On high

In the midst of Asheville’s ongoing cultural transformation, the city has gained its own opera company. This winter, The Asheville Lyric Opera staged La Boheme, its first production of the millennium, as a joint effort with the Asheville Symphony. La Boheme — the most celebrated opera ever performed — was a magnificent piece of the world brought home to Asheville’s own 525-seat Diana Wortham Theatre.

On May 7th, the ALO rides again, when internationally renowned soprano Cassandra Riddle performs a benefit recital.

Riddle will travel to Asheville by way of Germany, where she’s currently doing a turn as Nedda in I Pagliacci. But North Carolina is hardly foreign territory to Riddle, who grew up in Fayetteville and studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts. She attended the Brevard Music Center on a scholarship, starring in many productions there. Henry Janiec, the BMC’s former artistic director and occasional guest conductor, recalls: “She sang very, very well, and aside from her voice, she had a wonderful presence on-stage.”

Janiec explains that while the college years aren’t too soon to begin a serious opera career, one’s success in that field depends on how quickly one’s voice has matured (women’s voices change as well as men’s, though in different ways). At any time, it’s important for the student to develop techniques that prevent damage to the voice from daily, four-hour practice sessions.

Riddle went on to study at Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts and also trained at the Pittsburgh Opera Center. In addition, she was a regional finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and took first place in the Mario Lanza Competition.

Her successful international career has included playing Juliette in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette and Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto (both at The Israeli Vocal Arts Institute), and intrepretations of Carmen’s Micaela, Hoffman’s Antonia and La Boheme’s Mimi (with the New York City Opera).

As Mimi (considered by many her star-making role), Riddle was introduced to the nation at large, by way of PBS’s “Live From Lincoln Center,” which broadcast the NYC Opera production in 1997.

Janiec explains that a career such as Riddle’s means being ready to jet across the country — or around the world — the moment the next booking is available. That said, the conductor was instrumental in inviting Riddle back to the Brevard Music Center as an artist in residence. And though based in New York these days, Riddle still visits her friends in Brevard whenever she comes home to North Carolina.

During one of her return stints in Brevard, Riddle met ALO General Director David Craig Starkey, when the two performed together in a production of La Traviata. Like Starkey, Riddle believes strongly in Asheville’s potential as a world-class artistic community; her upcoming recital at Diana Wortham (including selections from Mozart and Puccini, among other maestros) will benefit Starkey’s carefully nurtured company.

While Riddle’s name is already well established among local opera enthusiasts, she’s also a must-see for those new to the art form. As Janiec explains, “It’s the quality of voice. Hers is just gorgeous.”

What’s more, he continues, “she has great reserve and excellent ability on-stage.”

“She rivets an audience.”

The Asheville Lyric Opera presents Cassandra Riddle with Metropolitan Opera Associate Conductor William Hicks on Sunday, May 7 at Diana Wortham Theatre. The show starts at 7 p.m.; tickets are $28/adults, $22/seniors and students. Call 257-4530 to order tickets or for more info.

The Asheville Lyric Opera will present a full production of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci May 26-28, featuring David Malis (from the Metropolitan Opera), Doyle Wilcox, Kathryn George, Kyle Marrero and Dillon McCartney. And though Riddle won’t be part of the ALO’s Pagliacci, it seems a fitting follow-up to her homecoming. Call 236-0670 for details.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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