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Kentucky Opera's New Season: A Focus On Friendship And Community

Courtesy Kentucky Opera

Kentucky Opera’s 69th season will include two popular operas as well as a fresh look at an important opera from the 18th century, in productions the company says “celebrate the importance of friendship and community.”

September 11 & 13, 2020

Puccini’s La Bohème might be best understood as a kind of reality-TV opera, particularly when compared to other 19th century operas like Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a collection of epics based on Norse mythology. Puccini and his Italian contemporaries were more interested in real people who have trouble paying their rent or who deal with serious health issues. These verismo (realism) operas were the soap operas of the 1800s. La Bohème follows the story of four friends who live a bohemian life in the Spanish quarter of Paris. They’re artists, lovers, writers, and musicians, dodging their landlords or trying to pay for Mimì’s medical expenses. La Bohème moves us through love to tragedy, with some of Puccini’s most well-known arias: “Me chiamano Mimì” and “Quando me’n vo.”

The production features many singers making their Kentucky Opera debut: Shannon Jennings as Mimì, Kang Wang as Rodolfo, Jorell Williams as Marcello, and Flora Wall as Musetta. Artistic advisor Joseph Mechavich returns to conduct and Brenna Corner directs.

October 30 & November 1, 2020

Kentucky Opera is capitalizing on the seasonal with a production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (sung in English), an adaptation of the Grimm fairytale with a libretto (and modifications) by the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette.  As Humperdinck’s biggest and immediate success, this 1890s opera came at a time when the aforementioned Italian verismo was in vogue, but not really appealing to German audiences (see Wagner). Humperdinck finds ways to weave the everyday struggles of an impoverished family with a bizarre, dreamlike world of the gingerbread cottage. Often produced around Christmas, this “fairy-tale opera” is easily compatible with Halloween with a sandman, fairies, the witch and her demise to the song “Hooray! The Witch is Dead!” Easily, the most recognizable music is the Act II duet “Evening Prayer.”

This new production is billed as family-friendly, and includes the Kentucky Opera’s Youth Opera Chorus. Naomi Louisa O’Connell is Hansel, Ashley Emerson is Gretel, John de los Santos is the director, and Elizabeth Askren makes her debut conducting.

(Just to clarify, we’re talking about this Engelbert Humperdinck, not this one.)

February 12 & 14, 2021

The chronological outlier of this season takes us back to the early Classical period, where opera was about to take a giant leap forward at the hands of Christoph Willibald Gluck. After writing several operas in a traditional style for the time period, Gluck forged his own path with Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice). He sought to put more importance on the text and drama by simplifying melodies that had become too ornate and elaborate. In Gluck’s operas, it became less about the virtuosity of the singer, and more about how the music conveyed the poetry. Ironically, the most well-known moments in Orfeo ed Euridice are these two ballet scenes.

Kentucky Opera is calling it O+E, and producing a modernized version that will dispense with its mythical past instead setting it in a hospital waiting room. Kentucky Opera general director Barbara Lynne Jamison says, “This production is a real-world look at the urgency we feel when threatened with the loss of a loved one. In Kentucky Opera’s upcoming production, we will visit O’s inner thoughts and emotions as she risks losing the one she loves.”

Mezzo soprano Catherine Martin stars as O and Flora Wall sings the role of E. The stage director is Kelly Kitchens and Judith Yan conducts. O+E will also feature dancers from Louisville Ballet.

Kentucky Opera will also continue with its Awakenings series, a series of partnerships and public conversations around the core issues each opera addresses, and how they can relate to everyday life.

More on the Kentucky Opera season at kyopera.org.

Daniel Gilliam is weekday afternoon host (1-3 p.m.) and program director at 90.5 WUOL, and director of radio for Louisville Public Media.

Daniel Gilliam is Program Director for LPM Classical. Email Daniel at dgilliam@lpm.org.

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