Bel canto blockbuster

Amanda Horton
If there’s no fat lady, does that mean the opera never ends? Asheville Lyric Opera’s Amanda Horton puts tradition to the test.

It’s the opera that made Luciano Pavarotti famous. Could the Asheville Lyric Opera production of L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) vaunt one of its moonlighting divas to stardom? Or at least let them quit their PR jobs forever?

Maybe, says company founder and artistic director David Craig Starkey (yes, he’s kin to Ringo), the seasoned opera vet who relocated to Asheville eight seasons ago to start the nonprofit troupe.

ALO has earned a reputation for casting top-notch pros alongside big-voiced locals. This time out, Starkey fingered PR whiz — and member of Asheville High’s class of ’96 — Amanda Horton as having the chops to sing in New York. She’ll be joined on stage for the company’s season opener by ALO Education and Outreach Director Kristen Yarborough and production manager Ardean Landhuis.

Horton, who plays the flirtatious Adina in Donizetti’s romantic comedy of errors, sang in musicals before discovering opera.

“If you like theater, great literature, sets, orchestral music, then there’s something in opera for you,” says Horton, now in her third season with ALO. “Opera has intense singing and a melodic experience.”

That’s one way to put it. Yarborough is more blunt: “I thought opera was weird people with viking horns on their heads making obnoxious noises,” she admits with a chuckle.

The native North Carolinian grew to appreciate opera’s finer and rawer performance elements. “It’s very heightened artistic expression, which might scare people,” she says. “But opera is very primal, like a dance. It’s incredibly cathartic.”

A great soprano once compared opera to a “controlled scream.” Opera is like theater deluxe, with every movement and emotion exaggerated.

“Opera has extended reality,” explains Starkey. “They say in opera it takes somebody 15 minutes to die. You have to communicate all of the motives — the emotional highs and lows. You have to slow it down. Sustain it. Build layers with the singers, the orchestra, the chorus. And shape colors of the sets and lights and costumes. The power of opera is to incorporate everything, to communicate the story of the moment.”

It sounds like hard work. And it is: ALO performers say their avocation is as physically demanding as any.

Gone are Pavarotti-like behemoths simply standing, “throwing arms out” and bellowing, said the show’s assistant director, Lora Randolph. Adds the Houston native (who’s studied in London): “You may be asked to roll around on the floor as you sing.”

“Your body is your instrument,” declares Yarborough. She does Pilates for her abdominal muscles, which support her breathing. According to Yarborough, lung muscles enable the diaphragm to drop for the stronger voice projection needed in the absence of microphones. She adds that “80 percent of singing is about breath.”

ALO, which offers various classes, recitals, Victorian caroling, and lectures on opera, prides itself on excelling in the fundamentals. Starkey says he aims to provide “world-class” opera of perennial favorites to experienced patrons and to introduce newcomers to a “rare and beautiful art form that stretches imaginations.”

L’Elisir, a highly regarded exposition of the bel canto, or beautiful singing, style, is the perfect vehicle for ALO. According to Opera America, the 1832 opera, with its rollicking tale of a love potion is the 20th most-performed opera in the country.

Starkey says ALO no longer tries interpretative styles that befuddled the audience, such as slow-paced and abstract German expressionism that he claims fizzled in Europe.

Instead, he realizes that for 600 years, opera audiences, above all, have “appreciated beautiful singing, and the orchestra playing.”

[Contributing writer Pete Zamplas lives in Asheville.]

Asheville Lyric Opera presents L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love), Oct. 27 and 28 at the Diana Wortham Theatre, Pack Place. 8 p.m. $45 or $35. Dress rehearsal ($15/adults, $6/students) is tonight, Wednesday, Oct. 25. 7 p.m. 257-4530 or

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