PORTSMOUTH—Not content to stage one opera this summer, TodiMusicFest will offer three.
The lineup - grand opera, rock opera and jazz opera - may be stretching the definition of this musical genre. But this Portsmouth-based summer arts festival is building a reputation for surprising choices among its something-for-everyone roster of concerts.
Hampton Roads cities. The 18-day festival begins this week and continues through July 29.
Thursday's kick-off event is an unusual concert by the East Village Opera Company, a New York-based hybrid performing familiar opera arias sung to rock arrangements. The group's members include two opera singers, a string quartet and a five-piece rock band. Not everyone's idea of how the "Habanera" from "Carmen" should sound, but the group is winning acclaim for introducing the classics to a new generation.
In a similar way, Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti" may appeal more to musical theater enthusiasts than to diehard opera lovers. Bernstein wove jazz and blues into this 1952 work about a suburban couple whose marriage has soured. The one-act work is scored for two singers, a three-member chorus and a seven-member orchestra of winds, brass, percussion, piano and string bass.
Festival Artistic Director Howard Bender calls it an "outreach" opera.
"We wanted to do something brief and in English in this intimate Suffolk theater," he says. "We want to break down the barriers and give the public something accessible."
"Trouble in Tahiti" will play Saturday at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, the same location Todi used last summer to present "The Tragedy of Carmen," a bold music theater production based on the popular Bizet opera. Both are area premieres and underscore Todi's mission to bring out-of-the-ordinary works to the area.
Finally, the festival will close with two performances of Tchaikovsky's grand opera, "Eugene Onegin," for the musical purists. This will be an area premiere as well, coming several months before Virginia Opera's presents its own version of "Eugene Onegin." While some may find two versions too much Tchaikovsky, others will enjoy comparing and contrasting the pair.
Presenting "Eugene Onegin" is a dream come true for Festival Musical Director Walter Attanasi, who was born in Italy but has Slavic roots and is thoroughly steeped in Russian repertoire.
"When we started out with the festival five years ago, 'Eugene Onegin' was one of the first titles I suggested," says Attanasi. "It's the Russian version of 'La Boheme.' The music is so strong, the Russian language is so musical and there's a beautiful romantic story."
Based on the Pushkin novel, the opera explores a love triangle that ends tragically. Soprano Oksana Krovytska will star as Titiana with Timothy Mix as Onegin and Rodrick Dixon as his friend, Lensky.
This year a little drama is unfolding behind the scenes. In past years Todi contracted with the Virginia Symphony for its opera musicians, but last year it started its own group called the Todi Summer Orchestra. The local musicians' union has urged its members not to play for the festival because its pay scale is lower than the going rate for opera performances. Bender says the dispute will not prevent him from putting together a quality orchestra.
At the same time he's stretching the definition of opera, Bender is expanding the festival offerings in other cities. For the first time, the 2007 event will feature two concerts in Hampton University's Ogden Hall. Dixon and his wife, soprano Alfreda Burke, will present "Following in the Footsteps," a tribute to Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and other great African-American singers, on July 20. And Taylor Two, the junior company of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, performs on July 28.
Dixon is also overseeing the festival's first "American (opera) Idol" competition that brings together opera singers from area universities to compete for cash prizes. In future seasons, Bender hopes to take the competition on a national level and hold auditions in different cities.
Attanasi sees the different Todi festival events as making up a "taste container" for audiences.
"With this festival, you have an opportunity to give audiences what they want but to tease them with something they never thought about," he says. "That way, they'll be curious and try something new."
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What: TodiMusicFest 2007