Opera Birmingham’s 2014 season will bring tales of murderous clowns, lusty dukes and unplanned pregnancies.
“If you think your life is bad…” John Jones, general director since 1999, trails off, chuckling.
Birmingham’s opera company brings two large-scale productions to town a year, each reflecting the efforts of about 120 people: 35-40 chorus members, a 30-35 piece orchestra from the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, soloists, stagehands, makeup artists, costume specialists, the conductor and more. The major productions take place at Samford University’s Wright Center, a move Opera Birmingham made from the Alabama Theatre in 2009.
The 2014 season opens in December. Verdi’s Rigoletto, an opera about a hunchback jester and his lovely daughter, opens in January. March’s production boasts two one-act operas: Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Clowns) and Puccini’s Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica). The former is about a murderous clown; the latter, a disgraced woman of wealth entering a convent after an illegitimate child.
Opera Birmingham will start the season with its Home for the Holidays Concert at Samford University’s Brock Recital Hall, home of the company’s smaller performances. The holiday concert in December, Jones says, “ease[s] people in[to]” opera with “great singers singing the great songs of Christmas.”
Easing newcomers in is often necessary. “Many people,” Jones says, expect “the fat lady in the horns and the spear” and are wary of opera, the classical art form born in Italy in the late 16th century. “It’s just not what I was expecting,” Jones says he hears most from newcomers. “The fat lady,” he jokes, “has kind of left the building.”
This year’s productions boast easily recognizable tenor arias that Jones asserts anyone would know, “whether [from] a car commercial or pasta commercial.” Even if the uninitiated recognize nothing, they can still feel the power of music, at least according to Jones. Opera “does something to you physically,” he says. “The sound rolls over you.”
The themes are familiar, too. Opera is about “the universality of human experience,” Jones says.
Sadie Frazier, a soprano who recently auditioned for Opera Birmingham, agrees and gushes that, “Opera is life magnified,” in that it encapsulates a story and tells that story through song. For Frazier, the power comes through the song: “The music itself can magnify and give you more of an emotional experience than just reading a book or going to a movie.”
Rounding out those experiences is a recital from Nicholas Pallesen, a baritone and last year’s annual opera competition winner, in the April 27 show Catch A Rising Star. The upcoming year’s competition is in May with a semi-finals showcase for the public May 17 and a finals concert and gala dinner on the 18th. The competition features 100 competitors, the top five splitting $12,000 in cash prizes.
The competition is just one example of how Opera Birmingham tries to serve the city. And a city isn’t a city without an opera, at least according to the woman responsible for Birmingham having an opera company. The company first formed in 1955 as Birmingham Civic Opera through the efforts of Martha McClung, a voice teacher at Birmingham-Southern College. “She was a very feisty lady,” Jones says of her reputation for never taking no for an answer. According to Jones, she believed, “To be considered a real city, [Birmingham] should have an opera just like it has a museum, a symphony and a ballet.” He adds, grinning, “And I agree with her totally.”
The company went on to merge with Southern Regional Theater in 1986 and became Birmingham Opera Theater in 1987. Opera Birmingham was created in 1996. In its current form it has a staff of two full-time and three part-time employees, two interns and a board of 35. The board raises approximately two-thirds of the $650,000 budget from individuals, corporations, and foundations. The other third comes from ticket sales, and a marginal but important 3 percent — $20,000 — is publicly funded through the State Arts Council.
“We have in the past received Jefferson County funding and City of Birmingham funding, but [not] anymore,” Jones says. The economic climate “is never easy,” he says, for “all of the classical arts.”
In 2009, the estate of Ernie and Ora Hill gave Opera Birmingham the money for its current headquarters: the Hill Opera Center on 6th Avenue South and 36th Street. The headquarters mirrors the vision of Opera Birmingham: the two-room open, free-flowing floor plan, formerly divided into separate offices, hosts special events and local auditions, bringing the community to opera the way the company brings opera to the Birmingham community.
The sense of community is important to Jones. “We try to really have a family atmosphere for the singers,” he says. He achieves this by mixing world-class and relatively new singers. While “several singers who are going to be here this year have sung for the Metropolitan Opera, have sung around the world and are really quite established opera stars,” others are beginning their careers.
“We also have,” he says, “a good reputation for having people on their way, giving them the opportunity to sing roles they really want to sing.” These are the bigger roles, the roles we might recognize should we go, which Jones, of course, thinks we should. “There is an experience to be had going to see it live,” he says.
Frazier agrees. “[Live opera] takes you on an emotional journey like a film would, but it’s live, it’s created in front of your face,” she says. To them, at least part of that experience is lost when recorded; the sound quality is reduced through compression, and any video image is seen through the eyes of the cameraperson and not the director, the designer, the performer.
For these reasons, opera — its dramatic plot lines, makeup, wigs, costumes, orchestra, acting, lighting, choreography, orchestra music and world-class singing — “should be on everybody’s bucket list,” Jones says. “Everybody should go to an SEC football game, but everybody should also go to the opera.”
Correction (2:26 p.m., 10/9/13): Post amended to reflect minor corrections submitted by Opera Birmingham.