Vocal Leaders

“Life is short…Opera is long.” Or so goes the saying. However, the recently founded opera company Opera Project Columbus endeavors to make it both short and fun.

Selling out its inaugural production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica in October 2011, OPC continues into its third season of producing opera excerpts and shorter operatic works. On February 28 and March 2, OPC will present “Arias in Ebony,” a program featuring the operatic and classical works of African-American composers.

Modeling itself on companies such as Cleveland’s Opera Per Tutti and the Chelsea Opera in New York City, OPC joins a nationwide artistic trend of smaller opera companies who aim for broader demographic in their communities and to groom local vocal talent. Melinda Green, mezzo-soprano and OPC’s Education and Outreach Coordinator, envisions OPC as a place where novice and experienced singers learn by performing together.

“When that kind of collaboration happens, the result can be exciting for the audience as well as the performers,” she said.

Besides a variety of singing experience, OPC artists share another unusual quality: many of them, while classically trained, aren’t musicians by profession.

“I’m looking for that singer who teaches, works in your neighborhood bank, is your mailman or your lawyer,” said Dione Bennett, OPC’s current artistic director. “That person who began with the dream of being on the operatic stage and should be on the stage.”

Although everything commonly associated with opera is “grand” in scale, Carolyn Redman, mezzo-soprano sees an advantage to smaller productions.

“I think it helps break down the barriers for those not used to seeing opera. So many people – a lot of my friends included – think that opera is too stuffy, but being ‘up close and personal’ really helps the audience to feel a much stronger connection to the performers and more a part of the production in general.”

OPC’s current production strives to mimic the structure of the company itself: different, personalized, and accessible to a non-opera-going audience. “Arias in Ebony” will feature excerpts from William Grant Still’s Costaso and Highway 1, USA, H. Lawrence Freeman’s Voodoo, the first African-American opera conceptualized and financed by African-Americans on Broadway, in addition to works by Leslie Adams, Leslie Savoy Burrs, and Anthony Davis. While traditionally operatic, the music also incorporates folkloric elements such as spiritual, gospel, and jazz themes.

Maria Gordon, OPC’s board president, acknowledges the challenges for a smaller company, including finding a suitable performance space for intimate works and putting together creative programming that will interest different age groups. “It’s very hard to put something new out there and maintain yourself financially, but we’re optimists,” she said. “You have to be optimistic to do this.”

That optimism is paying off. OPC – which was spawned after Opera Columbus restructured itself and no longer produced its own shows – recently took a big step towards its future by securing grants through the Columbus Foundation, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Greater Columbus Arts Council. The company will round out its season in June with a staged production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Maestro Alessandro Siciliani will conduct OPC’s chamber orchestra.

“The arts are essential to the lifeblood of a great city,” said OPC baritone Robert Kerr, who made his national debut at the Kennedy Center this past December. “OPC has the potential to be one of the best opera projects in the country, and I hope the people of Central Ohio will aid in that pursuit.”

“Arias in Ebony” will be performed on Friday, February 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Universalist Church (93 W Weisheimer Rd.), and Sunday, March 2 at 3 p.m. at Faith Ministries Church (2747 Agler Rd.). Tickets and more information can be found at www.operaprojectcolumbus.org.

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