They sit beside you in rush hour tunnel traffic, order after you at Handsome Biscuit, and share your taste in local craft beer. By day, they brew your coffee, teach (or deliver) your children, or sell you an iPhone; by night, they join together to recreate some of the most divine music ever written.
They’re the performers of Tidewater Opera Initiative—or TOI, a cheeky play on the opera tradition of wishing a performer good luck by saying, “Toi, toi, toi!”—Virginia’s first boutique opera company.
Launched in 2013 by local vocalists Suzanne Oberdorfer and Kathryn Kelly, TOI was created to give young area singers more opportunities to hone their craft in full-scale opera productions. TOI’s first production, Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, debuted to sold-out audiences.
This time around, TOI is tackling The Marriage of Figaro, a Mozart-composed opera based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ play of the same name—a play that was, by the way, initially banned in Vienna for immorality. Here’s the gist: a sleazy count wants to get with his wife’s maid, who is most inconveniently engaged to Figaro. (Even if your opera knowledge is limited to Looney Tunes shorts, you almost certainly know Figaro’s overture, which has been featured in everything from summer blockbusters to cat food commercials.)
While Figaro is one of the most-performed operas in the world, Opera Roanoke Artistic Director Scott Williamson, who is directing the TOI production, is confident audiences will experience something completely new.
“We’re doing it in a small black box theatre, so it’s more intimate than patrons would normally get to experience, even in a small opera house,” said Williamson.
Aurelien Eulert, the production’s music director, agreed that the small space is an advantage.
“As an audience, you get to see a lot more, because it’s right there in your face,” he said. “You’re right there in the action, and there’s a lot less distraction. It’s a way to enjoy opera without being in a big 500-or-more seat room, and I’m hoping people feel really integrated into the production.”
Under Williamson’s artistic direction, the more than 200-year-old Figaro is also receiving a setting update: the 1920s.
“That era has been a great parallel to the time of The Marriage of Figaro,” said Williamson. “The class relationships, the high society finding itself and putting on its airs, the working class in contrast. There’s an Upstairs, Downstairs relationship in both worlds.”
TOI even removed the language barrier that makes so many would-be opera listeners squeamish: the entire score is sung in English.
But perhaps the most unique aspect of TOI’s Figaro is that, with the exception of two performers, every cast member calls Hampton Roads home. Even Williamson is a Chesapeake native.
“We’re incredibly privileged to have this kind of talent in our own backyard,” said Kelly, TOI’s executive director. “The people on stage performing this transcendent music are our neighbors and colleagues.”
The exceptional cast may be local, but they’re anything but amateur. Adam Piper plays resident villain Count Almaviva with such a sensual vibrato that you almost forget to root against him; Stephanie Marx is equally mesmerizing as the Count’s long-suffering wife, layering every note with velvet.
TOI Director of Educational Development and performance regular Shelly Milam-Ratliff plays Susanna, Figaro’s fiancée and the Count’s intended conquest. She’s an expressive performer with a stupefying voice—you’ll be hard-pressed to take your eyes off of her.
Even the more minor characters leave a major impression: Chris Burnette and Rollin Reeder are utterly charming as Don Basilio and Don Bartolo, while Adriane Kerr electrifies every scene she’s in. Sara Crigger and Suzanne Oberdorfer show off their flawless comedic timing in their split role as Cherubino, and Chonise Thomas’ stage presence shines brighter than the house lights. Bradley Fielding, who once sang in the chorus of TOI’s Cosi as a GSA student, returns as Antonio, bringing a dynamic, eager voice.
“When Suzanne and I started this company, we could never have imagined putting on a show like this one, with its huge cast of amazing musicians, beautiful lighting and costumes, and stage direction that is at once highly stylized and achingly intimate—but only three seasons in, and here we are,” said Kelly. “It’s a testament to the power of working within our community, of looking for the local magic that is right here at our fingertips. If only we nourish it, incredible things will bloom.”
Performances will be held at the black box theater at the Governor’s School for the Arts, 254 Granby St., Norfolk, VA 23510, Aug. 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, and 23. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased here. For more information, visit here.