Tag Archives: Michael Baumgarten

Scaling Back on Brassy Pomp, OpCarolina Brings Us a More Classic and Elegant Aïda

Review: Opera Carolina Presents Aïda

By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 7, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Premiered in Egypt in late 1871 and brought home to Milan less than two months later, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda has become synonymous with all that’s grandiose and spectacular in grand opera. Opera Carolina has now produced this signature work nine times since its founding in 1948, only once allowing more than a decade to go by between productions. An eight-year interval is about the average in Charlotte, which we would have had if the current production has arrived, as originally scheduled, at the end of the 2020-21 season. The postponement seemed to benefit the design team responsible for the visuals; set designer Roberto Oswald, costumer Annibal Lapiz, and lighting designer Michael Baumgarten; all of whom collaborated on the 2013 production here at Belk Theater. A year further in the distance, deferred by the pandemic, this Aïda was perhaps fresher and certainly more welcome.2022~Aïda-14

With the exception of the Opera Carolina Chorus and baritone Mark Rucker reprising his Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, all of the faces onstage were new, especially tenor Arnold Rawls, substituting for the indisposed Gianluca Sciarpeletti as Radames on short notice. Infusing more freshness, almost upstaging the principals in the big scenes, were the elegant touches and classic symmetries of stage director Linda Brovsky and choreographer Gabriella Sevillano with dancers from Corta Jaca. Once again, Ancient Egypt was a no-twerking zone, graced with processions and tableaus that jibed with the times. Conducting his Verdi with customary panache, artistic director James Meena discreetly scaled back on the brassiness of the triumphal scene, recognizing that a parade of subdued Ethiopian prisoners, fettered in chains, isn’t the most glorious spectacle in 2022, when images of wartime destruction clutter our news media.2022~Aïda-07

Intertwined with the spectacle indoors and outdoors, in the blaze of day and the hush of night, was a poignant love triangle, heightened by the scintillating debut of mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as Amneris, the cunning, jealous, amorous, and conflicted princess of Egypt. The smoothness of her arias, particularly the “Vieni amor mio” anticipating Radames’s arrival in Act 2, nicely chimed with her cool and confident manner, for once making the prospect of someday reigning with her over Egypt worth considering for the undeniably ambitious Radames. Conquering this princess’s heart was on a par with conquering Ethiopia. Also tilting the triangle, presumably because of a lack of rehearsal, was the slow-to-ignite chemistry between Rawls as Radames and Karen Slack, making her Charlotte debut as Aïda.

Launching his debut, Rawls didn’t show us all he can do vocally in his “Celeste Aïda,” and Slack similarly fell short on the self-reproachful “Ritorna vincitor!” – too nervous and melodramatic in realizing that a victory for her beloved Radames meant defeat for her native Ethiopia, and possibly death for her father, the king. More vulnerability and youthful confusion were needed here, and we never had a vivid impression that Aïda was observing even demure caution, let alone simulating deference, in keeping her royal identity from her mistress, Amneris.

2022~Aïda-21After intermission, both Slack and Rawls ascended to loftier levels, achieving parity with Martin. I was frankly surprised – and delighted – by how beautifully Slack sang the iconic “O patria mia” aria in the pivotal nocturnal scene in front of the Temple of Isis. The missing chemistry between Slack and Rawls then arrived with such a rush that it seemed like Aïda might forget to coax Radames into divulging his key military secret to the eavesdropping Amonasro. Martin and Rucker helped this denouement to crackle with tension, though Rucker wasn’t quite as imperious and intimidating as he was in 2013.2022~Aïda-23So the unique two-tiered finale played really well, with all three principals in top form. Rawls and Slack, buried alive as the lovers, consoled each other sweetly in their love duet as Aïda managed to sneak into the tomb and share Radames’s punishment for betraying his country. Meanwhile, Martin completed Amneris’s graceful arc above them, remorseful for triggering the downfalls of her beloved and her rival, wishing both of them peace.

Credit Brovsky and Sevillano for the stateliness and elegance of the public scenes, the one at the Temple of Vulcan, where the beneficence of Ptah is invoked, and the triumphal scene where Pharoah and Amneris preside. Song Zaikuan was a resplendent Pharoah, Jordan Bisch declaimed with stony certitude as Ramfis, the high priest, and Katherine Kuckelman was a sublime High Priestess – all in costumes to die for.

With both a matinee and an evening performance scheduled for Saturday, this review serves as a reliable guide to the upcoming evening encore. Only Bisch and Zaikuan will be on hand for the Saturday matinee – along with Meena’s sure hand with the score.

“The Falling and the Rising” Offers a Kaleidoscopic View of the Military Experience

Review: Opera Carolina Presents The Falling and the Rising

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Four men give their lives to save just one woman soldier, a woman so severely injured that she must be placed in an induced coma to give her any chance of continued survival or even partial recovery. The math and the logic may not seem to add up unless you’ve served in the military or you’ve witnessed The Falling and the Rising, a fairly new opera by Zach Redler and Jerre Dye that may impact Opera Carolina audiences more freshly today than when it premiered in 2018.

Before COVID and Ukraine, when the White House was occupied by a grifter who labeled people who signed up for battlefield duty as “suckers,” the mentality passionately advocated by The Soldier protagonist – that military service is not only a commitment to give your life for your country but also a commitment to give your life for your soldiering comrades – may have seemed rabid, over-the-top, or naively gung-ho. After witnessing the bravery of so many healthcare workers routinely facing the perils of a deadly transmissible disease for the past two years and, more recently, the inspiring popular resistance of so many outgunned Ukrainians, we can likely view that military mentality – and those four soldiers’ sacrifice – as making more sense.2022~Falling and Rising-07

This brash Opera Carolina production, conducted by Emily Jarrell Urbanek and stage directed by Sam Mungo, brings the company to a new venue, the Sandra Levine Theatre in the gorgeously renovated Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, while it brings subscribers a radically different experience. Once the female Soldier is comatose, we’re carried along with her for the bulk of the opera on a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of dream sequences, so the military experience is conveyed to us not only by soldiers in battle and trauma, but also by dedicated doctors and anxious family.

The immersion begins in the Gambrell lobby, where you can pick up info on the Montford Point Marine Association and the Blue Star Mothers of Charlotte. You can also peep in on artworks and obtain a comprehensive coffee table book produced by Bullets & Bandaids, a non-profit veteran and civilian art project. Immersion couples with education at the Gambrell, so it’s fitting that the complex is on the Queens University campus, for the world premiere of The Falling and the Rising was also on academic soil at Texas Christian University, one of seven organizations that commissioned the piece.

A new work set in wartime might trigger a couple of red flags for traditional opera lovers averse to chaos and cacophony. But you’ll find that Redler’s score is comfortably tonal and melodic when soprano Melinda Whittington begins singing a birthday video into a laptop computer for her daughter’s upcoming thirteenth, apologizing and commiserating because they will not be together to celebrate. In fact, when Redler has Whittington pivoting to a shuffle beat, you might briefly wonder whether the composer has crafted a score that’s too casual and accessible.

The roadside IED explosion, with a striking video montage by designer Michael Baumgarten (lights/scenery/video), puts that worry permanently to rest. After the hospital huddle of doctors and a ZOOM consultation where the induced coma is prescribed, the opera is largely a series of extended arias and duets until we reach a closing paean to the men and women who serve, joined by a pre-chosen brigade of vets parading up to the stage from the audience.2022~Falling and Rising-23

Sound at the Levine is noticeably more resonant than the Belk Theater and marginally warmer than Knight Theater, halls where we normally hear Opera Carolina and Charlotte Symphony. Although directors might be tempted to mic student plays and musicals in this 1000-seat space, all of the soloists projected quite easily on opening night to Row M, where we were seated. Redler’s orchestration for 11 musicians balanced well with the singers, and Urbanek had no difficulty in coaxing a hearty variety of colors from her band, which included a French horn, clarinet, guitar, piano, two percussionists, and strings. There is an orchestra pit at the Levine, but it doesn’t protrude far – or impinge on the bond between audience and performer. When baritone Kenneth Overton as the Homecoming Soldier concluded his church sermon, seated in a wheelchair in front of a large wooden crucifix, it didn’t feel like he was calling across a wide gulf when he asked us for an “Amen!”2022~Falling and Rising-11

Gathered from interviews at Fort Myer, Fort Meade, and the famed Walter Reade Military Medical Center, Dye’s libretto was suffused with authenticity and often riveting. Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock exuded intensity as Staff Sergeant First Class Toledo, steely and tough as her nickname, which figures into the boot camp segment of her aria. Dominic Armstrong took us to the skies with his heroic tenor voice as Jumper, a First Sergeant who mixes hard-nosed honesty with patriotism as he readies Soldier for her first parachute jump. Parting words: “Don’t forget to pull the string!” After that uplift, bass-baritone Peter Morgan brought us back down to earth as Colonel, seen in civvies in his living room, hoping that his military wife will survive.2022~Falling and Rising-17

Each of these monologues was substantial enough to give Whittington a chance to rest her voice before she joined in duet, a mercy when you consider the extra decibels she can pour out. The most brutally honest testimony in this cavalcade came from Overton in his wheelchair as the Homecoming Soldier, ideally placed by Dye at the juncture of his libretto between the last of personal testimonies and our protagonist’s emergence from her coma. Also artful were the spins that Dye put on his title, for we quickly learned that The Falling and the Rising wasn’t simply, as we expected, about the traumas and dramas of battlefield injury and recovery. We first encountered “The falling and the rising” in the Soldier’s memories of her daughter, back when she was an infant and Soldier was simply a mom watching her baby’s breathing as she slept. Later it was the impending leap from an airplane, with all of its danger and exhalation.

So there is music and drama in this latest Opera Carolina production – and poetry as well.

Opera Carolina Finds New Balance in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

Review: Don Giovanni at Belk Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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February 3, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Among the lovable scoundrels of Western world literature, surely Don Juan has proven to be the most lovable – Molière, Goldoni, Lord Byron, Shaw, and Mozart are just a few of the notables who have sung the Spanish Don’s sins over the past 400 years. His tale can be seen as a series picaresque escapades and comical conquests, or as a grim and grisly revenge tragedy, or as a stern moral lesson. Armed with a wondrous libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart disdained to choose among these alternatives, daring to make his Don Giovanni all of the above. With so much to see and emphasize, it’s no wonder that each of the six productions I’ve reviewed since 1991 has been so different from the others – including a Czech National Theatre production at the Estates Theater in Prague, the venue where Mozart’s masterwork premiered in 1787.220201_OPC_DON_053

In her Opera Carolina debut, stage director Eve Summer pays little attention to scenery, relying on props and Whitney Locher’s costume designs to modernize the action. Donna Anna’s home doesn’t have a façade in the opening scene, where Giovanni flees after raping the noblewoman and is compelled to murder her father before he can escape. Nor is there an exterior, let alone an upstairs, at Donna Elvira’s lodgings in Act 2, when Giovanni serenades milady’s maidservant while Leporello, the Don’s servant masquerading as his master, creates a cunning diversion. Three revolving pods help simulate the places where the swift action unfolds, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting designs signal the transitions and enhance the drama – especially in the denouement, when the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s murdered father risen from the dead, implacably gets his revenge.220201_OPC_DON_426

Summer hasn’t totally surrendered to modernity in her vision of Giovanni, for she surely could have gone further than equipping Elvira with contemporary luggage as she pursues the Don and turning the pages of Leporello’s book chronicling the rogue’s romantic conquests into an iPad that he scrolls. Balancing these modern touches are the curved tops of the revolving pods, evoking ancient arches, and the presence of harpsichordist Emily Jarrell Urbanak, seated at stage right throughout the evening. In a way, the singers also straddled different eras, always immersing themselves in Mozart’s music, yet the diversity of the casting – and a few of the dance moves they busted at Giovanni’s soiree – returned us to the new millennium. Most anachronistic were Sequina DuBose as Elvira, lugging her rolling stack of suitcases up a couple of stairs and down a ramp, and Alex Soare as Leporello, discarding his sensationally grungy attire only when he impersonated Giovanni (though Locher’s design here may have also been inspired by the Ghost of Christmas Future).220201_OPC_DON_170

Dashing, cruel, and overflowing with conceit, bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba made a stunning debut as Giovanni, even if the mod dress deprived him of the opportunity to unsheathe a sword. His overtures to Elvira, her maid, and the peasant girl Zerlina were all lusciously seductive. Encounters with Leporello and Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé, crackled with scornful superiority, sometimes snarling and sometimes nonchalant. The old Commendatore seemed to draw the very best from Ollarsada, cavalierly deferential to his age in resisting his challenges to combat in the opening scene, defiant and fatally unrepentant when Giovanni’s fate was sealed. As rich and appealing as Ollarsaba was when he sang, Alex Soare was startlingly convincing as Leporello when the servant was called upon to masquerade as his master. To bring out the servant’s comic flavor, moments when Leporello was marveling at the gullibility of Giovanni’s victims were underscored more boldly than the disillusion, disgust, and abject fear that the Don’s escapades put him through. Nor was bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam chiefly onstage as Masetto to clownishly portray the peasant’s malleability, showing us far more of the hothead than the usual hayseed. In the same spirit, tenor Johnathan Stafford White as Don Ottavio, Anna’s staunch and patient fiancé, is more of a noble champion than a feckless chump.27sQMG5Q

Perhaps even more than the men, the excellence of the three sopranos cemented my suspicion that this was the deepest Opera Carolina cast I’ve seen. While Summer didn’t allow Rachel Mills quite as much risqué latitude as I saw in Prague in consoling her battered Masetto, this Zerlina was no less irresistible in her “Vedrai carino,” applying the balm of love on his bruises. Although there were slight chinks in DuBose’s vocal armor, there were no losses in sweetness when there were dips in volume as Elvira sang her woes, and DuBose is such a fine performer that I had second thoughts each time I steered my attention elsewhere – so many of her reactions are worth watching. Most revelatory was Melinda Whittington as Donna Anna, a role I’ve often found annoying in her chaste righteousness. Whittington amped up the feeling of this grieving rape victim while tamping down her outraged fervor. Summer allowed her to wear a color to the Don’s soiree instead of shrouding her in mourning, and those dance moves further humanized her.220203_OPC_CON_1197

The joyous epilogue, celebrating the triumph of justice over wickedness, is scrapped in this new Opera Carolina production. Somehow that enhances the impact of bass Jordan Bisch as the avenging Commendatore. Both at the cemetery accepting Giovanni’s dinner invitation and later at the Don’s banquet hall, Bisch resounds thrillingly as the voice of doom. After blasting my eardrums just three weeks earlier from the Belk Theater stage with Mahler’s Ninth, a discreetly reduced Charlotte Symphony sounded comparatively wan as it wafted the Giovanni overture out of the orchestra pit. But Opera Carolina artistic director James Meena had the ensemble perfectly calibrated for the occasion, and when the curtain rose, the blend of singing and playing gave constant pleasure. As I stepped onto the elevator with another couple, hurrying to beat the Belk crowd out of the parking lot, the husband couldn’t help gushing, “This is the first classical opera we’ve seen!” If future productions are as good as this Giovanni, they will be coming back again and again.

Reboot of “I Dream” Reminds Us How True Heroes Fight for the Right

Review: I Dream from Opera Carolina

 By Perry Tannenbaum

I Dream.

After repeated efforts to capture the essence of Martin Luther King in his twice-revised I Dream, opera composer and librettist Douglas Tappin must keenly appreciate the biblical frustration of Moses on Mount Nebo – and of MLK behind a Memphis lectern on his final night. He has seen the Promised Land, but he cannot get there. For the life of this civil rights hero/icon/martyr is inextricably intertwined with his words, unforgettably spoken in Washington, in Memphis, from his Atlanta pulpit, and written from a Birmingham jail, yet hardly a trace of them can be found in Tappin’s script.

Opera Carolina’s latest remount of I Dream, which premiered in 2010 in Atlanta and reappeared in Toledo and Charlotte in 2018, newly revised for the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, is a more strategically refined and focused dance around the rhetoric with new stage direction – and considerable dramaturgical input – by Tom Diamond. James Meena, now entering his twentieth season as Opera Carolina’s artistic director, once again directed the orchestra, arguably with more ardor than ever for Tappin’s score.

If the music brings Porgy and Bess to mind, your concept likely chimes with Meena’s, for two of his principals, Alyson Cambridge as Coretta Scott King and Victor Ryan Robertson as Hosea, figured prominently in the storied revival of George Gershwin’s opera at Spoleto Festival USA in 2016. Kenneth Overton as Ralph Abernathy and Lucia Bradford as MLK’s Grandma are also steeped in that Gershwin masterwork. Yet it’s equally apt to note the influence of Broadway-style musicals on Tappin, whether it’s the revolutionary fervor of Les Miz or Andrew Lloyd Weber’s notion of opera in his Phantom. Certainly, Tappin’s music disarms any fear of being assaulted by discordant recitative and parched in a desert where no melody or aria is to be heard. On the contrary, ticket holders should brace themselves for a superabundance of power ballads.

The musical climax of the show, in the Birmingham jail, is a duel of power ballads. Robertson challenges the whole non-violent ethos of King’s movement with a spirited, militant “No Victory by Love,” and Derrick Davis as MLK answers – still triumphantly, if audience reaction was any indication – with the anthemic title song. Davis and Tappin are at their best in showing us the visionary MLK and the staunch courage of his non-violent philosophy, but the libretto needlessly attempts to deepen our impression of King as a prophet. Repeatedly, Davis must dwell on a foreboding dream in which he sees the balcony of the Memphis motel where he will be shot.

We must assume that Tappin believes this device cements King’s credentials as a prophet, though it actually undercuts them, for Davis must keep puzzling about the meaning of this dream – which is emphatically not the dream we associate with King – and Overton as Abernathy, instead of all the substantial issues and concerns he might be discussing, must waste his time (and ours) by counseling his leader to confide Tappin’s invention to his dear wife Coretta.

One might quibble over whether MLK really dedicated his career to his Grandma, but Bradford’s rendition of “Sunday Is the Day” was certainly powerful enough to inspire dedication. If Coretta is also a formative presence in MLK’s career, there’s a place for Cambridge to be singing “I Have Love to Give,” since it dovetails with her husband’s story and core beliefs, but “Midnight Moon” merely detains us in generic romance. While repeating a song with new meaning is a traditional Broadway device, it’s a bit problematical in Tappin’s hands. Late in the show when Cambridge sings “Queen Without a King,” she memorably expresses a steely determination to continue her martyred Martin’s work and assume a leadership role, a wisp of Evita that should take firmer root in Tappin’s score. Earlier, the song simply types Coretta as a weepy wife wishing her husband would stay home with family instead of pursuing a noble cause.

Sounding like a swaggering song that Crown might sing in Porgy, “No One’s Gonna Keep Us Down” took us deepest into Gershwin’s bluesy groove, and “Count to 10” worked surprisingly well in espousing MLK’s turn-the-other-cheek credo. “Top of the World,” a song of risqué celebration like “Masquerade” in Phantom, hinted at the danger of celebrity for King that could have made him vulnerable to the scheming of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who gets a sadly superficial airing that is also symptomatic of Broadway. He’s not an implacable Javert, that’s for sure.

If Martin’s womanizing or Hoover’s scandal mongering could have been shown as jeopardizing MLK’s greatest enterprises – the March on Washington, the march on Selma, or the Voting Rights Act – they would have rewarded deeper exploration. But in circling King’s greatest speeches, Tappin barely grazes what Memphis meant and almost completely ignores the March on Washington. That’s nothing short of astonishing vis-à-vis the expectations of an audience coming to see I Dream – until we consider that Tappin is skirting the actual quote, “I have a dream.” Gaping hole there as well.

To be fair, Tappin’s last two revisions were pre-pandemic, when the freshest take on King’s legacy was the Oscar-nominated Selma. No doubt about it, the march on Selma and its aftermath, in a presidential address by Lyndon B. Johnson, are the dramatic high points in Tappin’s revision, in Diamond’s staging, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting and video design, climbing majestically on the shoulders of the Birmingham sequence. Meena was strong throughout the evening, all through the two hours and 18 minutes that Tappin’s music flowed through him, perhaps strongest when he was needed most, after Davis climbed the ramp to the Memphis motel balcony for the last time.

Before the pandemic, George Floyd, the 2020 landslide election, and January 6, I Dream was more on target than it is today. If he had rewritten his opera after last November, Tappin would likely have sharpened his libretto’s emphasis on the importance of voting rights. A revision after January 6 might have further prompted a reawakening to the significance of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. For we do need reminding now what peaceful protest really is, how powerful and transformative non-violence can be, and how much more civil “I have a dream” and “We shall overcome” are as rallying cries than “fight like hell or you won’t have a country anymore.”

Sadly, we also need to be reminded that Martin Luther King hoped to move us toward “that day when all God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing.” The “you” that Donald J. Trump was addressing on January 6, 2021, belonged to only one of those groups, preferably those willing to march into the Capitol with a Confederate flag.

Op Carolina Animates “Macbeth” in “Game of Thrones” Style

Review: Verdi’s Macbeth

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Witches, ghosts, Scottish clans, regicide, guilty sleepwalking, and Shakespeare’s most famous despairing rhetoric have kept Macbeth among the Bard’s most-produced tragedies. Onstage, we’ve seen such spinoffs as Tiny Ninja Macbeth and Kabuki Macbeth in Charlotte conjuring up the one Shakespeare title that theatre veterans dread to say aloud. I suspect that, in opera as in theatre, only Romeo and Juliet has inspired more adaptations and spinoffs.

Further riffs on Macbeth have been applied by opera directors. Perhaps the most notorious were the costumes and scenic design of Mark Thompson at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, where the Thane of Cawdor, prior to meeting the witches’ coven in post-WW2 Scotland, came riding onto the battlefield in an army Jeep. Trading on the popularity of Game of Thrones, stage director Ivan Stefanutti – adding his own costume and scenic designs to his new brew at Opera Carolina – has been quite content to return the action to 11th century Scotland, where King Duncan was murdered in 1040.

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Undoubtably trusting Op Carolina artistic director James Meena, who directed the company’s premiere of Macbeth in 2004, Stefanutti brings baritone Mark Rucker back to Belk Theater to headline his high-concept production in the title role. Rucker conquered vocally as convincingly as before, though his tendency to waddle across the stage rather than striding confidently has become more noticeable during his 15-year hiatus. Stefanutti limits Macbeth’s mobility in his staging to the point that he is often upstaged by the Witches and Lady Macbeth.

Yet it must be said that Rucker’s hulking lack of grace chimes well with the Game of Thrones design concept, emphasizing the barbaric elements of the bloodthirsty king. It was probably a worse decision for Stefanutti not to delegate the animated backdrop of his production to a different artist. As executed with Michael Baumgarten, Stefanutti’s animations are way too busy, too much like a low-budget video game, and occasionally over-the-top, especially when the ghost of Banquo appears.

For some reason, there were stretches when the animations strove to simulate traditional set pieces and backdrops. Scrolling through a series of these stage-filling line drawings while the stage was vacant, Baumgarten made it look like Macbeth’s throne was riding an elevator from one hall to another! In a far, far niftier stroke, color begins to seep into the design concept when Macduff launches his vengeful rebellion against Macbeth, escalating further when Lady M has her sleepwalking scene.

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Thrones fans will likely adore the Witches’ costumes with their piercing LED eyes and floor-length beards, but their singing is equally triumphant. Outfitted in less outré gear, the men’s half of the Op Carolina Chorus is vocally as outstanding as the women’s. Obviously, the entire ensemble drew plenty of attention from Meena in rehearsals – and plenty of blocking from Stefanutti.

The youngbloods making their Charlotte debuts all do well under Meena’s baton. Bass baritone Song Zaikuan excels as Banquo even when that ridiculously large ghost animation looms behind him. Tenor Gianluca Sciarpeletti sings purely, but he struck me as too youthful to have lost a gaggle of children, which may account for his shortage of gravitas. In the other tenor role, Johnathan Kaufman’s similarly pure voice and manner are more of what we expect of Prince Malcolm, who assumes the Scottish crown after the showdown between the Macs.

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Biggest disappointment of the night was soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth. On opening night, she seemed to have lost the bloom that I found in her voice when she made her Op Carolina debut in 2013 as Aïda. Reading Macbeth’s letter, plotting Duncan’s death, and even singing gaily at the haunted banquet, Graham had me wincing each time she prepared to sing an upward interval. Couldn’t be sure she would land on precisely the right note. Yet she still cuts a charismatic figure onstage, with genuine diva acting chops. Lady M’s white gowns by Stefanutti enhance Graham’s royal glow, setting her apart from her gloomy surroundings.

Warmed up and relaxed, Graham was at her best in her valedictory sleepwalking scene. From that highlight onwards, action from singers other than the Witches picked up, Meena continued to draw spirited work from the Op Carolina Orchestra, and those mammoth animations didn’t distract during the climactic battle.

All in all, Op Carolina seems to have created a stylized Macbeth that would spark mass appeal. After all the toil and trouble that Meena, Stefanutti, and Rucker put into this spectacle – with more LED-eyed Witches than I could count – I was shocked that more people weren’t at Belk Theater to soak up all the fun, spookiness, and Game of Thrones cachet.

A Duke Has Fun, Safe from #MeToo Consequences, in Opera Carolina’s “Rigoletto”

Review: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

When he wrote his 1832 play, La roi s’amuse, Victor Hugo lavished a good amount of research on 16th century French king François I and his illicit love for the daughter of his court jester, Triboulet. Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had previously teamed together in transforming Hugo’s Ernani into opera, plunged into La roi despite the fact that its depiction of depraved historical characters had run afoul of French censors. That was something of a miscalculation, for Italian censors were no more lenient.

Verdi and Piave were compelled to move their opera to nearby Mantua and demote Hugo’s king to a duke. Those shifts affect the interrelationships of all three main characters in Rigoletto. A duke’s womanizing is more presumptuous than a king’s, and a jester’s plot to strangle a duke is less of a high crime than assassinating a king. Most important, an Italian daughter’s desire to thwart her father’s vendetta against a duke who deflowered and betrayed her is far less comprehensible than a French daughter sacrificing herself for her king and protecting her family from the stain of regicide.

Adding to the discomfort that has always suffused Gilda’s sacrifice on behalf of the reprehensible Duke of Mantua is watching it in our current #MeToo climate. The notorious Metropolitan Opera production of 2010-11 made Gilda’s adulation toward the Duke more understandable by transporting the action to Las Vegas and turning Gilda’s seducer into a nightclub superstar crooner with ties to the mob. It would be interesting to see what Opera Carolina could do with a more traditional concept, a co-production by Boston Lyric Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Opera Omaha that has had its set design and costumes baked in since it premiered in Boston, under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, in 2014.

   

You couldn’t say that Opera Carolina was ignoring their #MeToo problem, because they brought Jordan Lee Braun aboard to stage direct the Charlotte edition of this production and hired Sara Jobin to prepare the Charlotte Symphony and conduct two of the three performances. It was the first such female tandem in the company’s history.

Most of the Rigoletto rehab was evident before intermission. Conducting the orchestra at the premiere performance, general director and principal conductor James Meena had the Charlotte Symphony attacking the first sforzandos of the prelude with more savagery than we usually hear foreshadowing the curse that falls on Rigoletto from the Count Monterone, leaving less ferocity for the orchestra to crescendo to afterwards. It’s bit more vulgar and in-your-face, which is what Raffaele Abete turns out to be in the opening scene as the Duke, throwing around Monterone’s daughter, his latest conquest, by the hair as if she were a ragdoll – cuing us that he has conquered this beauty with his power and privilege rather than his charm. The other “ladies” in this opening scene, many of them courtesans who entertain the Duke’s courtiers, have been excised from this production, concentrating all malice and decadence on the Duke – and his jester, Rigoletto. Our protagonist certainly earns the Count’s curse by suggesting to the Duke that he execute the nobleman to spare himself that dad’s righteous indignation.

As Rigoletto, baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi wasn’t the most malignant mocker I’ve seen, and though costume designer Victoria Tzykun outfits him with a sizable hump, Golesorkhi declined to stoop over and enlist himself among Hugo’s hunchbacks. So he wasn’t the most pitifully deformed of jesters, either. Humpbacked rather than hunchbacked, this Rigoletto struck me as a stronger, crueler father in his insistence on walling up Gilda against the outside world. We don’t get nearly as much to pity about Rigoletto’s possessiveness. It appears, then, that Braun has elected to make both Rigoletto and the Duke more cognizant of their abusive choices and more repellent. When Gilda hoped out loud that her secret love would be poor and simple, the Duke visibly overheard it, debunking any notion that he was romantically inspired when he masqueraded as the penniless Gualtier Maldè.

Yet after intermission, Abete pushed back against the notion that he was a purely vicious, self-gratifying rogue. In his fervent “Parmi veder le lagrime,” the tenor convinced me that the Duke was feeling the pangs of true love for the first time, and later, when his infidelity would soon be exposed to the worshipful Gilda, he sang the famous “La donna è mobile” with the joy of a world-class hedonist. Returning to Charlotte after a fine turn last fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés wasn’t as impressive in Gilda’s signature aria. The notes of the beloved “Caro nome” were all there – including most of the trills – but the blushes and longing we could have heard, let alone the heavy aches that Maria Callas achieved, were nowhere to be found in a rendition that was hardly middling, and she earned no bravas from the audience.

Called upon to be more confessional and spirited in her subsequent arias, Simard-Galdés plumbed more deeply into Gilda’s soul. She was poignant after Gilda had been dismissed by the Duke at his palace. In the final act, after watching the Duke betray her love with nearly the exact sentiments he professed to her, Gilda is sent off to Verona where, disguised as a man, Rigoletto instructs her to wait for him while his hired assassin, Sparafucile, does his dirty work. This was where Simard-Galdés was at her best, reacting to the Duke’s betrayal as part of Verdi’s great quartet, and implausibly returning later on to take her beloved Duke’s place as Sparafucile’s victim. The soprano’s heartfelt little aria was heartbreaking – and like so many other moments in this opera, absolutely infuriating.

I sympathized most with Golesorkhi in the final two acts, when Rigoletto told Monterone that he would make sure to see that his curse on the Duke was fulfilled and when he empathized with Gilda at those moments she was seeing the Duke’s true character clearly. Sadly, Golesorkhi’s moping return to the palace, after Gilda was stolen from him, was relatively lackluster. But the volcano of rage welling up in Rigoletto; telling the courtiers that Gilda was his daughter, not his lover, and then cursing the lot of them; was magnificent.

For anyone who has felt that the closing tableau of Rigoletto was dramatically overlong, as Gilda slowly reaches her final breath in Rigoletto’s arms, Golesorkhi and Simard-Galdés were both helped by Opera Carolina’s staging. A nifty sleight-of-hand took place before Rigoletto, alerted by the sound of the Duke’s signature aria, realized that Gilda had been murdered instead of her seducer. Golesorkhi seemed to discover the dying Gilda and to cradle her in his arms, but she was a body double. Simard-Galdés emerged from behind a scrim, radiantly lit in Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design, a soul already in heaven as she sang. The alteration made sense, but I was ambivalent about it.

Unlike Tzykun’s costume designs or Martha Ruskai’s wig and makeup designs, I didn’t find John Conklin’s set design particularly worth preserving, scanty for its palace, lacking a façade for Sparafucile’s tavern, and utterly illogical for the courtship and abduction episodes. Courtiers actually looked down on the garden scene as Gilda sang the final notes of her rapturous “Caro nome,” moments before they climbed up a ladder to abduct her! But it’s utterly fanciful to say that the courtiers climbed anything, for there was nothing substantial for Rigoletto to lean a ladder against, except an invisible fourth wall facing us. That ladder was ridiculously small, and needless to say, no climbing was done.

Overall, the Opera Carolina components of this production were stronger than their borrowings. Ashraf Sawailam reminded us what a plum cameo Count Monterone’s role is with his stern denunciations, and bass baritone Matthew Curran had nearly all of Sparafucile’s sneering machismo, including the long low note he must hold departing from his first conspiratorial parley with Rigoletto. Paradoxically, it was Leyla Martinucci as Sparafucile’s sister and accomplice Maddalena, who best affirmed Gilda’s crazed devotion toward the Duke.

Hired to help take the Duke off-guard, Martinucci simpers, flirts, and vamps with professional self-assurance, yet she also convinces us that Maddelena has fallen victim to his charms when she pleads with her cutthroat brother to save the rascal’s life. Martinucci is an apt subject for the Duke’s “Bella figlia dell’amore” aria, and the mezzo-soprano contributed beguilingly to the climactic quartet that blossomed from his endless appetite for self-gratification. Yes, the Duke was having fun as Hugo’s original title prescribed, but what remained horrifying was that woman after woman could mistake it for love.

Opera Carolina – and Six International Collaborators – Present a Top-Drawer La Fanciulla del West

Review: Charlotte Opera The Girl of the Golden West

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Opera Carolina general director and principal conductor James Meena walked out onto the Belk Theater stage to introduce the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, he was appropriately sporting a black Western-style Stetson. That hat nearly grew old before our eyes as Meena delivered his curtain speech, for he had so much more to say than usual – even when he’s enumerating the generous sponsors of a production and capping off a season by announcing next year’s lineup. Not only was the New York City Opera a collaborator on this production (as they were for last season’s American premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Aleko), so were five new co-producing companies from Italy, including Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown.

That was just the first leg of the extras from Meena. One of the sponsors, Wells Fargo, is actually represented in the opera – and in the David Belasco melodrama, The Girl of the Golden West, from which Puccini took his storyline – by Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent on the trail of Dick Johnson, our hero. So the storied San Francisco company has contributed some memorabilia to the design of this production, dating back to its iconic stagecoach days during the California Gold Rush. Finally, if there were some in the audience who weren’t already aware of it, tenor Marcello Giordani, who was about to sing the role of Johnson (alias the outlaw Ramerrez), has brought his international vocal competition to Charlotte. The four sessions of preliminary rounds, semifinals, and finals are interlaced with the three performances of La Fanciulla at Belk Theater. All in all, quite a week for Meena and Opera Carolina.

Although Sheriff Jack Rance broods among the miners at the Polka Saloon in the opening moments, impatiently awaiting the arrival of Minnie, La Fanciulla doesn’t zero in on its core story and characters as efficiently as Puccini’s Tosca, Butterfly, and Bohème. That’s not a problem if you have strong singers in the secondary roles carrying the early action. Most of the singers in minor roles gave first-rate performances. Jeff McEvoy as camp minstrel Jake Wallace gave a fine account of the homesick “Che faranno I vecchi miei” aria, justifiably launching an empathetic men’s chorus after him. Baritone Giovanni Guagliardo was such a powerful presence onstage that you could think he was one of the leading players until he was identified as Sonora, and bass-baritone Dan Boye slid ably from bravado to pathos as Sid when the card dealer was caught cheating. But all of the aspirants to Minnie’s regard didn’t sound as formidable as Sonora, and tenor Gianluca Bocchino was shockingly underpowered when he appeared as Nick, the Polka’s sly barkeep. Bocchino must have been pretty alarmed himself, for he sang much more effectively later on.

The poignant homesickness of the minstrel and the collection Sonora takes up on behalf of the disillusioned miner are well worth keeping in mind when Minnie pleads for Johnson’s life in Act 3. Similarly, the miners’ rage against Sid’s duplicity – and Rance’s authoritative intervention on behalf of the cardsharper, meting out punishment that is less than a noose – also foreshadows what we’ll see from them after intermission. While the overall design is artful, there was a welcome intensification of the drama when Minnie, Johnson, and the outlaw’s chief pursuer, Agent Ashby, showed up. As Sheriff Rance, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov is a powerful, menacing presence – Scarpia-like in his driving urges, with feelings and morals layered on. But until he was alone with Minnie, past the midpoint of Act 1, Rance could not reveal his soul. Singing the “Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito” aria, Bogdanov showed it to us, a wisp of tenderness mixed into his gruffness. Although they don’t come into play nearly as dramatically, Ashby also seems to have feelings for Minnie, and baritone Jason McKinney has a powerful presence that matches up well with the other lawman.

Stage director and production designer Ivan Stefanutti has responded well to the demands of this drama in casting and directing these two imposing baritones, but there is an extra measure of flamboyance to this pioneering spaghetti Western. Set in the foothills of the mighty Sierra Mountains, this Western emphatically separates itself from the Cactus League of the genre by including a massive blizzard at the climax of Act 2. So the men don’t merely sport boots, buckskins, vests, and a panoply of brimmed and furry hats. They also wear a variety of coats. In a wonderful array of costumes – including a turquoise suit for Rance – Steffanuti has gone with fur coats for both Rance and Johnson. Ashby’s rakish raincoat, on the other hand, is worthy of the Flying Dutchman.

Maybe a couple of words should be said about the projections designed by Op Carolina’s Michael Baumgarten. Setting the scene in the Sierras, the animated views of the mountain are tastefully dark and monochromatic, maybe a little too aggressively varied for their purpose. The animated backdrops, when the Polka interior becomes established, also changed a little too busily for my taste, but the emphasis on the Ramerrez wanted poster pointed up a prime advantage of animation. One second, the poster can be many times lifesize; the next moment, it can diminish to insignificance. In Act 2, as we reached the pivotal poker game between Minnie and Rance – with Ramerrez’s life as the stakes – the backdrop filled with supersized playing cards. But do they really need to crazily flip around like we’re in a living slot machine? Again the background changes at Minnie’s cabin were too busy, at one point seeming to suggest that Minnie lives inside a tree, and later implying that either Ramerrez’s gang or the Sheriff’s posse was outside guarding the cabin. Mercifully, Baumgarten was more restrained in Act 3, and the dawn of Ramerrez’s redemption came with more subtlety.

Giordani measures up well physically against his imposing antagonists, but the tenor has a noticeably gentler demeanor as Johnson, more convincing as an ardent lover than as a cunning and ruthless bandit on the run. Since he’s tracked down, shot, and strung up, banditry wasn’t a particularly strong aptitude for Ramerrez, so a name change followed by a career change would be sensible directions that he could see for himself in Act 2. Puccini’s music certainly pulls Johnson toward romance, redemption, and domesticity, and Giordani responds best in the heartfelt “Io non ti lascio più” duet in Act 2, before his past dalliances with a certain Nina are confirmed. Listening to Giordani deliver the “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act 3 when the jig is up, I really did feel like this was a penitent and reformed Ramerrez.

Making her Opera Carolina debut, soprano Kristin Sampson brings a stocky presence to Minnie that seemed, upon a few minutes of reflection, to be as right as Ethel Merman singing the gun-toting Annie Oakley. While I’d be leery of seeing Sampson as the fragile Mimi in Bohème, there was Tosca-like power for her to work with here as she made her dynamic entrance with a good-sized firearm holstered on her hip. She decisively resisted Rance and did not melt easily when Johnson started wooing, so her half of the Act 2 love duet came with a delicious onrush of amorous passion we hadn’t heard before. Yet she far surpassed herself in Act 3, pleading for Ramerrez’s life – one miner at a time – in Minnie’s “Non vi fu mai chi disse ‘Basta!’” The plaint built powerfully in its conviction, and as the miners gradually joined in, became a chorus of communal forgiveness and kindness that I found unexpectedly moving. Never having seen La Fanciulla performed live before, I hoped I’d be seeing a first-rate production of second-rate Puccini. Leaving Belk Theater, I had the distinct feeling that this opera deserves top-drawer status. I suspect many other longtime Opera Carolina subscribers felt the same.

Opera Carolina Taps into a New Audience with Three Short Operas – Including a World Premiere

Reviews: “A Hand of Bridge,” “The Telephone,” and “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Just when you might have thought Opera Carolina was turning away from fruitful collaborations, they are diving back in with renewed vigor. Last month’s production of The Barber of Seville, kicking off their 2016-17 mainstage season, rose to the same high level of the previous Op Carolina production of Rossini’s comic gem directed by Bernard Uzan in 2002. Yet a noteworthy difference was the absence of Piedmont Opera as a co-producer, so after its Charlotte run ended on October 30, there was no second run in Winston-Salem as there had been 14 years earlier. Not to fear, new collaborators came into play within four days as Op Carolina forged new bonds with the D9 Brewing Company and the Warehouse Performing Arts Center. While these two Cornelius, NC, outfits are non-operatic, they fit in with the Charlotte company’s aim to remind us that all operas aren’t grand and that all opera audiences need not be elderly, strait-laced, and richly appareled. Everything about their world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” was youthful, casual, and populist.

The free event was at D9, where a line of draught beer taps greeted me near the entrance, and a row of tall stainless steel brew tanks caught my eye as I made my way to my front row seat – on a folding chair. Joiner’s new opera would half-surround me, a string quartet and pianist/music director Emily Jarrell Urbanek slightly behind me and a cast of 14 in front of me in a far corner of the brewery that served as a stage. Two smaller chamber operas with librettos by Gian Carlo Menotti led up to the premiere. Music director Erin Palmer accompanied from the keyboard as the triptych opened with “A Hand of Bridge,” the 1959 score by Menotti’s life partner Samuel Barber, almost axiomatically a four-hander. Dr. Greg Thompson took over at the keyboard for “The Telephone,” a two-hander that Menotti wrote all by himself in 1947, when it premiered together with The Medium.

Clocking at around a scant 10 minutes, “A Hand of Bridge” is a bit long for its subject, problematical for singers and stage directors because Menotti frequently loses interest in the cardplaying once the bidding stage is over. It’s the characters who matter, except perhaps for Sally, whose thoughts don’t go beyond the depth of craving a peacock-feather hat, appropriately the dummy for this hand. The way she announces her passive status gives her husband Bill a spasm of anxiety: maybe she has discovered that he’s having an affair! Sally, sung with slightly more personality than a tape loop by Anna Harrevald, seems like sufficient reason for a husband to stray. Singing about his beloved Cymbeline, tenor Kyle Melton seemed less blissfully committed to his paramour than disaffected with his wife. Cymbeline seemed to have six or other men to choose from, rousing jealousy within Melton’s aria, but his roiling passions made for a comical contrast with Harrevald’s shrill shallowness when they sang together.

The other couple had a different disconnect that evoked a little more sympathy. Geraldine has suddenly realized that nobody loves her, not her stock-trading husband, her football son, or even Bill, whose days of playing footsie with her under the table are long gone. With her pure soprano, Lindsey Gallegos took advantage of her opportunity to turn in the most heartfelt singing of the evening, crossing over the edge of maudlin when Menotti’s lyrics took her to regrets over her breach with her dying mother, the only person alive whom she feels truly cares. Her husband, David, underscored Geraldine’s isolation in a more human fashion than I anticipated. As David, baritone David Clark could sing feelingly about his status as a downtrodden stock market underling, dreaming of the excesses he would indulge in if he were richer than his hateful boss Pritchett, until he realized that, even with fabulous wealth, he’d still be likely to spend humdrum bridge nights with Bill and Sally. So the materialistic David had a wider range of emotion than Clark to contrast with his wife. Altogether the closing quartet sketched the separate subterranean streams that run through the minds of people who have known each other a long time but don’t truly know each other at all. Perhaps the most timely aspect of this quartet happened when “A Hand of Bridge” dropped us off in our current world with its final exclamation: “Trump!”

“The Telephone” was clearly the fulcrum of the program, linked to the “Bridge” miniature by its librettist and the world premiere to follow with its comical use of the phone. Separated by 79 years, those phones ought to look radically different, but stage director Jessica Zingher opted for an update, equipping both Ben and Lucy with cellphones. Poor Ben. He hopes to propose to Lucy before he must leave on a business trip, but the woman can’t be torn loose from her phone. I believe soprano Kate Edahl handled five phone calls while Ben attempted to present her with an engagement ring and pop the question, over 15 minutes of delays, exacerbated by some fine coloratura filigree. Three of the calls – chattering to Margaret, fielding a wrong number, and inquiring about the time – were frustrating for their triviality. Another two were connected: after getting a furious call from George, she had to tell Pamela about the false accusation. Unlike Ben, I found myself thankful for the follow-up call, because Edahl was mostly unintelligible responding to George’s unheard verbal assault.

Both of the modifications required by the update fell to baritone Eric Lofton to execute. Back in 1947, Ben attempted to disable Lucy’s phone by cutting the cord with a scissors while she was momentarily out of the room. Here he flipped a pair of scissors over and attempted the bludgeon her cell with the butt end, arguably improving the comedy effect. Lofton carried all of this off with a nice mixture of ardent devotion and helpless frustration, though the vocal lines afforded to Edahl were more flattering. And to tell the truth, the tech update applied to “The Telephone” leaves Ben looking a little less bright. Lucy occupies herself so long in phone chatter that Ben must leave on his business trip before he can propose. In 1947, he found a handy phone booth along the way, but in Opera Carolina’s revival, he simply pulls a cellphone out of his pocket – a stratagem he could have resorted to earlier instead of wielding those scissors. With all of Edahl’s giddiness and all of Loftin’s dogged earnestness, I found myself in a forgiving mood as the couple reached their happy ending, but what Thompson had provided from the keyboard to simulate the ringing of Lucy’s cell definitely needed a reboot.

Keeping those production shortfalls in mind, I was very happy to see the technical polish lavished upon “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera).” If you haven’t heard of Tinder, I can tell you that it’s a smartphone app that facilitates getting acquainted with strangers through photos and texting. Getting information about the app and installing it are impressively easy. On my iPhone’s app store, I simply entered t in the search box and Tinder appeared instantly on the top of the list of choices, lending credence to their claim that they have made 10 billion matches worldwide. Joiner’s opera, extolling the joy, the excitement, and the pain of prospecting for a date with Tinder, explains the key difference between the free and paid versions of the app, shows us the app in action, and ends in delicious mock tragedy.

Besides the extra instrumental artillery of a string quartet, Michael Baumgarten completely covered the fevered Tinder activity of our protagonist, Graham, with a set of projection designs that were superbly synchronized to the texting/singing. Color-coded text balloons, white for Graham and blue for the parade of his dating prospects, were sequenced on opposite sides of brewery’s white wall behind the players, scrolling upwards as the sound and text conversations moved along. Glued to his smaller screen, Johnny Harmon was the young man fervently looking for love – within the constraints of the free app. In the only non-telephone conversation, Graham and a Waiter (Tim Laurio) concur that the monthly rate for the premium version of the app is way too high. Among the dozen prospects who texted with Graham, my favorites were Amber (Xela Pinkerton), Sakura (Sarah Musick), and – for obvious reasons – the dolled-up Dennis (David Clark). Sakura’s answers were in disconcerting Asian characters, and when Graham asked Amber whether she was free that night, she insisted she would only take cash.

Graham finally appeared to find a soulmate in Katie, wholesomely sung by Corey Lovelace. What clinched Katie’s attraction for Graham was her revelation that she liked opera, all the proof we needed that both Katie and Graham were people of genuine substance. But that was precisely the moment when tragedy struck. Dropped connection? Battery drain? Unlike his title, Joiner’s libretto offered the production team a choice, and Baumgarter chose the latter for his final screen shot. Graham’s expression of devastated anguish was worthy of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Instead of crying out “la maledizione!” (“the curse!”) as the inconsolable jester always does, Harmon let out a single word – “Tinder!” – with all the might of an overstressed lumberjack. A memorable ending to a fun hour of opera that absolutely delighted the standing-room-only crowd. Of course, the craft beer didn’t hurt, either. D9’s other collaboration with Opera Carolina is a West Coast IPA “boasting grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors.” If you haven’t guessed the name, it’s HOpera Carolina. I hope that more of these collaborations are on tap for the future.