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Heating Up the Stage: The Virginia Opera [elan magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
elan magazine
February 2007, page 65-67

EVEN IF YOU HATE OPERA, or think you do, from the moment the velvet curtain rises on “Agrippina,” you’ll be in for surprise. The latest production from the Virginia Opera, being staged at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax Feb. 9-11, is a two-act opera by 24-year-old Handel, which premiered in 1709 in Venice. It is one of the earliest works, and the soap opera of a story is engaging enough to give it a try.

Here’s how it goes: Cunning Roman empress wove a treacherous plot to have her son Nero seize the throne from his weak stepfather, Emperor Claudius. The emperor, Agrippina believes, has drowned at sea. In fact, Ottone, the commander of the Army, has rescued Claudius and is named successor.

Insanity ensues—and then the plot takes a new turn: The audience learns that Nero, Claudius and Ottone all desire the sensuous Roman beauty Poppea. She juggles their affections in a comical, often diabolical way to determine which one truly loves her.

“This Baroque opera is a battle of wits and willpower that puts even modern politics to shame,” says Maestro Peter Mark with a grin. He has been the- Virginia Opera’s artistic director for the last 32 years. “It’s funny and complicated and full of life. My only hope is that we can share it with as many people as possible—especially those who have never seen an opera before.”

Making opera assessable is Peter’s mission. For beyond a twisted plot, magnificent period costumes and elaborate set design—are simply great stories, he insists.

“Opera is chock-full of all the same things that keep you glued to your television-love, sex, jealously, violence, suspense, drama,” says Peter. “Add the most breathtaking music ever written, the most glorious live voices known to man and a 50-instrument symphony orchestra, and HBO can’t compete with this magnitude of entertainment.”

Peter began his own musical career as a boy soprano at The Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera where he performed with some of the best in the business. When his voice changed, the violin became his instrument, and his astonishing talent landed him professional solo jobs throughout the U.S., the former Soviet Union, South America and Great Britain. Later, he held leadership positions with the Juilliard Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In the years since, Peter has hired the most talented young singers to sing in his company, such as Sujung Kim, who performs the title role in “Agrippina.” She made her debut in 1995 as Gilda in the Virginia Operas staging of “Rigoletto,” and appeared in the company’s 2001 production of “La Traviata.”
Equally inspiring is soprano Jane Redding, who plays the comic role of Poppea. “She was a hit in our staging of “The Marriage of Figaro,” which is one of Mozart’s comic masterpiece,” Peter shares. “I know Jane will have audiences roaring again in Agrippina,”

Laughter and opera make great bedfellows—and it is that mix of the sad and sardonic that earns the Virginia Opera rave reviews and a large following. Annually, thousands of fans regularly pack performances at the three venues where the Virginia Opera plays: the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, the Landmark Theater in Richmond, and the Center for the Arts in Fairfax.

Casting such a wide net was the long-term vision set out for the company back in 1974 when founding president Edythe C. Harrison launched the Virginia Opera with two productions in Norfolk. By 1977, with the encouragement of then-governor Mills E. Godwin Jr., The Richmond Friends of Opera was formed to present its productions annually in the State Capitol.

In 1983, the Richmond and Central Virginia Board of Virginia Opera was established, and within a decade the company presented its first main stage performance at George Mason University. Of the debut, The Washington Post wrote: “This is a special day in music
history for the Washington, D.C., area.”

By then the popularity of the Virginia Opera had taken hold. In 1994, by unanimous vote of the Virginia General Assembly, it was named the official opera company of the Commonwealth. Its current operating budget is $6 million.

Never content to rest on his laurels, Peter continues to hunt for new talent. His latest find is 29-year-old Christina Nassif, who performed the title role of “Carmen” last fall. She will again sing a lead role in the company’s final show of the 2006-2007 season, “I Pagliacci,” when it comes to George Mason on March 30 and April 1.

“When you work in a creative field, you draw talented people, and the goal is to give them the tools and the opportunity to grow,” says Peter. “When you give them a title role and they shine, well, there’s nothing more gratifying than that.”

Nassif, a native of Fort Washington, Maryland, is now considered one of the most watched young singers in America. The daughter of two musicians, she was actually a pianist for most of her young life and didn’t realize she had such a strong voice until the end of high school.

“I was looking for scholarship money to go to college, and the friend I was working with didn’t want me to go up against her in the piano division, so I tried singing,” Christina explains. She landed the scholarship and attended the University of Maryland where she studied voice. She then studied at the Academy for Vocal Arts in Philadelphia until 2003 when she auditioned for Peter. He immediately signed her up for the Virginia Opera’s Spectrum Resident Artist program, in which she performed as First Lady in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and Marzelline in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” for audiences of elementary and middle school children at more than 300 Virginia schools.

“We toured from Accomack to York and performed for more than 140,000 students and another 45,000 at our community presentations,” recalls Christina. “It was the most wonderful training an artist can have. Working with the kids helped me remember how exciting and inspiring music is, and I realized that I needed to do the best job I could so they wouldn’t be disappointed. At the same time, they made me feel confident enough to take risks-and I try to bring that courage and passion with me every time I go up on the stage.”

Gus Stuhlreyer 111, general director and CEO of the Virginia Opera since 2003, knows Christina is a rising star. But then, he sees the entire company much the same way.

“The Virginia Opera is a gem, and my goal is to get more families into our performances,” he explains, noting there is already a Family Day at the Opera and a Student Night at the Opera in place in Norfolk and Richmond. “In the next decade, I can see us growing by leaps and bounds because opera is an amazingly emotional, endearing and enduring art form. We just want to get more people into the audience so they can see how much fine it is.”

For more information: www.vaopera.org.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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