By Barb Van Atta
To belabor a tonsorial metaphor, Tri-Cities Opera plans to continue grooming musical students and highlight rising stars in a 2015-2016 season bookended by the theatrical world’s most famous barbers: Figaro and Sweeney Todd.
At a press conference today (March 24) at the 66-year-old company’s headquarters in Binghamton, Susan S. Ashbaker,  general director since July 2014, announced, not only the nuts and bolts of next year’s season, but a series of changes and improvements designed to boost the opera-going audience in Broome County and environs.
Since the mid-1970s, TCO has presented three major productions annually at Broome County’s  performing arts center, The Forum, supplemented (but not on a regular basis) by excerpt shows and chamber operas at TCO’s Opera Center. In the current season, Ashbaker and the TCO board of directors have been trying to increase TCO’s audience and expand its repertoire while better utilizing the performance space in a building that TCO owns, rather than rents.
That effort will continue next season. TCO will divide its time equally between the two facilities, with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Oct. 23 and 25) and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (April 29 and May 1) at The Forum. 236 Washington St., Binghamton, and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta (Nov. 12-15) and a twin bill of Menotti’s The Telephone and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (Feb. 18-21) at the Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. Two recitals at the Opera Center also are planned.
Ashbaker does not envision any difficulty in TCO presenting the same musical as the Endicott Performing Arts Center (EPAC’s Sweeney is Nov. 13-22). “I hope that audiences will embrace both productions,” she said, predicting the possibility of cross-over audiences of dedicated Sondheim fans.
Although casting for the shows is not complete, Ashbaker was able to announce some of next year’s leading ladies and men, including highly-acclaimed mezzo-soprano Jenni Bank as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney. Banks grew up in Binghamton and sang operetta locally with the Summer Savoyards, but the Sondheim role will be her debut with TCO.
Also performing will be next season’s TCO Resident Artists: soprano Abigail Rethwisch (Iolanta, Lucy in The Telephone, Johanna Barker in Sweeney), mezzo-soprano Mary Beth Nelson (Rosina in Barber, Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti, the Beggar Woman/Lucy Barker in Sweeney) and bass-baritone Jake Stamatis (Dr. Bartolo in Barber, Sam in Tahiti).
Likewise, the production staff for the season still is being assembled, but Ashbaker did announce that conductor and acclaimed pianist/accompanist Warren Jones will be the maestro for the double bill and that Vlad Iftinca will be on the podium for Barber. Both men have been affiliated with the Metropolitan Opera.
Iftinca also will be joining the music faculty at Binghamton University as part of what Ashbaker called the “continuing collaboration” between TCO and the university. According to TCO’s revamped web site, which also debuted at the press conference, this collaboration has, since 1979, provided Master of Music in Opera students “a unique and exceptional program combining the professional experience that Tri-Cities Opera can offer with the academic and practical studies offered by Binghamton University.”
Besides unveiling the revamped web site and TCO logo, Ashbaker described the following improvements expected for next season at the Opera Center: a new roof and repaired façade, upgraded interior lighting and new interior paint to create a “black box” theater environment. She thanked the Broome County Arts Council’s United Cultural Fund and the Klee Foundation for general operating grants, the Klee Foundation for a multi-year grant to build TCO’s community affairs department and the Gaffney Foundation for the lighting upgrade. Ashbaker expressed hope that the Opera Center could become an important anchor for the (First Ward) neighborhood.
A visit to the web site ( will provide information about this season’s final production, Gounod’s Faust (April 17 and 19) at The Forum, as well as the variety of subscription options available for next season. Portions of the Forum’s balcony will be set aside as “electronic device” zones in 2015-2016. As part of TCO’s “commitment to building opera audiences of the future,” the Family Zone will allow youngsters to use SILENCED electronic devices during the performance. For every adult paid ticket in the Family Zone, you can receive one free child’s ticket (ages 5-12). The other side of the rear balcony will be the Twitter Zone, where “thumb-happy patrons” can share their opera experience in real time, again only with silenced and flash-free mobile devices (#tricitiesopera, #operaisthenewblack).