Open Opera

Lisa Houston on July 27, 2009
This weekend, you can take a picnic, and bring as many friends as you like to enjoy a free performance in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park. This might evoke memories for some of a small artistic collective that began in 1974 and has now grown to become Cal Shakes. But the latest free show to encourage lovers of the performing arts is called Open Opera. Founded in 2008 by Olivia Stapp. Ellen St. Thomas and Elizabeth Baker, Open Opera’s goal is off and running with its mission of bringing free opera out of doors to Bay Area audiences. In its first season, Open Opera has produced two free concerts in Live Oak Park in Berkeley and received a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. They also sponsored a master class with famed soprano Evelyn Lear. More concerts are planned for the fall in Berkeley and Orinda.

Stapp, renowned dramatic soprano and former artistic director of Festival Opera will direct the company’s first complete production this coming weekend. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro will be conducted by Jonathan Khuner, assistant conductor at the San Francisco Opera and well known to Berkeley audiences as the artistic director of Berkeley Opera. The production, with a chorus of eleven and a professional chamber orchestra of the same number will feature locally based soloists. The show will be costumed with a “makeshift set” according to Khuner, and will be a polished production, giving the essence of the opera but without the fancy trimmings.” Coming in at just under three hours, the show will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

The cast features Julian Arsenault as Figaro and Aimee Puentes as Susanna. Nicolai Janitsky, who debuted this season with San Francisco Opera as Shchelkalov in Boris Godunov will sing the Count and Open Opera’s cofounder, Elizabeth Baker, also a student of Olivia Stapp, will sing Cherubino.

As St. Thomas tells it, the real impetus for the founding of this company was twofold. First to showcase the great talent of singers here in the bay area and second to provide opera free to the public in a time when attending opera is, for many, prohibitively expensive. Making use of talent from all over the bay area, the cast includes both students and professionals. Elliot Nguyen, who will sing Antonio and Taylor Thompson, who will sing Don Curzio, are past participants of the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley, which provides training opportunities for young people from throughout the bay area. Also from that program is Kendra Dodd in the chorus. Another local connection some of the singers have is to the former program in Contra Costa County “Summersong.” For example, Adrien Roberts who will sing the Countess, came through Summersong, a former program for young singers run by Olivia Stapp and Lucy Beck. Julian Arsenault is also a former Summersong participant. Arsenault, who at the age of 20 will be reprising the role of Figaro which he performed recently at UCLA, is from Lafayette and well represents Open Opera’s dedication to featuring local talent.

St. Thomas says that it is Stapp’s dedication to excellence that inspired her to help found this company. She goes on to say that Baker works to craft the image of the company for the public, through the website, artwork, posters etc. and that Stapp works to set the company’s high artistic standards. St. Thomas, a former producer of television pieces for the Virginia Public schools as well as an accomplished singer, works to make it all happen.

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday