Bohemian rhapsody

On a history-making evening in January, Asheville will rub cultural shoulders with big cities the world over.

In collaboration with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, the Asheville Lyric Opera Company makes its formal debut with a performance of La Boheme.

“Asheville has embraced opera for years, but there has never been a grassroots professional company here,” explains ALO General and Artistic Director David Craig Starkey, adding, “I think people here will be immensely amazed by its success.”

Five years ago, Starkey dreamed of starting an opera company somewhere in America. When his professional music career brought him to the Brevard Music Center a few years back, he became hooked on Western North Carolina’s majestic beauty. But, he insists, “The final decision for Asheville to become the home for the new opera company was based on the overwhelming number of exceptional people who live in this area. Asheville offers tremendous diversity to an arts organization.”

The administrative groundwork for the company began a year ago this month. To illuminate the coming opera, Starkey presented a glimpse of future grandeur in a performance titled Live From Broadway (showcasing love songs from Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story and Carousel), which was performed at the Diana Wortham Theatre in August.

So confident is Starkey of his vision that he chose to stage the most celebrated opera ever performed. La Boheme, a dramatic tragedy composed by Giacomo Puccini, is sung in Italian and peppered with some of classical music’s most beloved arias. The opera — based on the life Puccini lived while attending the Milan Conservatory — made the composer’s name; the roles it contains have been central to the careers of almost all great singers ever since.

Scene I unfolds on Christmas Eve in picturesque, 1830s-era Paris. In a garret in Paris’ Latin Quarter, painter Marcello and poet Rodolfo try to keep warm by burning pages from Rodolfo’s latest work. A knock on the door announces Mimi, their downstairs neighbor, who is seeking a flame for her extinguished candle. Rodolfo re-lights the wick, and passion is instantly ignited between the two. As Mimi tells the story of her solitary life to Rodolfo, love’s unrelenting spell is cast; their fate is soon sealed when they move in together. But Rodolfo’s incessant jealously greatly distresses Mimi, and her fatal illness, exacerbated by their profound poverty, causes Rodolfo to reconsider their union. The rest, as they say, is history.

“This legendary story has influenced and transformed more movies and Broadway shows than any other opera in history,” Starkey affirms. The popular Broadway play Rent — which exemplifies New York City’s bohemian lifestyle of the ’90s — is one updated version. Audiences may also recall that La Boheme framed a pivotal scene in the film Moonstruck. Cher — tears streaming down her face as the music seduces her — visibly warms toward co-star Nicolas Cage, the beauty of the opera expertly propelling the movie’s story line.

Intensifying the potency of the ALO’s first performance, the production will be semistaged. This means that, unlike most operas, the symphony will be on stage with the performers. In keeping with the Parisian theme, musicians will be dressed in Paris cafe attire (black pants, white shirts, berets), and will perform on backstage risers.

Although the Asheville Symphony Orchestra has never before been semistaged, Executive Director Steven Hageman believes that this configuration will greatly improve the sound: “My role is to promote the symphony, so we decided to emphasize the music and to do it differently,” he explains. “There will be 40 musicians on the stage — more than we could fit into the orchestra pit. The performers will sing in front of the orchestra, using props, lighting, costumes and furniture. … You will hear great voices, wonderful musicians.”

He continues, “Semistaging is one of the great trends that has made opera one of the fastest-growing areas of classical music today. The MTV crowd likes the action, which adds to the excitement on the stage.”

All six of the principals are seasoned performers who have worked with opera companies worldwide. Helen Todd, in the role of Mimi, made her debut in 1996 as Violetta in the Minnesota Opera’s version of La Traviata. She’s also appeared in The Magic Flute, Romeo et Juliette, Rigoletto and The Pirates of Penzance. Rodolfo will be resurrected by Barton Green, whose impressive array of dramatic credentials includes Madame Butterfly, A Little Night Music, Die Fledermaus and a virtuoso performance in African Portraits with the Chicago Symphony (released on CD by Teldec Classics). David Malis as Marcello, Kenneth Overton as Schaunard, Branch Fields as Colline and Michelle Jennings as Musetta complete the lead roles.

The 24-member adult chorus consists of auditioned local singers coached by Asheville Symphony Assistant Conductor Lenora Thom. The ensemble is enriched by 20 local children — chosen from the Asheville Symphony Children’s Chorus by Director Susan Hensley — who appear in Act II’s cafe scene.

This inaugural effort has forged solid bonds between the Symphony and the new opera company. They hope to establish a tradition of working together on a major theatrical production at least once a year.

“Every artist I brought in during the 1999 season has already promised to come back, because they so loved being here,” says Starkey. But both directors agree that the ALO’s success will depend on the community’s response.

As Hageman advises, “If people want these kind of things, they need to support [them]. We take tremendous pride in Asheville being a cultural city. … We’ll bring it to you, but you’ve got to come out.”

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