New faces, voices help move TCO through anniversary season

By Barb Van Atta

Don Juan’s not going to get much sympathy around Tri-Cities Opera this year.

Previously when the opera company has presented Don Giovanni, Mozart’s take on the legendary lothario, the directors have been male. Thus, acknowledged TCO General Director Reed Smith recently, a slight “boys will be boys” patina seemed to cover many of the roué’s ruses, despite his final fiery fate.

But now the dashing Don is facing his biggest challenge: an all-female production team, including the company’s first woman conductor. Smith anticipates that Maestro Elaine Rinaldi, founder and artistic director of Orchestra Miami, and guest Stage Director Laura Alley, who most recently guided TCO productions of La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor and Il Trovatore, will make sure their leading man’s flaws are as visible as his charms.

Of course, that doesn’t mean TCO audiences won’t be drawn to the character, especially since his portrayer, baritone Robert Hee-Pyoung Oh, has developed a fan base since his arrival in Broome County in 2011. Those fans should definitely catch a performance of Don Giovanni, because, as Smith pointed out, Oh is ready to move on.

Like many of his fellow cast members, Oh has been a member of TCO’s Resident Artist Training Program (RATP) while completing a Master of Music in Opera degree (MM) at Binghamton University. That academic work is now complete, and Oh is working with an agent to launch his career. He could return to TCO as a guest artist, but there are no guarantees.

Oh’s story is typical for recent years at TCO. Through the 1990s, RATP singers often stayed for multiple years, building up an extensive repertoire of roles. Now, Smith said, “resident artists aren’t staying more than two (or three) years.”

However, he explained, TCO can compete with the “explosion of ‘young artists’ programs” at opera companies around the country by playing to its unique strengths: main-stage experience and a long-time relationship with the BU music department.

Resident artists are at TCO for nine months, he said. Other programs last only six to nine weeks, thus letting a singer add several opera companies to his resumé. “In our defense,” Smith pointed out, “the RATP singers get major roles here. Other programs use them in promotional stuff, small roles and in the chorus.” In other words, a singer would only have TCO on her resumé, not three or four companies, but she would have performed the heroine in an opera, not the heroine’s chambermaid.

It’s a trade-off many young artists are willing to make. “We still get lots of interest,” Smith said, adding that TCO received more than 300 applications this year for the four or five RATP positions that are not also attached to the MM program. (That pool of applicants was winnowed by half prior to actual auditions in New York last November.)

“Our biggest draw is career development and the chance to sing big roles,” Smith said. “We are dedicated to giving young singers a chance.”

Casting plans

Besides Oh, the young singers getting big chances in Don Giovanni are Rebecca Heath (Donna Anna), Meorë Adeeb (Donna Elvira), Kevin Truax (Don Ottavio), Jake Stamatis (Leporello), Melanie Leinbach (Zerlina) and Tom Curry (Masetto). All are TCO resident artists; Adeeb, Truax, Stamatis, Leinbach, Curry and Oh are (or were) MM students.  “The cast is extraordinary, vocally,” Smith enthused.

The final Don Giovanni role, the stentorian Commendatore, is being sung by guest artist Brandon Coleman, who will be returning next year on a more permanent basis. Joining Coleman (bass/baritone), Heath (soprano) and Perry Davis Harper (tenor) as the core of next year’s RATP will be Heath’s sister, mezzo-soprano Megan Heath. They and the MM students will feature strongly in the planned 2014-2015 productions  — Rigoletto, L’italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) and Faust – although Smith said a couple of guest artists are expected: Ginger Costa-Jackson (last fall’s Carmen) in L’italiana and longtime local favorite Guido LeBron as Rigoletto.

Passing the baton

The big question again is: Who will be on the podium next year at The Forum in downtown Binghamton?

After the retirement of TCO co-founder Peyton Hibbitt and two other full-time directors, Duane Skrabalak and Peter Sicilian, TCO switched to a plan of using guest stage directors, beginning with the 2010-2011 season. At the same time, Maestro John Mario Di Costanzo was engaged as TCO’s music and associate artistic director, responsible for conducting main-stage productions and participating in the training and coaching of the residents artists. As per the long-standing agreement with BU, he also became part of the music department faculty.  Di Costanzo and the university parted ways last spring.

TCO and BU agreed not to rush into engaging a fulltime replacement, instead making an interim hiring for the 2013-2014 season while beginning a search. TCO heralded Maestro Scott Bergeson’s arrival with media fanfare and a public meet-and-greet. His conducting of Carmen last October was well-reviewed. However, right after Carmen, he withdrew from the TCO post. (He remains a visiting professor at BU.)

“It’s unfortunate that Scott decided to resign,” Smith said. “He was brought in on an interim basis at the last minute because of BU’s decision (to end its arrangement with) John Mario. (Scott) would definitely have been included in the search for a permanent music director, which still is on going on.”

Not surprisingly, Bergeson’s departure caused some disruption in plans for the season. The current arrangement with different music directors for the upcoming shows is “not the ideal situation,” Smith said, but Elaine (Rinaldi) has gone “above and beyond” by coming in early (prior to staging rehearsals) to work with the singers. A similar early arrival is expected from Brian DeMaris, who will be the conductor for the spring show, Die Fledermaus.

Providing continuity has been Michael Lewis, who was hired last fall for a variety of tasks including serving as assistant music director, staff accompanist and chorus master. Smith described the company as “blessed” to have Lewis on staff and said he hoped that, in future seasons, the 2013 Ithaca College graduate could be given some conducting opportunities.

Smith acknowledged that the director upheaval has been a point of concern for some subscribers and potential donors. “I won’t say it hasn’t had some ill effects,” he said, “but what matters in the quality of the performance downtown.”

Upcoming TCO events

  • Don Giovanni: 8 p.m. Friday (Feb. 7) and 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 9) at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. Performances will be in Italian with English “opera titles” above the stage. Tickets: $20-$70 (senior/student, $18-$70; 12 and under, $13-$65) depending on seat location. Call 772-0400. (Want a preview? Here’s a link to a TCO interview with Maestro Rinaldi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jv-1NF81__0&feature=c4-overview&list=UUVnlIh2QWGhT0YiMUmM4Qog.)
  • Die Fledermaus: 8 p.m. May 2 and 3 p.m. May 4 at The Forum. This new production of the Strauss operetta (new sets and costumes) will be performed in English.
  • We’re ’65 and SO Alive!’”: TCO is celebrating the 65th anniversary of its founding by Peyton Hibbitt and the late Carmen Savoca. Planned events include a major donation campaign and participation in a joint fundraiser with the Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP). Performances at “Singing with the Stars” will pair TCO singers with local celebrities. The event will begin at 8 p.m. March 8 at the Opera Center. Tickets: Call 772-0400. (A “Paparazzi Night” introducing the aforementioned celebrities will be 4 to 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at Remlik’s Grille & Oyster Bar, 21 Lewis St., Binghamton. No tickets are necessary. There will be a cash bar.)

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