 featuring Forte, an opera crossover trio that was introduced on the popular television program, “America’s Got Talent.”
“I encourage people to see their website,” Meena said. “They do a wonderful piece based on the theme from ‘Game of Thrones.’ The gala is going to be a huge, wonderful event.”
The season also includes the 12th annual Collegiate Vocal Competition Concert on April 15. Berquist said students from various Michigan colleges will compete in the event which introduces new performers to the real world of opera.
“It’s a good educational opportunity. Students get valuable feedback and an opportunity to be involved with the company,” she said.
Opera Grand Rapids is celebrating its history with a blog of 50 stories to be published over the year.
Subscriptions for the 2017-2018 season are available through the box office, (616) 451-2741, or 1320 East Fulton St. Individual tickets to performances at DeVos Performance Hall begin at $25 for adults and $5 for students. Tickets to “I Dream” are $39 for adults and $5 for students.
“To experience opera to the fullest you have to experience it live. It’s a grand spectacle,” Meena said. “Part of our responsibility is to recreate these works so people don’t have to go to New York. They can experience it in their own backyard.”