Maryland Lyric Opera 2018-2019: Something’s Abuzz in Bethesda

Maryland Lyric Opera, which began in 2014 and reorganized in 2017, is planning a breakout season for 2018-2019.  It’s primary events the last couple of years have been its excellent MDLO Young Artist Institute concerts.  The graduates of the Institute have now grown in number, providing relationships with a cache of professional singers and networks, enabling more ambitious undertakings.  Plans this year will include performing a full opera in concert this fall and a fully-staged opera in winter, while still maintaining the young artists program and concerts.  Word is there might also be a special Mozart program this Fall, as yet unannounced.  This is an exciting time for this young suburban-Maryland opera company whose fundamental commitment is to the training and employment of young professional opera singers.  What’s abuzz in Bethesda is that MDLO is bringing opera to Strathmore.  They will be giving their first performance in just one month in Strathmore’s beautiful and acoustically-refined concert hall, accompanied by a full orchestra. 

Maryland Lyric Opera’s 2018-2019 Season

September 14, 15: 

La Fanciulla del West (1910) (The Girl of the Golden West, in concert)

Composer Giacomo Puccini and Librettists Guello Civinini and Carlo Zangarini

The Music Center at Strathmore, Bethesda

January 24, 25, 26: 

Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) (fully staged)

Composer Gaetano Donizetti and Librettist Salvatore Cammarano

Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland at College Park

May 17, 19:

An Evening of Verdi

MDLO Young Artists and Alumni Concert

Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland at College Park

June 7, 9:

An Evening of Puccini

MDLO Young Artists and Alumni Concert

Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland at College Park

MDLO begins the season in Bethesda at Strathmore with a concert version of Puccini’s foray into the American wild west, La Fanciulla del West, based a play that Puccini saw in New York by David Belasco titled “The Girl of the Golden West”.  There will be no costumes or sets, but there will be drama.  The singers will be in character; there will be subtitles in English, and the story will play in your head as you listen to the music.  The advantage of concert opera is that you and the performers get to focus on the singing and the music.  Conductor Louis Salemno, who is Music Director for MDLO, will lead a full, 78-piece orchestra on the stage for these performances.  Personally, I have become a huge fan of concert opera since my initial exposure a couple of years ago; in fact, Washington Concert Opera gave one of my favorite opera performances of 2017-2018 season

 Poster courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Poster courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Ok, a word about the story - imagine a saloon in a tiny mining town during the California gold rush.  Good-hearted and virtuous Minnie, who has never been kissed, runs the saloon.  Local sheriff Jack Rance wants her for himself and is pressuring her to give in; she is having none of it.  Bandit and gang leader Dick Johnson sneaks into town using an alias, planning to check out the saloon for a planned robbery, while his gang awaits him on the outskirts.  Instead, Dick falls for Minnie and she for him.  There are chases and a high stakes card game, where virtuous Minnie cheats.  The lasso around Dick’s heart is eventually joined by a noose around his neck as the dramatic conclusion unfolds.  The key to Fanciulla is the effectiveness of its three principal characters, Minnie, Dick, and Jack, and for these roles, MDLO has recruited a different set of impressive singers for each night, all established opera stars.  Soprano Susan Bullock, tenor Jonathon Burton, and baritone Mark Delavan will star on the first night and soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, tenor Yi Li, and baritone Alexsey Bogdanov on the second night.  All have played major opera houses. I’d like to see both performances; what to do?  The eight supporting roles will be played by the same young singers each night; these are primarily alumni of the MDLO Young Artist Institute. 

 Louis Salemno, Conductor and Music Director, MDLO; photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Louis Salemno, Conductor and Music Director, MDLO; photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Starting a breakout year with La Fanciulla del West could be viewed as risky; this is not one of Puccini’s blockbusters in terms of popularity, though the music is highly regarded.  Less popular operas are often presented in concert, allowing the great music and singing to be heard without the expense of putting on the fully staged version, cheaper for the company and the audience.  In the U.S., there were three staged productions of Fanciulla in 2017-2018, one by Virginia Opera.  The Metropolitan Opera will be offering a staged production starting October 4 this Fall.  One big draw of this opera for me is its theme: the triumph of love and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, and after all, it is music by Puccini.   For Maestro Salemno, it’s personal, “La Fanciulla del West has been a part of my repertory for over 40 years, and it is always a privilege to play Puccini’s music in the Opera House.  Giacomo Puccini has a unique ability to illuminate the humanity of his characters, combined with his musical genius and his extraordinary skill in choosing the right note, at the right time, and in the right place....  again, any occasion to present Fanciulla is  precisely that... an occasion to celebrate our common humanity.”  I think you will be happy you attended this one. 

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is to be fully staged and performed in the Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland at College Park and the roles to be played by MDLO young artists and alumni.  Lucia is one of the stalwarts of opera’s standard repertoire and playing its principal character’s mad scene is the desire of every coloratura soprano.  The singers for these performances will be MDLO young artists and alumni.  Maeve Höglund will play Lucia on January 24 and 26 and Nayoung Ban will play the role on Jan 25.  Maestro Salemno will again be at the helm of the Maryland Lyric Opera Orchestra.  And once more, the dilemma of which to attend. 

May and June will feature Maryland Lyric Opera’s young artists and alumni in concert at the Kay Theatre, featuring arias by Verdi and Puccini, respectively.  These concerts will differ from their previous young artist concerts, using an expanded format.  They will include semi-staged opera vignettes directed by Nick Olcott, and the accompaniment will be by the MDLO orchestra on stage led by Conductor Salemno.  I have attended a couple of the previous concerts accompanied only by piano, and can report that watching their young artists display their wares is exciting.  They are already accomplished singers and the quality of the performances is high.  Plus, each performance is watching a life story unveiling.  In a previous blog report on MDLO, I described their training and the concerts as part of their artists' struggle for beauty; sometimes it’s breathtaking.  The format for these concerts will give them an enhanced opportunity to display their talents. 

The full operas to be performed and the concerts with an expanded format offer their Young Artist Institute singers enhanced training by providing with the opportunity to work with their peers who have gone on to professional careers and to work with an orchestra, as well as providing additional employment opportunities for opera professionals and orchestra musicians.  Kudos to the MDLO team for the expanded benefits to their singers and to their audiences..

Fan Experience: I have not been to either of the scheduled venues and very much look forward to doing so.  Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post, has written that Strathmore offers “the best concert hall, acoustically and aesthetically in the region”.  The Music Center at Strathmore has free and easy access parking as well as valet parking for a fee.  See this link for details.  Tickets can be purchased at this site.

 The Music Center at Strathmore; photo courtesy of Strathmore.

The Music Center at Strathmore; photo courtesy of Strathmore.

Kay Theatre, which is part of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, appears to be a smaller theater, about 600 seats, well-designed for opera.  I tend to like the smaller venues because you can be closer to the singers without paying close up seat prices of the larger arenas.  See this link for parking information.  There will be a charge for tickets to the Verdi and Puccini concerts; tickets start at $20 and will go on sale soon.

 Kay Theatre in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center of the University of Maryland; photo courtesy of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Kay Theatre in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center of the University of Maryland; photo courtesy of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.