From arias to duets, Opera Wilmington hosts series of concerts this week

Elizabeth Stovall practices earlier in the week for Opera Wilmington’s series of performances coming up tonight through Friday. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Opera Wilmington)

WILMINGTON –– In normal years, the resident opera company of UNCW, Opera Wilmington, would be preparing to host its signature summer performance — its largest of the year — as part of the Lumina Festival of the Arts. Covid-19 prevented both from happening.

Coming out of a pandemic, with shuttered venues and events slowly springing back to life, the organization had to make a tough call to forego the annual concert a few months ago. Contributing to the decision was the fact that its home in UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building wouldn’t be open.

“They said, ‘We’re going to close all our facilities this summer, do a really good cleaning, and then we’ll have everything open up in the fall,” OW spokesperson Jenny Callison recalled. “Then they changed their mind.”

By that time, the decision was already made to move forward on a smaller run of concerts, while focusing on launching Mozart’s “Magic Flute” next summer.

Billed “Under the Stars” — with the intention of being outdoors all three nights (though, now, it’s only one night, as Callison said it’s “too weather-risky”) — “Songs from America” kicks off Wednesday at the New Hanover County Arboretum. If it rains, the show will move to UNCW’s Beckwith Recital Hall, which will be the venue as well for Thursday’s “A Night in Vienna.” On Friday, “Viva Italia” will take place at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“Songs from America” will feature John Dooley, Elizabeth Stovall and Jemeesa Yarborough. “A Night in Vienna” will showcase the talents of King, Shannon Kessler Dooley (married to John) and Jeffrey Jones. “Viva Italia” puts the spotlight on Jonathan Kaufman, as well as Jones, Stovall, Yarborough, and both Dooleys. Many are OW regulars, and some will perform in next summer’s “Magic Flute.

The cast has been in rehearsals Monday and Tuesday, which artistic director Nancy King — who is also the chair of UNCW’s music department — said has presented its own set of challenges, performing under such a tight timeline.

“This is quite a feat, since we’re musically traveling across the world, in terms of style,” she explained. “But we are being led by Maestro Daniel Brier, who is so accomplished and thoughtful, and all things are coming together beautifully.”

Brier and King devised the concept of the three-night show in the spring once the arts organization realized, under Covid-19 mandates, it couldn’t pull together the full-scale demands of “Magic Flute.” The show has many moving parts, including set design, costuming, rehearsals, travel of musicians, singers, the orchestra, and so forth. Also, they experienced success with a two-night, sold-out, outdoor show at Cameron Art Museum in April, featuring songs from the Great American Songbook.

“People are really hungry to have music in person,” Calilson said. “That’s what we learned from the Great American Songbook.”

King said she and Brier met via Zoom to discuss how to best move forward in creating a spring performance. “We kept coming back to the idea of how much we missed traveling during the pandemic,” she said. So they decided to curate a show mixing orchestral songs and opera that would allow the audience to transport via art, without the need of a passport. The songs will focus on composers from America (Aaron Copeland, Samuel Barber), Austria (Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler) and Italy (Puccini, Verdi and Mascagni).  

Tenor John Dooley revealed three of the five songs he will perform he had never heard of, actually. Yet, “Simple Gifts” — a tune he said will be familiar to many — seemingly carried greater meaning in today’s climate.

“The pandemic has brought into focus what truly is important and in a lot of cases it is the simple gifts we missed most,” he explained.

“The most challenging part of this concert is keeping my emotions in check,” Dooley added. “I am so grateful to be singing, especially live and with an orchestra and audience. It’s a simple gift that has been missing in most people’s lives recently.”

The chamber orchestra is 15 performers deep, according to Callison. “Some have been with us for several years,” she said. “Normally, for our opera productions, everybody auditions.”

This time around King and Brier reached out to the performers, while Clark Spencer helped wrangle the musicians.

Soprano Elizabeth Stovall has performed locally in chamber choirs and for UNCW’s Opera Workshops, having studied under King as well. She last performed as Maria in Opera House Theater Company’s “The Sound of Music” in February 2020. Stovall said she is excited to tackle Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a 15-minute piece she has never performed. It will be presented Wednesday evening.

“Just when a rhythm or melodic idea starts to settle, [Barber] sprinkles in a new tune — often in a completely different meter,” Stovall explained. 

The lyrics were written by James Agee, which Stovall said “mirrors the music . . . It leaves one simultaneously wrapped in the warmest memories of childhood, as well as searching for answers to life’s large questions.”

Soprano Shannon Dooley will perform Mahler’s “Rheinlegendchen” on Thursday evening, a “charming and elegant” song, as well as a duet with Jeffrey Jones in “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen.” Dooley said she never has performed it before — neither has Jones.

“This duet is challenging because it contains a lot of high, soft singing, but it is worth the effort,” Jones detailed.

On Friday night, Jones will take on Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which he described as “compelling” in its storytelling: “It is a powerful aria about a father trying to convince his son that he is making a ‘not so smart’ life choice.”

Jones also will reprise the role of Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” which he performed a decade ago, to sing “Che gelida manina.” (“La Bohème” was OW’s last full-scale opera, produced in 2019 as well.) “There are so many challenges in this piece, but what makes it so wonderful is its relatability,” Kaufman said. “It’s one of Puccini’s greatest and most memorable themes, and he uses different iterations throughout the opera to express feelings of love, hope, despair, and sorrow.”

Callison said OW received multiple grants through the Covid-19 shutdown, as well as help from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant to continue their outreach. They also have donors that help launch its productions, even family-friendly ones, like “Hansel and Gretel,” which the organization did a few years ago. Funds also help OW host its opera youth camps, Just For Kids.

“We are almost at our fundraising goal for ‘Magic Flute,’” Callison revealed. “And we’ve got another year to continue raising money, but in order to support us, people need to know that we’re really doing a good thing.” 

The organization doesn’t have a full-time staff, but pays out its crew — the conductor, artistic director, set designer, costumer, performers — when preparing for in-person shows. Donations and grants help the operation evolve its programming and expand the caliber of artists it recruits.

Callison said the organization has reached out to Lawrence Brown Brownlee, an African-American tenor who has performed in numerous Metropolitan Opera productions, to perform this fall. “I went after him because we had talked with him in 2019 about coming here in February of last year to be part of our Caterina Jarboro symposium and concert,” Callison said.

Jarboro was the first African-American opera singer to tour with a national white opera group in the mid 20th century. She also was born in Wilmington in 1898. 

“We want to be inclusive, both in terms of nurturing singers and instrumentalists of all backgrounds and ethnicities, and so forth,” Callison said. 

Last October OW paired up with the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society and did a livestream about unknown divas of the 19th century — two of whom were Black. Soprano Jameesa Yarborough — who may be related to Caterina Yarboro — participated as well.

Callison said Yarborough’s performance this week is a not-miss. She will perform songs by Florence Price, an early 20th century composer. It “draws from the gospel tradition,” Callison explained. “Jameesa’s a real powerhouse. She has a wonderful voice, so I think it’s going to be a pretty lively program.”

This week’s series of concerts costs $30 for Wednesday and Thursday shows; refreshments will be sold. A prosecco and dessert reception takes place Friday; tickets are $40. All three nights can be purchased for $80, and all shows start at 7 p.m. Updates on whether the Arboretum’s outdoor concert Wednesday will be moved indoors can be found by checking in at

The concerts will welcome 100 to 150 audience members each night. OW asks the audience to follow Covid-19 protocols, including mask-wearing.

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