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The Faces of the Annapolis Opera

Mar 04, 2014 02:11PM ● By Cate Reynolds

This is the second article in a series exploring the local performing and fine arts scene through the eyes of the individuals who keep it alive. The Annapolis Opera celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012 and as the company moves into year 42, it’s at its best; a vibrant and professional outfit performing technically challenging operas with gusto.

I’m surprised how many people don’t know we have an opera company,” says Ronald J. (Ron) Gretz, longtime artistic director and conductor of the Annapolis Opera. Indeed. The company was founded the same year Richard Nixon was elected to a second term.

Local performers with ties to the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre got the proverbial ball rolling. In its early years, the gypsy band moved from camp to camp. The U.S. Naval Academy, St. John's College, and Annapolis High School on Riva Road all offered temporary rehearsal and performance space. In 1979, after the old high school on Chase Street had closed and morphed into Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, the Annapolis Opera found a permanent home, as did the city’s other major performing arts institutions: The Annapolis Symphony and Ballet Theatre of Maryland (formerly, The Ballet Theatre of Annapolis).

A jewel in Annapolis’s cultural crown for more than 40 years, Annapolis Opera has plenty to sing about. As evidence, Puccini’s La Bohème, one of the best known operas in the repertory, graces the stage of Maryland Hall, Friday March 14th at 8 p.m., and Sunday March 16th at 3 p.m. La Bohème was first performed in Turin in 1896 under the baton of a young Arturo Toscanini, and given its U.S. premiere in Los Angeles a year later. It continues to pack houses around the globe with its melodious score and ageless love story in a group of bohemians in the French Quarter of mid- 19th century Paris.

Of the four leads, two are from our area and sing with the Baltimore Lyric Opera. One of them, soprano Colleen Daly, will portray cheeky, flirtatious Musetta, a role she did with the Baltimore Lyric Opera in 2012 and the Des Moines Metro Opera in 2011. “Musetta is a fantastic character. She’s fiery and sassy and passionate and sexy. She lives life to the fullest, never afraid to take what she wants,” Daly says. “She also has an enormous capacity to love. Which makes her wonderfully three-dimensional. And she gets one of the greatest tunes in opera: ‘Quando me’n vo’ [Musetta’s Waltz].”

Daly lives in Columbia where she is a private voice instructor when not on stage or traveling between engagements in New York, Syracuse, Aspen, Palm Beach, and beyond. Her fi rst role with Annapolis Opera was the Queen of the Night in the 2006 production of The Magic Flute. “It was my first major professional role,” she says, “and it literally got me started on my career path.

”In addition to other roles in Annapolis Opera productions and “numerous concerts,” in the 2007 Annapolis Opera Vocal Competition, she sang her way to the Grand Prize, Audience Choice Award, and the Conductor’s and Director’s Choice awards. The Washington Post called her a “dramatically powerful” singer. “Annapolis Opera is one of my very favorite places to work,” she coos. “Both Ron and Brack [Stage Director, Braxton Peters] are the rare combination of enormous talent coupled with an incredibly warm generosity. They treat their musicians with respect, encouragement, and care. The result is an environment of tremendous collaboration with the artists.”

“Annapolis productions have gotten better and better over the years,” Maestro Gretz says. “The word spreads—by the singers and the audiences. We keep getting more attention.” Favorable reviews pepper the Capital Gazette, Baltimore Sun, Opera News, and other publications. Still, a pesky thought niggles at him. “I’m still amazed when people ask, ‘Annapolis has an opera company?’”

It’s not for a lack of talent or effort on the part of the participants. Together the company and board continue to step up education and outreach efforts. They offer varied programming. They appeal to different age groups. And they’ve learned, as have other successful arts organizations, that the time for growing the audiences of tomorrow is today.

In December several guest artists presented a concert of arias at the Calvary Baptist Church on Rowe Boulevard. “The singers come from Philadelphia and New York,” Gretz says matter-of- factly. “They come in and rehearse the day before. There’s no formal staging. No costumes.” (Note: This audience of one enjoyed a private concert during a rehearsal.)
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Out of necessity for a city the size of Annapolis, Gretz imports talent for the main production and concerts, spreading the word to talent agents, music schools, and voice coaches. “We’re advertising now for 2014–15,” he says. He reviews resumes and narrows down the pool “to about 150.” In a November interview he said, “We’ve had 275 singers auditioning already.” Typically, two auditions in Philadelphia draw singers from several states and New York City, he says. The other two auditions are at Maryland Hall. “For every lead role we have up to five or six choices.” “We can get wonderful singers but they might not be right for the particular role. Sometimes we hear someone we love and they’re busy for the date. Gretz holds onto their resumes for future reference, makes a CD of every audition, and sometimes uses them for a future performance.

The 2013–14 season kicked off with a fall fundraiser with guest singers performing at a dinner. Following the Celebrate Opera Concert in December, audiences enjoyed a family-friendly version of The Magic Flute on February 1st, geared to children in grades 3–6 and their adult companions. After La Bohème March 14th and 16th, the season will close with the Vocal Competition in May.

Annapolis Opera is intensely committed to fostering new talent by providing “emerging artists of outstanding potential from the Mid- Atlantic with performance experience and professional development.” This year’s talent search culminates in a competition by about 30 young performers who will come toe to toe or voice to voice, in this case for $10,000 in prizes on Saturday, May 3th (semifinals) and Sunday, May 4th (finals) at Maryland Hall. Here is a pitch-perfect opportunity for the public to hear tomorrow’s opera stars today. And it’s free.

Another aspect of Annapolis Opera’s mission is to reach out to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to hear grand opera. Programs for kids to seniors are presented in schools and various civic and institutional settings.

To meet the company’s multiple goals requires vision, leadership, and perseverance. Community support for Annapolis Opera continues to grow, buttressed by a dedicated Board of Trustees, chaired by Lee Finney. Assistance from Anne Arundel County Arts Council and the Maryland State Arts Council augments gifts from individual and corporate donors.

Taking a glimpse at the 2014–15 season, the company has scheduled Cosi Fan Tutti next spring, as its main stage production. Further down the road, the company looks forward to mounting two full productions.

Gretz finds gratification, he says, in working with such talented singers, some of whom move up to national companies. “We’ve had many singers who have gone on to have careers. Some have sung at the Met [in New York], or in Europe. They’re poised to move on.” Like a bird coaxing a fledgling from the nest, Gretz observes, “We hire them to do a role and they take off. But we’ve been fortunate. We get quality singers.” Michelle Johnson, “the woman singing Mimi in La Bohème, won a Met competition two years ago.”

Gretz appears to be scaling back. But not by much. After teaching music theory for several decades in Baltimore County, he retired from that position in July 2013. These days, in addition to his duties with the opera, he is a vocal coach at Peabody Conservatory. “I’ve been at Peabody on and off since the mid-’90s,” he says. He’s also the choir director and organist at University Baptist Church in Baltimore. “I’m having a good time.”

And so are Annapolis Opera audiences.

Annapolis Opera, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. 410-267-8135.