International opera stars step up for Opera Charleston's debut 

Where in the World is Carmen?

Opera is an art form drowning in a sea of preconceived ideas. When it comes to general opinion, especially among those under the age of, say, 50, opera is usually linked to words like "stuffy," "elitist," and "boring." Actors singing their way through even the most epic, passionate story—most operas have enough seduction, betrayal, and murder to satisfy anyone's secret sensationalist side—somehow seems to turn people off right away, especially if they've never seen any opera themselves.

But allow us to suggest a little experiment. Throw out all those ideas, especially the one about opera being boring. Erase that image of snooty old men in tuxedos and matronly ladies in evening dress self-righteously basking in their social status as they stoically enjoy an aria. Luckily for us, Charleston now has an organization ready to lead the way toward a new understanding of the art form: Opera Charleston.

Co-founded by former New York City Opera principal Scott Flaherty and College of Charleston professor and opera singer David Templeton, Opera Charleston is working to become an opera company that does more than put on outstanding performances, expand accessibility, and reach into the schools, though all of those things are certainly integral to its mission. There's a bigger picture at work: This company wants to drive home the truth that opera is not just about large men and women standing on stage singing, but a visceral, ecstatically human experience that, if given the chance, can be as thrilling as a rock concert. Says Flaherty, "The humanity of the characters in opera is what we want to focus on. ... It isn't just for the elite, or the exclusive domain of those who are familiar with it."

Flaherty and Templeton both have long histories with Charleston, though each moved here fairly recently. Years earlier, as college roommates, the two took a trip from Texas to New England that included a stop in the Holy City. "There was only one carriage company back then, and you could rent side-by-side bicycles for two and ride around downtown. That's how little traffic there was," says Flaherty. This was Flaherty's second time in the city; his first was while on tour with the New York City Opera. "I, like everyone else, was just taken with the beauty—the architectural, cultural, and historical signature is quite unique. There's no place in America that looks or feels like Charleston." At the same time, he and the rest of the company were struck by the fact that a town with such a strong cultural and arts community lacked a touring opera company.

More than 20 years later, the seed that was to become Opera Charleston had the chance to grow. Flaherty had transitioned out of professional singing in 2002, due to the intense travel schedule and time spent away from his wife and daughter. Then, three years ago, he received a call from Templeton, who had just accepted a teaching position at the College of Charleston. "Over the years," Flaherty tells me, "I'd always said that one of the places I'd love to live would be Charleston, and I told [David], congrats, you're living my life." Shortly thereafter, Flaherty and his wife decided to relocate to Charleston, and the idea for an opera company that the two former roommates had tossed around suddenly became more real. After talks with the mayor and the Office of Cultural Affairs, an opportunity to bring in one of the country's most famous opera singers, Denyce Graves, arose, and Opera Charleston was officially underway.

On the program side, Opera Charleston is focused on ensuring that opera house seats will be full for generations to come. They're putting together an educational component and look forward to establishing a strong presence in schools. "A major thrust of our effort is developing an audience, visiting schools. I think we've dropped the ball there in the last 30 to 40 years. ... In many ways, especially here in America, we haven't made that effort to make opera accessible," Flaherty says. Other planned offerings include free concerts, the periodic commissioning of new works, and annual dedications to specific composers.

The company is starting off with a bang, too: For their debut, they've chosen George Bizet's Carmen, a piece that may be one of the best illustrations of just how passionate and exciting opera can be. Carmen is a tragic story of obsession and seduction set in Spain. Don Jose, a soldier, is engaged to the innocent Micaela but falls in lust with the gypsy woman Carmen. He becomes consumed with jealousy and—well, we don't want to ruin the story.

Flaherty, who is directing, has taken pains to update the staging and make the show more palatable to an audience used to multimedia storytelling and innovative production styles. "We've updated the time to the Spanish Civil War, a time of great strife and tumult. ... We'll be using real video footage [from the war] and broadcasting actual poster art from that time period. We're using this opportunity to give exposure to art, to a time in history, and really making the statement that the situation and emotion and condition of the principal characters in this opera are timeless. They're as relevant today as they were then." In addition, Flaherty's adapted the chorus into more of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action of the story: "The traditional chorus pieces, just standing singing, don't resonate with a modern audience. ... We will do more traditional staging in the future, but want it to be balanced. We're making a very concerted effort to make the opera house as comfortable for the first time opera goer as for the seasoned aficionado."

In addition to balancing innovation with tradition, Opera Charleston is also combining a focus on local talent with efforts to bring in renowned opera stars. "We have a 45 member local chorus that is wonderful. There's so much local talent," says Flaherty. "We're also using local companies to provide the scenery, design, and lighting, and working with local artists to craft the video concepts of the show. We want [the local focus] to be augmented by artists of national and international renown." The music will be local, as well, with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra partnering with the opera.

For Carmen, Opera Charleston is bringing in principals from opera companies around the country, with superstar Graves singing Carmen. Don Jose will be performed by Harold Meers, a tenor who has sung with the San Francisco Opera and Baltimore Opera, among many other companies, and the role of Micaela will be sung by soprano Saundra DeAthos, who has also performed with the San Francisco Opera, among others. Both are thrilled to be working with such a young and creative opera company. As DeAthos says, "There's a lot to get excited about. [Scott Flaherty] is doing some new and innovative things that should appeal to younger audiences. ... It's not going to be the same old thing. He'll bring a lot to this piece, and it's going to be sexy, beautiful."

Meers is especially excited to be singing the role of Don Jose, not only because it's a role he's always wanted to do, but also because he'll be singing opposite Graves. Don Jose is a particularly interesting and challenging character, says Meers, because of his intense emotional journey: "He's one of the people in the beginning who's one of the good guys, and by the end he's this completely desperate and broken person." Don Jose is also one of the characters that most exemplifies those visceral qualities of opera that Flaherty, Meers, and DeAthos all emphasized separately. His burning jealousy and obsession find a depth of expression through music that simply can't be equaled in pure speech. "There's something about the art form of opera — when you hear it live, it sounds like it's connected to the person's soul," says Meers. "People who have never been to a live performance of an opera [can't get the full idea]—in the seats, it's a very different experience. You get to feel the percussion of the orchestra, the sound surrounds you. ... There's this really strong experience in the room."

From all indications, Opera Charleston is the opera company that Charleston has been waiting for, even if we never realized it. Combine their obvious passion for the art form with a strong focus on growing roots in the local community and a commitment to pushing the creative envelope, and there's not much else to wish for. This will be opera "of, by, and for Charleston," Flaherty says, and he really means it. This is opera as its best, as an art that puts the focus back on moving people in their hearts, rather than solely satisfying their intellects.

"I think in recent years, opera has become very intellectual, and less of a visceral experience, with critical editions and authoritative versions," Flaherty continues. "But I know the most thrilling opera I ever saw was sitting in a 2,000 year old Roman amphitheater, on marble steps where people had sat 2,000 years before me, in an open environment with no microphones. ... [The audience] was regular people off the streets, in their shorts, bringing their sandwiches to the opera. There was something so wonderfully personal about it. It was opera for the people."

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