“From the beginning, my best friends have been the common people.”
— Giuseppe Verdi
“Opera is for everyone,” insists David Craig Starkey, the founder (and general and artistic director) of the Asheville Lyric Opera.
What’s more, he continues, “It’s always been the ‘people’s music.'”
The ALO’s ambitious second season is set to launch Aug. 26, the latest fruit of Starkey’s unwavering mission to turn ordinary Asheville music fans into a passel of passionate opera lovers.
The plain-speaking Starkey doesn’t fit the stereotype of the flamboyant opera director . “I’m spiritually led,” he reveals. “A Christian. There are a lot of us in the business, and it’s a comfort to be able to do opera with fellow artists who can understand some of your trials and tribulations and joys. I hope ALO will allow people to know and respect opera in a new way.”
Was it a vision that led Starkey to work so hard — without pay — to develop his own opera company?
“Not a vision,” he makes clear, “a dream.” That dream trailed Starkey through his lengthy journey as performer and stage director (both in the United States and abroad), intensifying when he was artist in residence at the prestigious Brevard Music Center, where he began to train his sights on his company’s future home.
“I’m a realist,” he maintains. “I wanted to start my opera company in a place where it had a good chance of success — and that was Asheville. Its arts program is so alive, and there are so many strong musicians in the area. And there’s the wonderful Diana Wortham Theatre, with its small size and superb acoustics. Then there’s the all-around support from the universities and the community.”
“Asheville is the perfect place for an opera,” agrees John Ellis, Diana Wortham Theatre’s ebullient managing director. “[It’s] so cosmopolitan — people come here from all parts of the country [who] already have an appreciation for opera. …
“If the town can support a symphony, it can support an opera.”
“The opera company is an investment [in] the region,” Starkey continues, fervor unflagging, “because of the importance of tourism here. Opera is one of the strongest and fastest-growing entertainment media.”
“There are more people that attend opera than attend all professional sports events in the world!” he insists. “People would say, ‘There’s no way that’s possible.’ [But] the fact is that opera performs in more cities and more frequently than sports, because there’s more opera in smaller towns.”
“Opera is the most perfect form of entertainment,” trumpets choreographer Ann Dunn of the Fletcher School of Dance. “It has everything — music, dance, lyrics, drama, incredibly wonderful and moving stories. Opera has always been multimedia.”
But how do you persuade an opera-challenged audience to “overcome their preconceptions that opera’s in all those funny languages, and they dance in prehistoric costumes?” Starkey asks, before going on to answer himself: “If I can get people into the opera once, they would be overwhelmed with what they saw. They’d be hooked!”
Setting a tone
On that note, Starkey has planned his 2000-01 season — dubbed “A Season for Lovers” — to appeal to the widest number of people possible.
“A lyric opera company,” he explains, “is one that presents a combination of musical genres, incorporating opera [which is all singing, as in Madame Butterfly], operettas [mostly singing and always fun, like Pirates of Penzance] and musical theater [singing with dialogue; such as The Music Man].”
This season’s kickoff gala happens Aug. 26, a rousing two-part showcase featuring the best of last year’s season and a taste of what’s to come. The ALO chorus will complement Starkey himself and soprano Melody Morrison, from Charlotte’s Opera Carolina. The gala will also mark the ALO debut of Cantaria, the Asheville Men’s Chorus.
Live from Broadway! (Oct. 6-7) will reprise last year’s most successful musical-theater production, featuring New York stars performing right alongside Asheville’s finest. Included this year will be selections from The Lion King, Titanic, The Sound of Music and The King and I.
Who says opera isn’t American? Amahl and the Night Visitors is one of the most frequently performed operas of the 20th century. Composed by an Italian-born American (Gian Carlo Menotti) in 1951, it was the first opera written for television. Amahl, the story of a crippled shepherd boy who joins the three Magi, “is one of the finest one-act operas ever written,” raves Starkey, adding that it “has a strong Christian message.” Appropriately, the ALO will present its version Dec. 21-22, and many fans join Starkey in hoping the show becomes an annual holiday event. This production will feature a host of regional singers, including the Asheville High School and Hendersonville High School choruses, and dancers from the Fletcher School.
Spring 2001 will bring us Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (March 23-24), a classic opera rich with exotic locales, doomed lovers and glorious melodies. First performed in Italy in 1904, Butterfly has been a world favorite since. No wonder. It’s hard to go wrong with lines like these (from a duet between handsome U.S. Navy Lt. Pinkerton and his beautiful Chinese lover):
Pinkerton: Ti sero palpitante. Sei, mia. (Quivering, I press you to me. You’re mine).
Butterfly: Si, per la vita. (Yes, for life).
And that’s just in Act I, with two more acts of passion, betrayal and politically incorrect international relations still to go!
Madame Butterfly will be this season’s only ALO presentation to be sung in a foreign language. “We’ll be … using the latest high-tech [devices] to help break down opera’s language barrier,” says Starkey. Translation: English subtitles will be projected onto a screen above the stage, so the audience can follow the lyrics just as they would the dialogue in a foreign film. (The ALO also hosts Opera Talks — held at the Golden Horn Restaurant on show nights, beginning at 6 p.m. — that help elucidate that evening’s production.)
A lone performance of The Pirates of Penzance (May 12) will close the 2000-01 season — a spectacular collaboration with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Pirates — one of the 14 operettas written by the brilliant (and always-feuding) team of Gilbert and Sullivan — actually premiered in the United States. in 1879. Featuring the wittiest lyrics and most melodious music available on either side of the Atlantic, Pirates is a madcap tale of seafaring ne’er-do-wells who (in typical class-conscious Victorian style) are really “noblemen who have gone wrong.”
A self-described “one-man band with a great board of directors,” Starkey plans the ALO’s programs, raises the money, hires the performers, acquires the sets and scenery, directs the productions — and sings as well. Even more miraculously, the productions evolve from only two weeks’ worth of rehearsal time.
“Opera singers,” Starkey explains, “are expected to know their roles completely, be ‘on their feet’ without holding the score — before we start rehearsal.” Likewise, the orchestra has prepared on its own, and the dancers will have honed their routines with rehearsals at Fletcher.
“Starkey puts it all together like a quilt,” says Ann Dunn. “Very efficient.”
To Starkey himself, “The stage director is the grand interpreter. He brings everybody onto the same page, for them to all relate to a grand concept — but at the same time, he must uniquely identify each singer’s ability to relate to the other cast members.”