Cincinnati Opera 2019 a mix of daring, traditional, quirky, romantic

Putting together the Cincinnati Opera summer festival season is not for the faint of heart.

You have just four or five chances – each a costly, elaborate production – to draw the broadest possible audience, including opera newcomers, sophisticates and everyone in between – while balancing logistics, artist scheduling and, of course, costs.

“It’s a fun jigsaw puzzle to play with,” said Artistic Director Evans Mirageas. “Really, it’s more of a Rubik’s cube, because it’s so three-dimensional.”

That’s because you must consider not only the operas being performed but how to make them work best in the spaces in which they are performed. So, the opera now performs not only in Music Hall, but at the School for Creative and Performing Arts’ smaller Corbett Auditorium, plus the yet smaller, more informal Wilks Studio at Music Hall.

The 2019 festival, which runs June 13-July 28, ought to have something for just about anyone’s tastes.

Scene from the Seattle Opera production of “Porgy and Bess”
Scene from the Seattle Opera production of “Porgy and Bess” (Photo by Philip Newton)

“When planning a festival season, you must always have enough variety to encourage people to come to more than one production,” Mirageas said, “while recognizing that most people have the time, inclination or resources to come to only one.”

There’s a simple way to organize that variety. Operas tend to fall into one of four broad categories – or sometimes straddle two of them:

  1. The Top 10 Blockbusters
  2. The Familiar Mainstays
  3. The Enticing Rarities
  4. The Edgy Newcomers

Behind Door No. 1: “You need one title that draws the newcomer,” Mirageas said. “That’s a fairly simple equation. There are about 10 operas that are broadly known outside of the world of opera.” Think “Carmen,” “Madame Butterfly” and the like.

“About 70 percent of people who came to an opera for the first time came because of the familiarity of the title,” he said. “Luckily, there are enough such masterpieces that we can rotate them over a decade of seasons.”

This season, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” with familiar songs such as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” fits that category. A bonus: It’s American, and relatively recent (in opera’s time scale at least).

Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” might fit in the second category, though surveys consistently name it one of the 10 most-performed operas and, well, it’s Mozart.

A familiar story puts Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” in that slot as well, though the music itself is much less well-known.

The sleeper for sophisticates – though Mirageas says it could be a great first-time opera for a newcomer – is the intriguing “Ariadne Auf Naxos,” which is not often performed – Cincinnati Opera hasn’t done it for 60 years! 

And the season offers something completely new, thanks to the opera’s CO Next initiative: the world premiere of Scott Davenport Richards’ “Blind Injustice,” based on the work of the Ohio Innocence Project.

Let’s look a bit closer at each of these operas.

‘The Marriage of Figaro’

“Marriage of Figaro,” Mirageas said, is a perfect season opener. “It’s a wonderful way to announce to the public, ‘We’re back.’ It has a real familiarity but is sophisticated as well. That’s my desert island opera.”

Andrew Wilkowske, Figaro in “The Marriage of Figaro”
Andrew Wilkowske, Figaro in “The Marriage of Figaro”

The premise is an appealing one: Servants outwit the masters in a riot of comic disguises, trickery and crossed signals. The story, and Mozart’s sublime music, has made it consistently popular for more than 230 years. Andrew Wilkowske sings the title role in this production.

“Figaro” was such a hit with Vienna audiences during its first production in 1786 that they kept calling for encore after encore, making for very long evenings and leading Emperor Joseph II to decree that no piece for more than one voice should be encored.

Susanna Phillips, The Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro”

‘Romeo and Juliet’ 

Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t the most famous setting of Shakespeare’s story, but this production from the Minnesota Opera should be intriguing for its stage setting, which Mirageas described as “very traditional but a little abstract, with spaces denoted by roses that very slowly decay.”

2016 Minnesota Opera production of “Romeo and Juliet”
2016 Minnesota Opera production of “Romeo and Juliet” (Photo by Dan Norman)

The opera’s four duets for the main characters are considered the musical high points, along with a waltz song sung by Juliet (Nicole Cabell in this production).

One sidelight: Soon after the 1867 premiere of “Roméo et Juliette” (the title in French) in Paris, a rival theater produced a parody called “Rhum et eau en juillet” (“Rum and Water in July”).

Nicole Cabell, Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”
Nicole Cabell, Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”

‘Ariadne Auf Naxos’

“Ariadne Auf Naxos,” Richard Strauss’ 1912 opera-within-a-play (or is it the other way around?) that was heavily revised before it found success, is “much less known but not inimical to opera newcomers,” Mirageas said.

“We chose ‘Ariadne’ because of the venue,” he said. “Music Hall is always our anchor home, but SCPA’s Corbett Auditorium has opened up great possibilities for us.” Strauss designed “Ariadne” for a smaller theater, with only 36 players in the orchestra.

“Ariadne” is a mashup of high and low art, as a troupe of comedians and a serious opera company are forced to perform at the same time. Cincinnati Opera is doing a new production of the work, setting it in Cincinnati in the 1950s.

Twyla Robinson, Ariadne/Prima Donna in “Ariadne auf Naxos”
Twyla Robinson, Ariadne/Prima Donna in “Ariadne auf Naxos”

Putting operas in unusual or more contemporary settings has been in vogue in recent decades.

Of course, that can be carried too far. “You wouldn’t set ‘La Traviata’ in the men’s bathroom of Milan’s train station,” he said.

But you could say “Ariadne” is set in an airport lobby. Sort of.

As Mirageas explained it, he was at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport last year and saw a display of Cincinnati-centric artifacts, including two classic Crosley cars from the manufacturing empire of Powel Crosley Jr.

“That did it for me. Something remarkable happened,” he said. “It took me down the rabbit hole to research and find out who he was.

“He was like the Henry Ford of radio, an amazing entrepreneur. He had a remarkable house and he was a little bit eccentric.”

The inspiration hit: Place “Ariadne” in a rich Cincinnati neighborhood, in a set designed to resemble the home of Powel Crosley Jr.

“Everything works perfectly. The time is the late 1950s, when opera stars and movie stars were equally famous. Marilyn Monroe meets Maria Callas.”

‘Porgy and Bess’

“Porgy and Bess” has been both beloved and controversial since its 1935 premiere in Boston. Many have questioned its portrayal of African-American culture in a Charleston, S.C., neighborhood, plus the fact it was created by white men, composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira Gershwin.

Morris Robinson, Cincinnati Opera Artistic Advisor and Porgy in “Porgy and Bess”
Morris Robinson, Cincinnati Opera Artistic Advisor and Porgy in “Porgy and Bess”

But Mirageas relied on CO Artistic Advisor Morris Robinson, who sings the role of Porgy to Talise Trevigne’s Bess in this production from the Washington National Opera.

“When we started on the season, I asked him his opinion of ‘Porgy and Bess.’ He said ‘I embrace it. It is our story. We own it.’ ”

Robinson debuted as Porgy at Milan’s famous La Scala.

The idea of community is key to the opera, Mirageas said. “At heart it is about a community that is resilient, faith-based, in conflict with the outside society.”

Gershwin’s models for the opera, Mirageas pointed out, were “Boris Godunov” and “Carmen,” chorus-centered operas where much of the musical action is driven by the larger community.

Frederick Ballantine Jr., Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess”
Frederick Ballantine Jr., Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess”
Talise Trevigne, Bess in “Porgy and Bess”
Talise Trevigne, Bess in “Porgy and Bess”

‘Blind Injustice’

“Blind Injustice” by composer Scott Davenport Richards, the third installment in CO Next, is based on casework by the Ohio Innocence Project and the book by OIP Director Mark Godsey. With a libretto by David Cote, it tells the stories of six people tried and convicted but ultimately freed through the work of OIP.

Mirages said the world-premiere production shows the opera’s commitment to exploring “non-traditional works with social relevance.”

Also non-traditional is the venue: the Wilks Studio within Music Hall. Doing opera in a smaller, more informal venue is “a logical way to attract newcomers. Young people like coming to non-traditional performing space. There’s a cool factor about the space, plus a lack of the intimidation factor of having to dress up.”

Because the Wilks Studio is so small, the show is completely sold out, but listeners can get a taste of the music with a video performance of the song “The Hole” on YouTube:

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