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‘South Pacific’ and Donizetti, Too: Opera North Opens With a Musical

  • Nellie, played by Kaitlyn Costello, listens to Emile, a French expatriot played by Harold Wilson, explain his feelings for her by serenading her with "Some Enchanted Evening" during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Nellie, played by Kaitlyn Costello, listens to Emile, a French expatriot played by Harold Wilson, explain his feelings for her by serenading her with "Some Enchanted Evening" during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bloody Mary, played by Melissa Fajardo, is lifted in the air by enlisted Navy men during the song, "Bloody Mary," during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News — Sarah Priestap)

    Bloody Mary, played by Melissa Fajardo, is lifted in the air by enlisted Navy men during the song, "Bloody Mary," during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News — Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Music Director Louis Burkot directs "Some Enchanted Evening" during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Music Director Louis Burkot directs "Some Enchanted Evening" during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nellie, played by Kaitlyn Costello, listens to Emile, a French expatriot played by Harold Wilson, explain his feelings for her by serenading her with "Some Enchanted Evening" during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Bloody Mary, played by Melissa Fajardo, is lifted in the air by enlisted Navy men during the song, "Bloody Mary," during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News — Sarah Priestap)
  • Music Director Louis Burkot directs "Some Enchanted Evening" during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

After Opera North’s success last year with The King and I, the company is returning to the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook this season with arguably the duo’s greatest musical, South Pacific, which opens the Opera North season on Saturday, Aug. 3 at the Lebanon Opera House.

Musicals and operas aren’t always thought of in the same breath, but treating the great American musicals with the same artistic seriousness as works by Puccini or Verdi has been a growing trend on the American operatic and concert stage, as such heavyweight companies as the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Lyric Opera have restaged George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat.

For a company like Opera North, said its executive director Pamela Pantos, the audience response to The King and I showed there is an appetite in the Upper Valley to hear American musical classics the way they’re meant to be heard and seen, on a grand stage with a full orchestra. “How many theater companies can afford a full orchestra or have the understanding of how to put together an orchestra, and best utilize it?” said Pantos.

For children and young adults who have never heard a classically trained orchestra, said Pantos, “from the downbeat of the overture they’re hearing and experiencing something they’ve never experienced before.”

South Pacific is just one of three works that Opera North is staging this summer. The Italian tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor, with a score by Gaetano Donizetti, opens on Tuesday, Aug. 6 and tthe American opera Little Women, composed by Mark Adamo and performed by the singers in the Young Artists program, opens on Aug. 7.

South Pacific, based on stories by James Michener, opened in 1949 on Broadway with Mary Martin playing Army nurse Nellie Forbush and Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza as Emile DeBecque, the plantation owner. From the first stirring notes of Rodgers’ music, it was immediately clear that, like Show Boat, Pal Joey and Oklahoma before it, South Pacific was another leap forward in the development of American musical theater in terms of the themes explored (World War II, racism) and the ambition of the score.

Harold Wilson, who plays DeBecque for Opera North, began his operatic career as a Young Artist for the company, Pantos said. He went on to sing at Deutsche Oper Berlin and will be singing this year with Portland Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia. As a bass, normally assigned to darker character roles, Wilson leaped at the chance to play a leading man, Pantos said.

After a few years of staging comic operas, Opera North returns to grand tragedy with Lucia di Lammermoor, based on the the novel The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. The production opens on Tuesday, Aug. 6. Although the company sang Donizetti’s light-hearted Elixir of Love last year, this is the first time in its history that it is producing Lucia di Lammermoor.

Donizetti kept the Scottish setting and characters but gave them an Italian flourish. Lucy Ashton, the fragile heroine caught up in a feud between her family and the Ravenswoods, became Lucia; the man she falls in love with, Edgar Ravenswood, became Edgardo. Lucia di Lammermoor is regarded as one of the indispensable tragic roles for a coloratura soprano, featuring showy vocals and a mad scene that calls as much for a strong actor as it does a strong singer.

Angela Mortellaro, who sings Lucia for Opera North, is “on the cusp, she’s right at that spot in her career,” said Pantos. She has already done the role twice but was excited by the reinterpretation that Opera North is staging. Seventeenth-century Scotland becomes post-Civil War Richmond, destroyed by the Union Army; Lucia comes from a Southern family and Edgardo becomes a Northerner. Done this way, Pantos said, the “piece makes a lot of sense and the character motivations make a lot of sense.”

Rounding out the season are two Young Artist performances of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, which was turned into an opera by Mark Adamo, composer-in-residence at the New York City Opera from 2001 to 2006. The Young Artist program will give two matinee performances on Aug. 7 and 11 at 2 p.m., and tickets for children and students are only $5.

Little Women also answers the desire of operagoers to see new work, Pantos said. “We get a contingent that says I’ve seen Tosca and Marriage of Figaro. When are you going to do something I haven’t seen?”

The opera Little Women “has become something of the modern American classic opera,” Pantos said. It’s important for the singers in the Young Artists program to have a piece that is theirs alone, separate from the other two operas. “When you give (them) a challenge and it really is a challenge they rose to the occasion,” Pantos said.

Pantos pointed to the example of Tyler Putnam, a bass, and Dartmouth graduate, who sang in the Opera North chorus for two years. He’s returning this summer as Luther Billis in South Pacific, as well as covering the role of a Calvinist minister Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor. “It’s wonderful to see someone go off into the world, and come back as a professional. It shows that our Young Artists’ program is doing what it should be doing: training young artists,” she said.

For more information and tickets, call the Lebanon Opera House Box Office at 603-448-0400 or go to www.lebanonoperahouse.org.