If you’re quiet enough coming off the elevator of the all-but-abandoned Monticello Office Building at night, you’ll hear the faint sound of a piano.
Closer down the hallway, two voices join in. Then a third. Now a fourth. When you finally reach the source of sound—and light, as the rest of the building occupants headed home hours ago—you will have found yourself in the middle of Tidewater Opera Initiative’s Friday night rehearsal.
Six months ago, the group didn’t even exist; now, in a matter of days, it will be offering Norfolk audiences a full-scale performance of Mozart’s celebrated Cosi fan Tutte. Ticket demand has been so high that a Thursday night performance was added to the schedule, while Friday night is sold out entirely. Saturday is soon to follow suit.
Tidewater Opera Initiative—affectionately called “TOI” by its members, a nod to the opera superstition of wishing a performer good luck by saying, “Toi, toi, toi!” in rapid succession—is the beloved brainchild of local vocalists Suzanne Oberdorfer and Kathryn Kelly. The twosome co-founded the organization with one mission in mind: provide new opportunities for young local singers to showcase their talent on a wider scale.
“For young singers, we don’t usually get the opportunity to sing these lead roles,” said John Holman, a 25-year-old tenor whose own musical background spans nearly 19 years. “In opera—and this is kind of a generalization—these roles are filled by people who are 35 and older, almost exclusively.”
In the notoriously competitive opera world, even the most talented emerging vocalists can find themselves regulated to chorus roles—provided they’re fortunate enough to land a contract at all.
“Music has a high burnout rate,” said Holman. “People major in music in college, then they think, ‘Okay, I’m going to have this career now.’It’s not like law or medicine, where you can find a career immediately. It takes creativity.”
Luckily, creativity is one thing TOI doesn’t lack—or enthusiasm, for that matter. Since its launch in February, TOI has already organized a highly-praised benefit concert (Songs for Oklahoma, which featured the talents of more than 20 local performers and raised more than $1,200 for the American Red Cross), brought in guest performers and organized workshops for high school and collegiate musicians.
The TOI founders themselves boast impressive credentials: mezzo-soprano Oberdorfer recently made her mainstage debut with Opera Roanoke as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance, and is a well-known fixture of the Virginia Opera.
Kelly is armed with a master’s degree from Westminster Choir College, and along with her wide-ranging work with the Virginia Opera, is a featured soloist of the Virginia Chorale.
Together, they’ve recruited a diverse group of local singers who continue to surprise audiences with their talent—and, given the lack of generosity amongst vocalists vying for a limited number of roles, continue to surprise the local opera scene.
While keeping an eye out for new talent, Oberdorfer and Kelly also handle a daunting spectrum of administrative tasks, which include details as large as securing a performance venue, to as small as deciding how many handfuls of rose petals the chorus will throw.
They are also tasked with stretching a fairly restricted budget: props and scenery are largely borrowed, or fashioned on living room floors by TOI members themselves. During rehearsal, Kelly proudly produced a bundle of orange and purple silk flowers. “Dollar Store,” she sing-songed proudly. “There’s a part in the show that references ‘all the beautiful flowers,’ and—” she then pointed to a green topiary, “—that was all we had.”
While limited funds might result in a bare-bones performance for other companies, TOI manages to turn what is arguably its greatest challenge into its most charming selling point: an intimate performance that transforms Mozart into something that is not only accessible, but entertaining, to modern audiences.
In keeping with local ties, TOI trades 18th century Naples for a more approachable setting: 1950s Norfolk. Sporting an English translation, the 200-year-old Cosi is suddenly a world littered with Dixie Cup sailor caps, pin-up dresses and flag-waving downtowners.
Two soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo (reimagined as fresh-faced doughboys, and played by John Holman and Marshall Severin with the goofy eagerness of any 21-year-old sailor you might see on Granby Street), test the love of their unsuspecting girlfriends by entering into a Faustian-like bet with the mischievous and wealthy Don Alfonso (played by guest bass Andrew Potter of Lynchburg, whose animated facial expressions alone are worth the $15 admission).
Shelly Milam-Ratliff—dubbed “the Beyonce of TOI” for her jaw-droppingly flawless arpeggios—shines as the icily beautiful Fiordiligi, and channels equal parts Gracy Kelly and The Real Housewives of New York City’s The Countess. Oberdorfer plays the equally gorgeous but histrionic sister Dorabella (think RHONYC’s Ramona—though, sadly, without the Turtle Time dance), delivering her part with such electricity that it’s easy to forget that she’s spent every night this month handling the performance’s ticket sales.
Kelly shows off her dynamic range in the role of Despina, a saucy maid with a love of gossip rags who, unfortunately for her mistresses, isn’t above doing anything for a buck. Kelly also slays as a quack doctor (Despina in disguise) who specializes in both “magnetic therapy” and sounds suspiciously like Vinzinni from The Princess Bride.
And true to their mission, TOI nurtures the youngest generation of singers by stockpiling the chorus with the Governor’s School for the Arts’ startling talented vocal students, whose enchanting stage presence and arresting voices make you forget many of them aren’t yet old enough to vote.
Corralling these magnetic performers is the job of director Alan Fischer. By day, Fischer heads the Governor’s School Vocal Music department, a position he has held since 1994. By night, he is the undisputed godfather of TOI, tasked with unleashing the energy of the show while keeping its logistics practical. (“I hope we have a push broom for those,” he sighs, eyeing the silk rose petals the chorus members are set to throw during the wedding scene.)
For those who wouldn’t normally dream of sitting through a 3-hour opera, Cosi is an impressive display of sharp young talent mixed with feats of physical comedy. For those who relish nothing more than a good aria, Cosi inspires a new sort of tenderness for the art, like finding letters from an old lover. And for the young performers in the audience, Cosi means a chance to see what they might yet be.
But for the members of TOI, Cosi means much more than even that.
“Everyone here,” Holman—who had finally been awarded a 5-minute break—began to say. He gestured around the room at his cast mates, some of whom were sitting cross-legged on the floor organizing props. Others were scribbling down Fischer’s notes in their scores. The rest were instinctively bowing their heads in time with Mozart’s masterwork, forgetting the existence of the entire city buzzing outside the rehearsal room walls. “Singing these roles,” Holman continued, “is exactly where they need to be.”
Performances will be held at the Perry Family Theater in Norfolk on August 15, 16, 17 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online here or can be reserved by calling (757) 913-1TOI or emailing TidewaterOperaInitiative@gmail.com. For more information, visit http://www.tidewateroperainitiative.org/