Richmond Times-Dispatch: Op/Ed by Russell Allen: Virginia Opera – at home in Richmond for 35 years

On Oct. 19, Virginia Opera begins its 35th consecutive season performing in downtown Richmond. From 1978-1983, Virginia Opera was sponsored by Richmond Friends of Opera, led by Anna Garner and a group of opera devotees from across the greater Richmond community. The Friends of Opera provided the foundation for the Opera’s current Central Virginia Board, which came into being in the early ’80s and is now led by Kemper Hyers.

Since 1983, Virginia Opera has self-produced its operas and maintained an administrative office in Richmond directing ticket sales, fundraising activity and community events (such as last weekend’s two performances at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.) Since the late ’90s, the Richmond Symphony has performed in one of Virginia Opera’s productions each season, a wonderful collaboration between two of the major arts organizations in Richmond. The Opera’s offices recently moved to CenterStage to coincide with the Opera’s 35th Anniversary Season performing in Richmond — again featuring a full season in the Carpenter Theatre of fully staged and full-length operas of the highest professional quality.

Virginia Opera has now a long history of introducing opera of standard repertory and innovative repertory to Richmond audiences. In its 35 years here in Richmond, the seasons have been peppered with world premieres (such as Musgrave’s Simón Bolívar), little-known Baroque operas (such as Handel’s Rodelinda), and musical theater (such as Man of La Mancha) amidst standard operatic repertory by composers such as Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. Virginia Opera is committed to ensuring a wide variety of operatic offerings for central Virginia audiences — now and always. It continues to program new and fresh repertory that delights and challenges and entertains audiences.

This current season actually continues two new artistic initiatives of note. Last season, Virginia Opera launched a 10-year initiative wherein each season begins with a new production of an opera never previously produced by Virginia Opera. This First of Firsts initiative began with a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida,” an operatic masterpiece considered one of the most popular operas in the repertory.

Meeting with great critical acclaim, Virginia Opera’s production featured its first collaboration with another of Richmond’s major performing arts organizations, Richmond Ballet — a highly successful collaboration that generated ongoing discussions of additional collaborations on other productions in future seasons. And now, this season’s First of Firsts is a new production of George Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” opening Oct. 19.

The second new artistic initiative follows the Opera’s long-standing tradition of producing an operatic variety for its audiences. The American Opera Cycle was formalized two seasons ago with the Opera’s world premiere of “Rappahannock County” by composer Ricky Ian Gordon. This initiative continued last year with the Opera’s production of Phillip Glass’ “Orphée.” The acclaim of both productions spread internationally as a production photo from “Orphée” was featured on the cover of Opera America magazine along with acknowledgment of “Rappahannock County” inside. Having an internationally distributed opera magazine feature each of the two productions beginning the Opera’s American Opera Cycle brought significant acknowledgment to Richmond and to the commonwealth. This new opera cycle continues in February of this season with “A Streetcar Named Desire” by André Previn.

American opera is coming into its own in the 21st century. OPERA America, the international service organization for opera companies, cites American opera companies in the past decade featuring more world premiere operas being produced than in any single decade of the 20th century. Additionally, collaborations between and amongst American opera companies are at an all-time high. Virginia Opera is contracting with Portland Opera a new production of an opera not produced in Richmond in 20 years for its 2014-15 season.

Similarly, next season (2013-14) will feature Virginia Opera performing a new production debuted by Opera Theater of St. Louis last year and tweaked by the designers for the Virginia Opera performances. Collaborations will make it possible for more major new productions of standard repertory and new works to be developed than would be able to be independently generated by any one company (excepting the top opera houses in the country).

Virginia Opera has plans to continue these artistic initiatives, with major new productions of works the company has never performed, collaborations with other opera companies, productions of American opera with another world premiere planned for the 2014-15 season, and the freshest seasons of new and standard repertory possible. Bringing these initiatives and goals forward into the upcoming seasons will be more easily accomplished now that the Opera has both productions and administrative offices consolidated at CenterStage.

Virginia Opera is pleased to call three cities in the commonwealth home (Richmond, Norfolk and Fairfax) and looks forward to its next 35 years at CenterStage, bringing world-class opera to the commonwealth.

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