This weekend, Mozart’s classic comedy meets Purcell’s epic love story in Tidewater Opera Initiative’s season debut.
When I heard TOI would be performing Mozart’s The Impresario immediately followed by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas on the same night, my first thoughts were why? And just how long is this going to be??? Operas are not normally known for their brevity. But after attending a dress rehearsal in their new home in the NEON, I appreciated the connection and was actually a little disappointed when the evening ended in just two hours.
The Impresario has been adapted into the comedic story of two divas competing for a starring role in the upcoming tragic opera Dido and Aeneas. Whether you’re a seasoned opera fan or curious about opera, this is the perfect performance to check out.
I have to start off by declaring just how much I appreciate and adore the Tidewater Opera Initiative. Having lived in Vienna, I’ve been fortunate to have a rather lustrous background in opera: I’ve seen the original, hand written scores by Mozart; been in the opulent, marble and gold-gilded opera houses of Europe; sat among the Viennese high society dripping in diamonds and furs. Essentially, every stereotype that comes to mind when you think opera I’ve experienced in some form. And TOI is the exact opposite. TOI strips away all the stuffiness, pretension, and intimidation that many feel when they think of opera, but leaves all the magic and talent intact.
TOI creates an opera experience that is accessible to all. Just this past week, they’ve found their new home in the NEON’s Hugh R. Copeland Center (also known as the Hurrah Players building.) The perfect addition to the arts district! The theatre provides a very intimate setting…with only 5 rows and approximately 100 seats, there’s not a bad spot in the house. Normally, a $20 ticket to the opera ($15 for students) either wouldn’t get you in the door, or you’d be in the upper, nose bleed section wishing you’d brought binoculars (or ‘opera glasses’ if you’re swanky.) But at TOI, $20 will get you into the front row, and the front row is only FEET away from the performers. There’s an amazing immediacy to be so close to the action. It’s all encompassing and you feel swept up in the magic of the music and story.
The first story of the evening is an adapted version of The Impresario by Mozart. This is less opera, more comedic parody on the vanity of opera divas as they compete for status and star billing. “Impresario” is an Italian word for someone who organizes, and often finances operas, essentially the manager of an opera company. Our story centers around impresario Sarah (Sarah Kingsley), trying to cast the upcoming performance of Dido and Aeneas with the help of leading man Steven (Steven Field), and patron Michael (Michael Gray). The ‘art imitating life’ aspect of the performance is fun. You feel like you’re getting a glimpse behind the scene and already helps you to connect to the performance of Dido and Aeneas that is coming up.
Auditioning sopranos to be the lead in an upcoming opera wouldn’t normally be hilarious, but it is when Michael is using his role as patron to get his girlfriends into the performance. Yes, Michael, has two operatic girlfriends — both divas, both temperamental, and both competing for the same role. With tight dresses, dangerous heels, and a purse dog, these ladies are the epitome of prima donnas. Anna is the more seasoned opera performer but with an overblown sense of her star power, while Erin is the ingénue determined to start at the very top. They hilariously battle it out in song form, trying to out-do each other while singing about the nobility of their art with ever higher notes. Anna Feucht and Erin Hannon are utterly perfect as the divas. They’re outrageous, over the top, and so much fun to experience.
After a brief intermission, the 2nd opera of the evening, Dido and Aeneas, starts. And it is absolutely breath taking. While the first performance was funny and cute, a “silly farce with serious music,” this, THIS is everything I love about opera. It’s passionate, dark, mysterious, and tragic. And I got literal chills when the chorus, dressed in black, carrying lights, walked through the audience to their places up front.
Dido and Aeneas is known for being a tragic love story, but personally, I like to think of it as the opera with awesome occult ties. For those unfamiliar with the story, Dido, Queen of Carthage, falls in love with Trojan hero Aeneas when he is shipwrecked on Carthage. Eventually, he is tricked by an evil sorceress and her witches (who are plotting the destruction of Dido and Carthage) into abandoning her to found the city of Troy.
Stephanie Marx, as Dido, is captivating. She is both regal and vulnerable. She beautifully captures the spirit of “Dido’s Lament,” a famously tragic song of love and loss. Steven Field is a strong, charming Aeneas. It’s a pleasure to watch him transform from the amiable actor in The Impresario to the stately Trojan hero of Aeneas. But it is Adriane Kerr, as the evil sorceress, and her entourage of witches and spirits, who stole the show for me. Whether she’s conjuring storms or bewitching spirits, her scenes are absolutely mesmerizing.
I was really surprised when the performances ended after only 2 hours (approximately one hour per opera) — usually it seems like operas last forever, and I say that as a die hard opera fan. In this case, I was actually left wanting more. To me, that’s the charm of TOI. They strip away the barriers to opera. You’re RIGHT there, in the performance. It’s enthralling and you can easily lose yourself in the experience. There’s an all encompassing vibe here that you don’t experience in a larger opera house, sitting 30 rows back, divided from an elevated stage by an orchestra pit while wrestling a guy in a tuxedo for the arm rest. There’s just something indescribably amazing about sitting in a room and hearing absolutely brilliant local talent perform immediately in front of you.
If you’d like to experience this for yourself, please click on the link for more information or to reserve your tickets.