The English playwright, abolitionist, and reform-minded philanthropist Hannah More, a copy of whose 1777 drama Percy was catalogued as part of Mozart’s estate at the time of his death in 1791, wrote in a 1775 letter to one of her sisters that ‘going to the opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it.’ Pondering More’s sentiment, every child of a conscientious mother can likely imagine said mother planting her hands on her hips and saying, with precisely the appropriate interrogatory tone, ‘What exactly did she mean by that?’ What, indeed? To be sure, opera is an utterly unique, intoxicating organism, one capable of astonishing feats of metamorphosis, but can it really be characterized as a Dostoevskian synthesis of crime and consequences? Few opera lovers have been fortunate enough to wholly avoid performances that might be described as crimes against the operatic muse, but offending interpreters of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and Maddalena de Coigny and Poulenc’s Carmélites have yet to actually be guillotined in retribution for their on-stage transgressions. Perhaps, then, the wages of opera’s sins are emotional rather than punitive: granted the privilege of witnessing trespasses of operatic proportions enacted in song, one’s penance is spiritual rather than physical. Hearing the heartfelt oaths of Rossini’s Arsace, the death throes of Bellini’s Romeo and Giulietta, the vengeful utterances of Verdi’s Odabella, and the ecstatic proclamations of Richard Strauss’s Freihild resound in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University in Washington Concert Opera performances of Semiramide, I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, Attila, and Guntram, going to the opera engenders sensations too euphoric to be denied or forgotten. If these escapades truly are sinful, Washington Concert Opera performances have for thirty years been inveigling seductresses, Delilahs and Jezebels adorned with musical jewels that have sparkled dazzlingly in the sometimes-calamitous atmosphere of the American capital. Celebrating their beloved institution’s thirtieth anniversary with a gala concert on 18 September 2016, featuring soprano Angela Meade, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, tenor Michele Angelini, and other guests performing music that pays homage to the company’s legacy, today’s stewards of Washington Concert Opera—Executive Director Caryn Kerstetter Reeves, Artistic Director Antony Walker, Board of Directors President Melissa Rhea, and Chief Operating Officer Adrianne Eby—usher in a new era in WCO’s odyssey with an affectionate musical appraisal of the past. Enjoying such a performance hardly seems like punishment, Miss More, but, if this be sinful, vice sounds positively irresistible.
Founded by conductor Stephen Crout and Arts administrator Peter Russell, Washington Concert Opera’s journey began in 1986 with a performance of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles that featured Hei-Kyung Hong as Leïla, the late Jerry Hadley as Nadir, and Gaétan Laperrière as Zurga. From that start, the organization’s mission has been admirably consistent: bring opera in concert form to metropolitan Washington with the highest standards of musicality—standards that, in practical terms, cannot always be achieved or maintained in fully-staged productions. In subsequent years, WCO performances have often filled voids in the repertories of America’s opera companies, giving neglected scores opportunities to reveal their glories to attentive audiences. Rarely heard in North America, Bellini’s Il pirata, Donizetti’s La favorite (in its original French), Massenet’s Esclarmonde, Mercadante’s Il giuramento, Rossini’s Bianca e Falliero, Strauss’s Guntram, and Verdi’s Il corsaro have all benefited from Washington Concert Opera’s attention, ambitiously furthering the objective of spotlighting works that languish in the shadows of better-known operas.
Central to the realization of this core component of WCO’s artistic goal is the casting of performances with singers who possess the qualities that the rôles at hand require. Not even the best intentions make a soprano without both an ironclad bravura technique and an unflappable command of legato a Giulietta, Imogene, or Elisabetta who is effective as Bellini and Donizetti intended them to be. Complementing choral singing that has grown more confident with each successive performance and the playing of an orchestra that boasts of personnel like Gita Ladd, whose cello sings as poignantly as any voice, a defining glory of WCO performances throughout the past thirty years has been the engagement of singers not only near-ideally qualified for their assignments but unmistakably dedicated to both their own success and that of the performances in which they participated. In many cases, this has bestowed upon audiences the additional boons of providing opportunities to hear young voices of tremendous promise, admired singers in rôles they are unlikely to perform elsewhere, and great artists focused solely upon the music before them. With a roster of alumni including Stephanie Blythe, Lawrence Brownlee, Michael Fabiano, Renée Fleming, Elizabeth Futral, Denyce Graves, Ben Heppner, Sumi Jo, Jennifer Larmore, Kate Lindsey, Alessandra Marc, James Morris, Marjorie Owens, David Portillo, Jessica Pratt, Patricia Racette, John Relyea, Robert Dean Smith, James Valenti, Deborah Voigt, and Tamara Wilson, WCO performances have exemplified the high levels of excellence that can be reached by casting newcomers alongside seasoned veterans.
Revisiting several of the most memorable evenings in WCO’s history, three exhilarating visitors to the Lisner Auditorium stage shared their singular insights about what makes Washington Concert Opera as special for artists as it is for audiences.
The next generation of bel canto: Soprano Nicole Cabell
[Photo by Devon Cass, © by Nicole Cabell/CAMI]
One of today’s most beautiful singers in every sense of that distinction, soprano Nicole Cabell débuted with Washington Concert Opera as Medora in the company’s March 2014 performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il corsaro and returned as Giulietta in WCO’s September 2014 traversal of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi. In both performances, her singing radiated unforced emotional honesty and absolute preparedness, but neither of these admirable qualities made quite so indelible an impression as the natural beauty of her voice. One sometimes hears prize-winning voices and wonders what competition adjudicators heard that is not apparent to less-critical ears, but Cabell’s singing of Verdi’s and Bellini’s music more than justified her recognition as a Cardiff Singer of the World victor. From her perspective, however, this gifted singer’s WCO performances were shaped not by her own vocalism but by teamwork of a sort that is not always possible in today’s increasingly cinematic productions, maelstroms in which singers can be pushed and pulled in directions that distract them from the music and from one another. ‘Washington Concert Opera is one of the best companies I’ve had the pleasure of performing with,’ Cabell remarked, ‘not only for the amazing talent standing beside me [on stage] but also for the commitment to music above all.’ It is this commitment, she asserted, that defines WCO, both on and off the stage. ‘Music and voices take center stage with WCO, which is refreshing in an era of visual distraction,’ she offered.
Her WCO performances partnered Cabell with some of her most talented compatriots among America’s young generation of opera singers, and she cited this as another revered aspect of these engagements. ‘Blending my voice with the great instruments of Tamara Wilson, Michael Fabiano, and Kate Lindsey, amongst others, ranks in the top experiences of my singing career,’ Cabell enthused. Performances such as WCO’s Corsaro and Capuleti do not materialize with singers in a vacuum, of course, and Cabell is refreshingly clear-sighted about the rôle that cooperation among voices and the podium that has been fostered throughout WCO’s history, especially during Antony Walker’s fifteen-year tenure as Artistic Director, plays in performances’ success. ‘Working with Maestro Walker has been a consistent pleasure in that he truly is a singer’s conductor and knows so much about bel canto music,’ Cabell said.
Figlia d’un antico feudo: Soprano Nicole Cabell as Giulietta in San Francisco Opera’s 2012 production of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi
[Photo by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]
In Cabell’s estimation, the unique circumstances of Washington Concert Opera’s endeavors provide audiences with experiences that are equally unique. ‘The combination of great music and golden-age singing is guaranteed when you attend a performance at WCO,’ she intimated. Washington Concert Opera’s three-decade performance annals confirm the veracity of her assessment, reminding listeners that top-quality singing overcomes many obstacles that stand between a little-known score and widespread appreciation. Of course, the singing in any performance is even more assuredly ‘golden’ when Cabell is among its cast.
Bella donna di bel canto: Soprano Brenda Harris
[Photo by Lisa Kohler, © by Brenda Harris]
Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux and Odabella in Verdi’s Attila are treacherous shoals upon which many vocal vessels have foundered. These rôles are a musical Graveyard of the Atlantic in which many voices have sunk, but the singing of soprano Brenda Harris is an artistic Cape Hatteras, a buffer protecting dramatic bel canto from bruising indifference and a beacon guiding performances into safe harbors. One of the world’s most versatile singers, she is a delicate Cleopatra and Violetta who is also a powerhouse Elektra and Turandot. In Washington Concert Opera performances, she has been a source of excitement recalling the sui generis Leyla Gencer, a bel canto singer with the heart of a verista. Her Elisabettas in Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda and Odabella were wounded lionesses, their roars never completely hiding touching vulnerability.
Like Cabell, Harris rejoices in the camaraderie that results from the frenetic pace at which Washington Concert Opera performances are forged. ‘Because we don’t have staging, the rehearsal period with WCO is shorter than [with] a “normal” opera [company],’ she commented. ‘That could be perceived as a negative, but I find it exhilarating! Maestro Walker is very character-oriented and helps everyone find a “musical characterization” during the rehearsal process.’ To Walker’s guiding force Harris attributes the creative spark that ignites WCO performances. ‘Again, because we’re not staged, this is very important,’ she added. ‘It’s a happy environment, and everyone seems to work together under his direction.’
Buona regina: Soprano Brenda Harris as Elisabetta in Minnesota Opera’s 2010 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux
[Photo by Michael Daniel, © by Minnesota Opera]
Reflecting on her most vivid memories of her appearances with WCO, Harris immediately honed in on her performance of one of the most demanding of Donizetti’s operas. ‘For sure, it has to be Roberto Devereux!’ she exclaimed. WCO’s 2004 performance of Roberto Devereux featured Walker presiding over Tracey Welborn as Roberto, Harris as Elisabetta, Elizabeth Bishop as Sara, and William Stone as Nottingham. ‘I had never sung the rôle [or the] opera before, and it was an absolute joy,’ Harris explained. ‘Antony was an amazing collaborator and seemed a bel canto expert! After the performance, we asked him how many other bel canto operas he’d done, and he admitted it was his first. I couldn’t believe it! He was a natural.’ Only an artist of Harris’s caliber would cite singing music as punishing as that for the vengeful but ultimately humbled Elisabetta as a treasured experience. ‘The [opera’s] final scene was a dramatic joy for me,’ she continued. ‘[Walker] took a tempo that I feared because it had great depth and authority, and it turned out to be brilliant. I’ve sung the opera in staged productions since, but I will always remember that first one with Maestro Walker and WCO!’ This is a sentiment surely common to everyone who was fortunate enough to hear the performance, not least Harris’s riveting traversal of Elisabetta’s ‘Quel sangue versato al cielo s’innalza.’
With acclaimed performances throughout the United States to her credit, Harris is especially cognizant of WCO’s significance among America’s opera companies. ‘Washington Concert Opera [provides] great opportunities to hear works that aren’t so often done, in a venue that is every bit as exciting as a fully-staged production,’ she opined. ‘The musical bar is set high, and Maestro Walker is an extremely artistic and sympathetic interpreter of these works!’ Ruminating on her appearances in WCO performances and the rôle that the company plays in uplifting opera in America, Harris summarized Washington Concert Opera’s ventures with words that every opera lover longs to hear: ‘You won't be disappointed!’
Washington’s other First Lady: Soprano Nelly Miricioiu
[Photo © 2009 by Hans Hijmering]
Among the important singers whose efforts have influenced the course of opera’s four-century journey, few have brought to their performances personal histories as compelling as that of soprano Nelly Miricioiu. Born in Romania, she and her family were victims of the widespread persecution perpetrated by the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, but music was a vital element of her liberation from the stifling political milieu of her fatherland. Established in the United Kingdom via a sequence of high-level personal intercession and political maneuvering worthy of a scenario by Dame Iris Murdoch, Miricioiu became a bonafide prima donna in the very best sense, an enchanting singing actress with a timbre sometimes eerily reminiscent of Maria Callas but always entirely her own. Few audiences have been as fortunate as Washington Concert Opera patrons in savoring Miricioiu’s finest singing, and the diva is keenly aware of the nurturing influence of her remarkable relationship with WCO.
Miricioiu cherishes memories of working with Stephen Crout, who conducted her earliest appearance with Washington Concert Opera, but she is also abundantly positive about the broader contexts of WCO’s repertory, planning, and presentation. ‘I recall all my performances with Washington Concert Opera with both pleasure and admiration for the company’s unique musical achievements and its dedicated, knowledgeable, and appreciative audiences and supporters,’ Miricioiu said. ‘I say unique because I only know of one or two similar small companies bringing such high-quality concert opera performances to the public.’ She believes that the impact of WCO’s initiatives extends far beyond the ranks of those who fill Lisner Auditorium on Sunday evenings for the company’s performances. ‘I feel [that this] adds greatly to Washington's musical life,’ she stated. ‘Washington Concert Opera is a great example of what can be achieved by dedicated members and supporters, [adding] to the life of a great city such as Washington, enriching both its cultural and artistic lives just as my own association with the company has also been enriched.’
Femme fatale: Soprano Nelly Miricioiu in the title rôle of Australian Opera's 1996 production of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia
[Photo © by Opera Australia]
One of the foremost interpreters of Bellini’s and Donizetti’s heroines in recent memory, Miricioiu is an artist whose career, like Harris’s, has defied the demoralizing decline of true bel canto. Bellini’s Il pirata has been heard at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as few as nine times, all in the 2002 – 2003 Season, and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia was performed at the MET only once, as long ago as 1904, when the opera was received by the press with hostility despite the presence of Enrico Caruso as Gennaro. WCO performances featuring Miricioiu made enormous strides in granting these beautiful scores the exposure they deserve, supplementing rare performances by American Opera Society and Opera Orchestra of New York. ‘I have very fond memories of appearing with Washington Concert Opera for the first time in 1990, when I had the opportunity to début the title rôle of Lucrezia Borgia by Donizetti, in a performance that I happily recall with pride in it being so wonderfully received by the audience,’ Miricioiu observed. From the perspectives of both those on the stage and those in the the audience, Washington Concert Opera’s performances are a forum in which risks are helpfully encouraged, earnestness is applauded, and brilliance is extolled.
In today’s do-or-die pecuniary conditions for the Performing Arts, the fiscal necessity of filling seats makes following the maxim of ‘Ars gratia artis’ virtually impossible for most Arts institutions. In this second decade of the Twenty-First Century, perhaps this gets at the essence of Hannah More’s two-centuries-old anecdote: an inherent punishment to which those who indulge in the sin of opera, whether by producing or partaking of it, are subjected is financial burden. In the company’s history, there have been dark days for Washington Concert Opera, but esteeming Art and the people who make and consume it more highly than dollars and endowments has given WCO an advantage that, in recent years, has markedly brightened the horizon. When one enters Lisner Auditorium on the evening of a WCO performance, there is a palpable sense not of pretension or haughtiness but of people who genuinely love opera putting on a show for kindred spirits—a sin, perhaps, but a magnificently communal one! This is the foundation upon which opera’s future must be built.
Nelly Miricioiu put it best: ‘Congratulations,’ Washington Concert Opera, ‘for your forthcoming Thirtieth Anniversary concert, and [wishing you] every success into the future!’