The opera scene in Las Vegas remains in flux despite a cultural renaissance fueled by The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and the burgeoning Arts District.
The two established local independent opera companies struggle to raise money to stage productions, which often are more elaborate and costly than those presented by other arts organizations. This leaves the UNLV Opera Theater program as the most consistent presenter of opera productions in the valley.
However, a young group, Sin City Opera, has emerged with its own approach to the genre.
SETTING THE STAGE
The Nevada Opera Theatre Association is the valley’s senior company, having debuted in 1986 with a production of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Other productions include Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in 1988, Bizet’s “Carmen” in 1990, Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in 2004 and, most recently, a revival of “La Boheme” at Artemus Ham Hall in 2010.
The company had intended to return Sunday to Ham Hall with a fully staged production of Verdi’s “Aida,” sung in Italian. The program was originally set for June, then rescheduled for October when fundraising stalled, according to Nevada Opera Theatre founder and executive director Eileen Hayes. However, a financial deficit remains and the opera has been postponed again, perhaps until January, Hayes says.
The valley’s second independent opera company, Opera Las Vegas, was co-founded as the Southern Nevada Opera Association by Gloria Marinacci Allen, Paul Krieder and Mark Thomsen in April 1999. Allen, the company’s executive director, says the group was “born out of a need for these three voice teachers to have a place for our students to sing opera.”
Since its founding, Opera Las Vegas has staged three innovative productions. In 2007, it restaged Leoncavallo’s tragic one-act opera, “Pagliacci,” as a 1960s “free love” triangle. The company presented a minimal staging of Verdi’s “Tosca” in 2011 with the orchestra seated onstage behind the singers. And in 2012, it presented a modern dress staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The 2011-12 operas were conducted by the company’s artistic director, Maestro Gregory Buchalter, chorus master with The Metropolitan Opera, and starred Met singers in principal roles. Met stage director Jonathon Loy directed “Don Giovanni.” But Opera Las Vegas is in the midst of rebuilding. After an earlier announcement that it would make its Smith Center debut in September with a concert by Met soprano Denyce Graves, Allen says the company was unable to secure The Smith Center and couldn’t schedule another venue. The organization’s new board president, Assembly candidate Stephen Silberkraus, says the company is taking the 2013-14 season off to “restructure and reorganize.”
Fundraising is the challenge for all opera companies.
“We do not have a Nancy Houssels or a Jeri Crawford,” says new Nevada Opera Theatre board president Denny Weddle, referring to the patrons of the Nevada Ballet Theatre and the Las Vegas Philharmonic respectively.
But Weddle says he believes the company’s revitalized 10-member board is the key to the company’s ongoing viability.
Opera is expensive. A single performance of a fully staged opera costs $55,000 to $60,000, Weddle says. And ticket sales cover only about 35 percent of the cost. So the company depends on its 2,000-person mailing list and Opera Guild members for donations, as well as upon corporate sponsors such as Cirque du Soleil and Nevada State Bank to cover its budget.
Weddle says the company has remained active with a dedicated cadre of local singers performing in community opera concerts and with its Opera in Schools program.
Hayes says the company has presented “Hansel and Gretel” in Clark County schools since 1987 and has reached more than 4,000 elementary students, many in at-risk schools.
The company will present the world premiere of “Wonderland Escapades” by Maria Russell at 2 p.m. Nov. 2 at University United Methodist Church. The 90-minute children’s opera is based on “Alice in Wonderland” and has a message of anti-bullying. The opera will be presented in at-risk elementary schools Nov. 3-6.
Opera Las Vegas also is relying on its board for renewal. Along with Silberkraus, the company has added Nancy Daily to the board as the new fundraising chairwoman. Allen says the board has “a new energy.”
Silberkraus points to the addition of volunteer Josh Weaver, the new online social community manager of Zappos’ 6pm.com as a positive step. Work has begun on updating Opera Las Vegas’ website.
Silberkraus says the group has set its sights on “unique, nontraditional and innovative venues” across the city for a recharged 2014-15 season.
Allen says Opera Las Vegas hopes to produce two performances of “La Boheme” in 2014 with a budget of $150,000. “For four rehearsals and two performances the orchestra alone costs $40,000,” she says.
Allen says the group has a 600-person mailing list and about a third donate to the company.
She adds that the purpose of fundraising is not just to raise money, but also to build the audience for opera. She gives as an example the $40,000 the company raised for its Opera in Schools program through fundraiser lunches. Opera Las Vegas also sponsors a young artist-in-residence program.
EDUCATING THE PUBLIC
Rumors of arcane feuding between Nevada Opera Theatre and Opera Las Vegas rivaling the complexity of an opera plot have persisted through the years. Allen says an early attempt to approach Nevada Opera Theatre was rebuffed, although both Hayes and Allen dismiss any rumors of animosity.
“We do not regard the Nevada Opera Theatre as rivals, merely opera lovers with whom we share a passion,” Silberkraus says.
Emerging as a leading proponent of opera performance in Las Vegas and benefiting the city’s independent opera companies is the UNLV Opera Theater under the direction of noted soprano and composer Linda Lister. The professor says that before they get to UNLV many undergraduate voice students have never even heard an opera, but once there, they fall in love with it.
“Opera is music theater. If you like music and theater, then you shouldn’t be scared of opera,” Lister says, adding that classically trained singers such as Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald are helping opera reach a wider audience and become more accessible.
Audiences evidently like what they’re hearing because Lister says there was a 33 percent increase in UNLV Opera Theater’s already well-attended performances from 2011 to 2012.
Last season’s production of “The Elixir of Love” showed the student singers were “all in” for this updated version set in contemporary Las Vegas that served Donizetti’s comic bel canto opera surprisingly well.
UNLV Opera Theater’s upcoming season is “ambitious and crazy,” Lister says, but adds that “we have a very talented crop of students.”
“Some of our doctoral students are already working professionals who have sung throughout the United States and Europe,” Lister adds. Several of the singers who will be performing in the upcoming season have received recognition at The Metropolitan Opera’s national regional auditions. Students from UNLV Opera Theater also have been invited to perform at the National Opera Association’s convention.
UNLV Opera Theater’s expanded season opens Nov. 14 and 15 in Rando Recital Hall with an unusual pairing of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and Paul Hindesmith’s “Sancta Susanna.”
Lister says she chooses the Opera Theater’s works for pedagogical purposes and to give her students needed stage experience for their professional resumes.
CHANGING THE PERSPECTIVE
Startup Sin City Opera is attracting young opera fans with smaller scale, one-act operas modernized for contemporary audiences and sung in English. Skip Galla, the company’s artistic director, says it bridges “the gap between opera and the edge.”
In its debut season in 2011, Sin City Opera’s performances included a critically acclaimed production of Offenbach’s rarely seen one-act comic opera, “Ba-ta-clan.” Last season, Sin City Opera surprised Las Vegas opera lovers again with Chabrier’s “An Incomplete Education” and Skip Galla’s “Night of 1,000 Lucias,” a concert of aria favorites blended into a modern story of “love, desperation and regret,” climaxing with the famous mad scene from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Sin City Opera’s third season will open under the baton of new music director Jack Gaughan. Gaughan was invited by Andrew Lloyd Webber to be the music director for the now closed “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular.” He also has worked with Nevada Ballet Theatre on “Nutcracker.”
Gaughan says his performing roots are with community opera and he formerly served as the music director for Encompass New Opera Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y. “The theater was located above a peep show and below a karate studio,” Gaughan says.
Sin City Opera’s venue at the Onyx Theatre, inside a leather fetish store in the Commercial Center off Sahara Avenue, is likewise challenging.
But the company’s public relations and business director, Ginger Land-van Buuren, says the Onyx Theatre is “wonderful” because it allows the company to “maintain a level of production that is interesting on a budget of five dollars.”
Earlier plans to move the company to the roomier Cultural Corridor Theatre Center (formerly Reed Whipple Center) were scratched by the center’s board of directors because it is already committed to another opera company, Next Wave Opera, as a member organization.
Gaughan is also tapped to serve as the musical director for that company when the planned renovations for the Cultural Corridor Theatre Center are completed in fall 2015, while continuing with Sin City Opera.
Gaughan says the two companies will offer “entirely different kinds of experiences.” The renovated Cultural Corridor Theatre Center will have a new fly loft and new orchestra pit, and Gaughan says the 400- to 500-seat theater will be appropriate for contemporary productions.
Gaughan says Sin City Opera’s productions are designed for a smaller theater and are more relevant for younger, contemporary audiences. The company’s avant-garde approach works well for “chamber” operas, he says.
But it’s possible that Sin City Opera won’t be able to stay small for long. Artistic director Skip Galla says, “We’ve doubled our audience numbers last season and we hope to reach 1,000 viewers this season.”
Galla says a typical Sin City Opera production costs about $1,500 to stage. “We currently rely on ticket sales as our primary source of income,” he says.
Sin City Opera opens its 2013-14 season with what Gaughan calls “a nontraditional take” on Menotti’s “The Medium” on Nov. 1 and 2, and 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. at the Onyx Theatre. Plans for a spring production of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” as a season closer were canceled when the company was unable to obtain the Cultural Corridor Theatre Center’s larger stage space.