Friday, March 15, 2013

Opera Tales from Charlottesville, Virginia

As another MONC season comes to an end, the sixtieth to be precise (only the second one for me), we are approaching what we in Belgium would call 'Cucumber Time'. For us at MONC that means no applications for the moment, no emails to answer, soon no opera performances to attend... All in all, what sounds like a depressing time for someone who enjoys opera.

Luckily, there are several summer events for opera lovers, including in Charlottesville (Virginia) where former committee member and blog editor Sylvanna VanderPark relocated in November 2012 for work and to be a farmer.  The following is an update from her new life in the Old Dominion.

Opera Tales from Charlottesville, Virginia

"Ironically, this is not my car"

Not many people know of Charlottesville, but it is a pretty town in the Southwest of Virginia.  It is home to Thomas Jefferson's home - Monticello - and university - The University of Virginia; it is known as the Napa Valley of the East with about 35 miles of wineries and I don't know how many breweries; it is located a stone's throw away from the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley; it has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the USA; and it is home to some of the most beautiful horse farms.

Charlottesville also has a very vibrant cultural and remarkable music scene. Yes, it is home to the Dave Mathews Band, but don’t expect for this place to be a one-note scene. There are a lot of local bands (just check out this blog to get a feel for the live music scene) who are working hard to become the next big thing.  Then there are established names who come around for big performances at the JPJ, or more intimate shows at the Paramount Theater and smaller venues even. A good resource is C-ville Weekly for staying on top of cultural ongoings.

So all of this sounds great, but of course I went through culture shock when I moved here almost four months ago from the megatropolis that is New York City. One of the first things I researched ahead of time was whether I would be able to continue my growing appreciation for the Opera. And I found my new home: The Ash Lawn Opera (ALO), run for the past two years by Michelle Krisel, formerly of the Washington National Opera, and for 24 years, an annual panelist on the beloved Met Opera Quiz.

I am thrilled to be welcomed so well and so quickly by the ALO community. I have just loved how accessible live performance is in this town, and with the ALO’s Housing Host program, you can even bring the production home with you so to speak, by donating a spare room to a performer or staff member traveling in for the season. The timing of my move and initial involvement with ALO coincided with a telemarketing call from a Met volunteer who asked me if he could sign me up for another year of my Young Associate membership. Once I explained that I would not be renewing due to my relocation, he exclaimed “ah! We’ve lost you to the Washington National Opera!!!” to which I exclaimed back to him “no! To the Ash Lawn Opera!!!”

While we do not have a Metropolitan Opera National Council District in Charlottesville, the closest venue is the Mid-Atlantic Region in Washington DC, we certainly have another display of fierce competition of our own. The ALO provides the opportunity to cultivate local talent with its various programs, and the quality of its programs is very telling based just on the interest received: over 300 artists sent in audition tapes to fill a handful of Young Artist and Apprentice Singer positions for this year. I have yet to do my homework on our local singers and all the programs in detail but I am excited about learning and profiling ALO talent.

Step by step my exposure to the Ash Lawn has been gratifying. I started by catching a family production back in December of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a more grass roots performance. The Paramount Theater was sold out! Certainly there is a larger appreciation of the opera than not in this town, with lots of spirit from and for their performers. As I have since learned, this is not representative of their summer seasons (which will once again bring 5 singers from the Met to perform this year), but a charming production for a domestic time of year.

Then I joined the Ash Lawn Opera Guild and met the ladies (all the guild member are ladies) at a Valentine luncheon in February. These guild members are fabulous women; strong and independent with sincere adoration for the music and performances. I so much enjoyed sitting around with local Southerners, Yankees, Internationals... discussing their backgrounds and world travels, and I was welcomed so warmly that hours flew by before I knew it. These wonderful guild members are on average in their 60s and above, but so young at heart and full of life, I left feeling very inspired.  At this same luncheon, I briefly had a chance to meet and speak with Michelle for the first time, with a promise to follow up with a personal meeting to discuss how I can become involved. Within a couple of weeks I found myself at the Downtown ALO office, where sitting and chatting with Michelle was just so much fun; learning about the various programs she is running, talking about life and music, what it’s like to work with Placido Domingo, living the life of an artist in Paris, and learning how to run an opera company. Once again, I found myself completely inspired and feeling quite privileged to have the opportunity to help out as she develops the Ash Lawn into a more notable institution.

There is a lot going on at ALO and I foresee some follow up articles to keep you in touch with first hand experiences of my time here. I have barely had time to find out about our local singers, but to give you an idea of some wonderful opportunities there are for opera enthusiasts in Charlottesville, I can tell you that not only am I a guild member surrounded by colorful, sharp women, but I am also signed on with the Arts Education Committee, lead by Jean Wilhelm.  I will be helping to implement Michelle’s outreach program to children, including those in under-serviced areas, with the help of our Artist in Residence (Teaching Artist) Mary Gresock who is from the D.C. area and who works with the Washington National Opera, Wolftrap, etc... Additionally I have agreed to become a Housing Host for performers and production staff coming to Charlottesville from all over (what an honor!) to put on this year’s shows of La Boheme and Carousel (tickets are now on sale!). And last but not least, I am helping with floral arrangements for our (sold out!) Spring Gala fundraising event on March 17.  And I am not ruling out auditioning for the ALO as a community performer; 2014 may be my debut year as a stand-in!

Welcome to opera in C-ville!

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