By George Basler
Tri Cities Opera has begun its 2015-16 season with a few changes that mark a somewhat different direction for the venerable opera company.
The company will continue to perform its core repertoire of classic operas, but it also wants to present newer works, including ones by American composers. “There is so much incredible music being written that’s not easily accessible to the public,” said Eric Frei, assistant musical director with the company.
TCO’s expanded focus was on display last Thursday night (Sept. 17) during a welcome recital, entitled “Love, Lies and Laughter: A Night at the Opera,” held at the Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton.
The concert showcased the company’s singers for the coming year, both resident artists and students from the master’s program at Binghamton University. Earlier on Thursday, Frei described the program, which featured music by Mozart as well as selections from the Romantic and Bel Canto periods, as “a walk down opera history.”
The final part of the program, however, shifted the emphasis to newer American works. The singers performed pieces from Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Not only are these more recent works, but Most Happy Fella and Candide premiered on Broadway, not in opera houses.
Expanding the company’s repertoire was one of Susan Ashbaker’s priorities when she took over as executive director in August 2014. One goal is to have audiences hear American operas and American stories done “in a critical and beautiful way,” Frei said.
Ashbaker also wanted to the make better use of the Opera Center to present smaller, less performed works. With this in mind, the company has converted its rehearsal hall into a “black box” performing space, named Savoca Hibbitt Hall in honor of TCO’s two founders, Peyton Hibbitt and the late Carmen Savoca. Two chamber operas — Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and a double bill of Menotti’s The Telephone and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti — are scheduled for the hall as well as another recital.
At the same time, TCO has reduced the number of annual productions at The Forum from three to two. The first, to be staged Oct. 23 and 25, is Rossini’s timeless crowd-pleaser The Barber of Seville. The second production, however, will mark a change of place. Next spring the company will stage Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd about a homicidal barber and his female accomplice.
Whether the latter show is an opera or musical is the subject of debate. Sondheim has tried to settle the issue by saying “If you do it in a theater, it’s a musical. If you do it in an opera house, it’s an opera.” Whatever the case, Sweeney Todd is not something that TCO audience members are used to seeing
Still, Frei is confident that the company’s audience is willing to try new things. While the term “modern opera” can be scary for some people, this fear is unwarranted, he said. What’s being composed today is melodic and accessible, he emphasized. Some of it even sounds like film music.
Based on last Thursday’s recital, TCO has assembled a strong roster of singers for the coming season. The program began with two arias from The Barber of Seville that and concluded with the entire company singing “Libiamo” from Verdi’s La Traviata. The performance was a rousing one with everyone in fine form and well-appreciated by the audience.