Drawing: David de las Heras
Cincinnati Opera is back on stage and is returning to its roots with outdoor performances this summer.
The series includes three classical operas – Carmen, Tosca and The Barber of Seville – presented in 90-minute productions at Summit Park in Blue Ash, with stellar casts, accompaniment by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and a 36-member choir.
All performances will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state guidelines: seats are divided into groups of four to six people, masks are required, and entry and exit will be controlled.
The public doesn’t seem to care, judging by ticket sales. At the time of going to press in late June, 86% of the pod seats had been sold.
The Outdoor Series is a reminder of when opera performed outside the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden from 1920 to 1971.
The cast and crew are excited to perform in front of a live audience, and this season offers the opportunity to hear some of the most exciting singers, many of whom will be making their company debuts.
Mezzo J’Nai Bridges sings the fiercely independent lead role in Carmen (July 17, 22, 26 and 30), while tenor Stephen Costello is his obsessed lover Don José and soprano Janai Brugger returns as Micaela.
Drawing: David de las HerasTosca (July 23, 27 and 31) marks the debut of acclaimed soprano Ana Maria Martinez as a tumultuous diva. The great Russell Thomas returns to sing his lover Cavaradossi, and baritone Quinn Kelsey is the devious Scarpia. The former student of the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati directs Xian Zhang.
The ancient Barber of Seville (July 24-29) rounds out the season, with Christopher Kenney as crafty barber Figaro, mezzo Rihab Chaieb as fiery Rosina and tenor Aaron Blake returning to sing his suitor, Count Almaviva.
“It’s like the biggest rock show in Cincinnati!” exclaims Omer Ben Seadia, who is leading the season opener Carmen.
Planning this season as the coronavirus pandemic recedes goes beyond the logistics of a full-scale rock tour, says Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director Evans Mirageas. A COVID opera compliance team led by Andrea Shell is keeping the company updated on the latest guidance from the CDC.
Everything from ticketing, seating arrangements, venue entry and exit, and protocols for the singers on stage continue to be scrutinized almost daily.
From now on, all singers will perform without a mask, unless the guidelines change. This includes the 36-member choir, which will be positioned on both sides of the stage.
“They will sing but will not be part of the stage action,” says Mirageas. “We have worked with (the American Guild of Musical Artists) and they have been great in supporting our efforts to keep our performers safe.”
The orchestra – composed of 35 musicians – will be behind the performers. There are no sets, but there will be lighting and costumes. And yes, the singers will be microphones.
“When you have voices of the caliber that we have, you want them to sound their best,” says Mirageas.
Sound designer Jonathan Burke, who has extensive experience in outdoor venues, oversees the task of blending vocals and orchestra to feel like a concert hall.
Sound enhancement is also vital for conductors and the orchestra behind the singers. Celebrity conductor Zhang – who was recently named CCM Distinguished Alumna – says she will rely on engineers to help her achieve the score of Toscadramatic dynamic contrasts.
Drawing: David de las HerasEnsuring that the performers are visible to the general public seated on the large lawn in Summit Park is another challenge. The lawn is flat and the stage elevation is low compared to that of the Music Hall, so a canopy is built over the stage to support the lighting and two jumbotrons, which will project the action to seated patrons over backward.
Stage sets are suggested by lighting and props, and stage singers will be costumed and made up. The pressure is on for the cast to be larger than life in an art form that is already considered to be out of proportion.
“This is a great opportunity to add more tools to our toolbox,” says baritone Kenney. “There might not be sets, but we can see the audience reaction so I can see how I’m doing. I like this.”
Although the operas are 90-minute versions without an intermission, the great arias, ensembles and most of the choral music are still there.
“As long as no musical crimes are committed, this is a great way to introduce opera to a new audience,” says Martinez. “The tunes and duets are all there, and so is the drama.”
“Hairdresser is already a fast opera and this version really picks up the pace, ”he says. “But you will get the full effect and hopefully you will want to see the full version.”
Shorter operas allow for greater exploration of character and motivation, especially in Carmen, says Ben Seadia. And as protocols change, she will adjust her staging of this opera, which features four members of the Cincinnati Ballet.
Many artists tell CityBeat about their frenzied pleasure of being in front of a live audience after months of isolation. Everyone has participated in some form of online performance and all agree that nothing is true.
“All of these challenges are nothing compared to the joy of making music,” says Martinez.
For Cincinnati Opera General Manager and CEO Christopher Milligan, the 2021 season confirms what he told staff after the 2020 season was canceled: “We will sing again. “
The rainy dates are integrated into the calendar. When it comes to preparing for open-air theater, Mirageas looks to its Greek heritage and the origins of theater.
“We started outside. I channel my ancient Greek ancestors to say ‘We have this,’ ”he says.
The Cincinnati Opera Summer Festival season at Summit Park in Blue Ash runs July 17-31. For tickets and more information, visit cincinnatiopera.org.