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VOL. 128 | NO. 20 | Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Opera Memphis Becoming ‘Test Lab’ for Larger Companies

By JONATHAN DEVIN

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In the middle of what might be its most experimental season yet, Opera Memphis is attracting curious on-lookers in companies around the country.

Sarah Shafer plays the role of Adina in Opera Memphis' "Elixir of Love."

(Photo Courtesy of: sarahshafersoprano.com.)

This week’s production of “Elixir of Love” will also involve the kind of imaginative setting that is garnering Opera Memphis’ reputation for innovation.

“What we are becoming is a test lab for a lot of the business model innovations that much larger companies are trying to do,” said Ned Canty, director of Opera Memphis. “From the business perspective we really are out-innovating much larger companies and we’re getting national attention for what we are trying.”

Canty noted that the company was the subject of an article in Opera America magazine, which covered the “30 Days of Opera” in the fall, a month of unexpected pop-up opera events across Shelby County, and the upcoming Midtown Opera Festival.

“This is something that has picked up a lot of steam,” Canty said. “A lot of my colleagues from other companies are coming to look at the model and see if it’s a model that might work for them in their cities.”

He’s also heard of larger-scale versions of the 30 days of opera taking place in Chicago.

“Elixir of Love” takes the stage at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre Saturday, Feb. 2, and Tuesday, Feb. 5.

Written by Gaetano Donizetti, the plot is filled with fast-paced romantic comedies of error. Nemorino, a Basque peasant, is in love with Adina, an educated young woman whose family wealth puts her out of his class.

But when the two are together, both stubbornly refuse to admit their feelings. Instead, Adina flirts with the swaggering soldier, Sgt. Belcore, and unwittingly becomes his fiancee.

Meanwhile, Nemorino turns for help to the traveling salesman Dr. Dulcamara, who sells him a regular bottle of wine, which he claims is the Elixir of Love. His subsequent drunkenness doesn’t help his suit for Adina’s love.

“It’s hard to make a really good romantic comedy that also has heart, that has people who are human and the mistakes they make are mistakes we’ve all made – namely being stubborn,” said Canty, who is directing the show.

“I love how immediately modern it feels in terms of the mistakes they make and the lessons they learn.”

The opera features tenor Brendan Tuohy as Nemorino and soprano Sarah Shafer as Adina, along with Ricardo Lugo as the mysterious snake oil seller, Dr. Dulcamara.

That image wasn’t lost on Canty, who decided to stage the opera in the Old West, cowboy hats, lassos and spurs included.

“You can think of it as a ‘spaghetti western,’” said Canty, referring to the genre of Italian-made Western movies. “The Italians have always loved our Old West mythology.

“It means shifting the action forward 30 or 40 years. But when you get into these small towns where the town is run by one person who owns all the land and everybody works for that person, that’s a template that works in a lot of periods and places.”

The production will be followed by a Western hoot-n-nanny complete with Old Western grub, square dancing, and music by the Side Street Steppers.

Opera Memphis’ last production, “La Boheme,” was preceded by a similar outdoor festival with artists, acrobats and food to help get the audience into the spirit.

“It made us start late because we couldn’t get people to go in and see the show,” Canty said.

Both nights of “La Boheme” sold out, and Canty is optimistic that “Elixir” will sell out as well as the company is still riding high on popularity following the 30 Days of Opera.

“(30 Days) went so far beyond our expectations that we’re still trying to figure out how to encompass all of it,” Canty said. “We reached more than 25,000 people. It multiplied our community footprint.

“We’re still seeing the positive impacts now and I think next year it will be even bigger and better. It was a game-changer in terms of helping us shift some of the negative associations people had with opera.”

This season’s final production, the Midtown Opera Festival at Playhouse on the Square, will showcase four modern chamber operas.

“It’s a very experimental year for us,” Canty said. “So far it’s all paying off very well, but it’s going to be another three years before we know exactly what our new shape and format is going to be.”

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