Hitting a high note

When professional baritone (and former Brevard Music Center student) David Craig Starkey first moved to Asheville a few years ago, he was astounded by the gorgeousness of the mountains, the friendliness of the people, and the city’s strong emphasis on the arts. One deficiency, however, swiftly caught his attention: the city’s lack of an opera company.

He set out to remedy the situation in short order.

“Of course, you’ve got Brevard Music Center, but that’s not in the city itself,” he notes. “Asheville Lyric Opera is something that Asheville can call its own.”

Thanks to Starkey, the Diana Wortham Theatre will soon resound with some of musical theater’s most cherished moments. Live From Broadway — Asheville Lyric Opera’s third fund-raiser since its inception last January — will feature a collection of love songs culled from such legendary extravaganzas as West Side Story, Carousel, Kiss Me Kate and Phantom of the Opera. Four nationally known Broadway singers — two married couples, actually: Robert Gallagher (who starred as Inspector Javert in the Broadway production of Les Miserables) and Marie Danvers (who starred as Christine in the Broadway National Tour of Phantom of the Opera), plus Eric van Hoven and Andrea Wilomirski — will supply this emotional tsunami. But the ambitious original production is a mere appetizer to the millennial feast awaiting local opera lovers.

In January 2000, Asheville Lyric Opera will stage a full-scale production of Puccini’s grand La Boheme, featuring local singers alongside renowned professionals. Until then, Starkey hopes to warm Asheville audiences to the presence of the ALO with gorgeous teasers like Live From Broadway — not that he’s needed much help establishing a local presence.

“The response has been very strong,” he reveals. “People have just come out of the woodwork to [help with the fund-raisers]. … These people are some of the best I have ever worked with. They have volunteered their time, knowledge, financial help — the whole experience has been extremely positive.”

Starkey’s own love for the area hasn’t hurt his efforts, either.

“I had some relatives who retired [to] Western North Carolina, but my decision to move here came before they relocated,” confirms the former New Yorker. “Through my travels,” he continues, “I discovered that this was one of the most unique places in the country … because of its scenery, its people and [the] depth and variety of the arts here.”

Future Asheville Lyric Opera productions, Starkey promises, “will incorporate [both] local talent and rising young stars from New York City and Europe. [We’ll] consistently [be] bringing these two levels of artists together.”

As a professional performer, Starkey has toured much of the country; what’s pleased him most about these expeditions is a surprising amount of small-town support for opera. “It’s amazing the number of small communities that, coming from a big city, we may think of as being in the middle of nowhere …[where] our shows have been very successful,” he explains. “Variety is all part of it.”

“The difference [between big-city and small-town audiences] is what’s wonderful,” agrees New York City resident Marie Danvers. “People away from cities never get to see stuff like this, so I think they appreciate it a little more. The best is when someone hasn’t ever been to [an opera].”

To this performer, language barriers are a moot point. “You don’t have to [know Italian] to like opera,” she notes. “You’d have to be crazy not to get something from the beauty of the voices alone. It’s such an unnatural [force], almost superhuman. It has to move you.”

Danvers herself became addicted to the opera in childhood (“It was the most amazing thing I ever experienced,” she gushes) and still displays a childlike wonder about other topics, as well: “The Carolinas,” she reveals, “are my very favorite place. The people, the weather — it’s all great. And so green: I love the trees.”

She manages to uncover pockets of freshness in every character she plays, whether donning a role for the first time or the hundredth: “I couldn’t [perform] otherwise,” she insists. Of course, actually living one’s part never hurts. Danvers’ main inspiration in belting out Live from Broadway’s romantic crowd-pleasers?

“The best part about doing this show is being able to work with my husband,” she confesses.

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