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CLASSICAL PREVIEW: Chamber Opera Festival 2013 

Good opera in small packages

If you inevitably associate the word "opera" with the word "grand," prepare for an eye- and ear-opening couple of weeks from Rochester Lyric Opera. Its Chamber Opera Festival, opening this week and running until May 5, is a kind of operatic tapas bar — bite-sized but tasty offerings that offer something for all tastes.

The menu includes a rare bel canto work by a beloved 19th-century composer, two one-act comedies by 20th-century master Gian Carlo Menotti, a Gilbert and Sullivan favorite in an appropriate setting, and a recent work by a favorite local composer — not to mention two recitals showcasing high-school students and other talented regional singers.

It's an unusual approach for opera in Rochester, but then Rochester Lyric Opera is an unusual group. It was the idea of Susan Delly Cotroneo. A Rochester native trained at Ithaca College as a singer and teacher, Cotroneo started a career as a singer in New York City, then returned to Rochester to marry and raise a family. Her passions for performing and teaching remained, however; she wanted to create an outlet for them, and to include as many people as possible.

Her brainchild, Empire State Lyric Theatre, began in 2006 with a performance of Mozart's "Impresario," followed by concert versions of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." The company has also sponsored numerous voice recitals — open to anyone who is interested — and two voice competitions. Last year, Empire State Lyric Theatre presented its first Chamber Opera Festival, which included Menotti's "The Medium" and a program of scenes of arias from favorite operas. Renamed Rochester Lyric Opera in 2012, the group will do the same this year — and much more.

Throughout, the intention has been to use talented regional singers of all levels and ages. Cotroneo also wants to provide stage and recital opportunities younger singers, "who work so hard on a classical training and then have no outlet to display it other than their school musical," she says.

In chronological order, the 2013 festival includes:

"Trial By Jury" (April 24-25): Before "The Pirates of Penzance" or "The Mikado," Gilbert and Sullivan teamed up for this one-act extravaganza, first produced in 1875. This through-sung piece lampoons a Victorian-era breach-of-promise trial, and combines zany wit and elaborate music in an alchemy that came to be known simply as "G&S." The festival's presentation of "Trial By Jury" will actually take place "on location" in Courtroom 303 at the Hall of Justice, and is sponsored by a number of local law firms, whose members should get all the jokes.

"Rita" (April 26), a one-act comedy by Gaetano Donizetti, should be a genuine discovery even for fans of this composer's popular works, like Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor. In fact, "Rita," written in 1841 in French, wasn't produced until 1860 (12 years after Donizetti's death), and in Italian — and then put to rest for almost a century. It has been occasionally revived since the 1950's, but this will definitely be Rita's first visit to Kilbourn Hall.

"Rita" is a comedy about a woman who finds out she has two husbands — but who ends up with only one by the final curtain. Music Director Eric Townell says "Rita" should appeal to anyone who enjoys vocal fireworks and outstanding voices. (The original dialogue will be replaced by a narration in English.) "It's a good showpiece and definitely a lesser-known gem for the soprano, which perhaps explains why Sue suggested it," he says.

The cast of "Rita" will be casually dressed, and the atmosphere will suggest a recording studio rather than an opera house. This simple approach "was an ideal choice for Kilbourn Hall, and for our production schedule," says Townell. The evening also includes a reception, and Cotroneo says she hopes to recreate the atmosphere at the beginning of the history of opera, when performances were social as well as musical events.

"Amelia Goes to the Ball" and "The Old Maid and the Thief" (April 30-May 1): Gian Carlo Menotti's first two hits were these one-acters from the 1930's ("The Old Maid and the Thief" was the first opera commissioned for radio, in 1939). RAPA will present both comic operas with casts of talented high-school students directed by Judith Ranaletta. The cast will include a guest from the professional world: singer-actor Keith Greene, a Greece native who appeared on the 2007 NBC reality show "Grease: You're the One that I Want."

"Mice and Beans" (May 4-5): The title is not a typo, although rice and beans play important roles in this one-act opera based on a popular children's book by Pam Munoz Ryan. The characters include a Catalina, her grandmother Rosa Maria, and a horde of mice, played by a children's chorus, who steal the food (rice and beans, and much more) for Catalina's seventh birthday party, but then turn out to be unexpectedly helpful.

The composer and librettist is Rochester's Cary Ratcliff, known for his challenging but very singable vocal and choral works. "Mice and Beans" was originally produced in Los Angeles; this is its East Coast premiere. Mezzo-soprano Allyn Van Dusen, who plays Rosa Maria, previously created roles in Ratcliff's operas "Eleni" and "By the Golden Door." Those roles were heavily dramatic, she says, but playing the harried grandmother in "Rice and Beans" gives her a chance to show a comic side. She adds that Ratcliff's music is challenging but very melodic, with tunes and rhythms that often suggest the story's Mexican setting. "He's even invented some very imaginative 'mouse music' set to nonsense syllables," she says.

Besides these staged operas, the festival includes two recitals. "Local Vocal" (April 28) brings together talented local singers for a program of scenes from favorites like "Carmen," "The Magic Flute," and many more, directed by Van Dusen and her fellow voice teacher Susanna Adams. And the first event of the festival is the Jonathan B. Angelone Recital (April 24), featuring winners of a high-school voice competition named after a voice student of Cotroneo's. This year's first-prize winner is bass-baritone Aaron Bigeleisen, a McQuaid senior.

It's an impressive list of events, even if there is not a "grand opera" among them. "Do I want to stage big opera? Hell, yes!" says Sue Cotroneo. "Hell, yes! But we need to grow into that. We want to be around a long time, so we need to make some very calculated decisions. And we want to include the community, always."

A recital featuring winners from a recent high-school voice competition will kick off the 2013 Chamber Opera Festival.


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