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Opera Carolina Takes off on an International Flight

Opera singers and musicians from around the world are in Charlotte for three weeks of immersive mentorship, training and performances at CPCC

A woman wearing a green dress sings opera while another woman plays the piano in the background
Chunghee Lee (right) with Lisa Engelbrecht. (Photo by Perry Tannenbaum)

Look up, look around, and look quick. There’s a new international music festival here in Charlotte, and it’s already in progress. Opera Carolina is in the midst of hosting its first International Lyric Academy Summer Music Festival, with 86 singers who will perform having already arrived in the Queen City on June 19 to begin master classes and rehearsals.

The first festival event, a Florilegium concert, was staged on June 28 at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). Apparently, Charlotte was not caught by surprise. Both the Wednesday and Friday night performances of Florilegium were moved from the upstairs Tate Recital Hall in the Overcash Building to the larger Dale F. Halton Theater below, where the popular CPCC Summer Theatre resided in the good ol’ days.

Founded in Rome and now based in Vicenza, Italy, the International Lyric Academy has staged 28 Summer Festivals since 1995, but the 2023 event will be the program’s first festival in the U.S. So yeah, this is quite a coup for Opera Carolina and artistic director James Meena.

Singers in the opera program were scheduled to perform additional concert programs, a Mozart Marathon on June 29 and an Opera Scenes Program scheduled for Monday, July 3, before two operas take over the Halton stage for two performances each: a semi-staged Tales of Hoffman (July 5 and 8) and a fully-staged Marriage of Figaro (July 6-7). Meanwhile, 30 more singers are flying into Charlotte for the Broadway musical component of the ILA Summer Festival.

Before ILA’s first U.S. festival concludes on July 8 with the evening performance of Tales of Hoffman, the musical theatre singers will sparkle on the Halton stage with a matinee tribute to Richard Rodgers, singing “With a Song in My Heart.” For the opera singers, the show will go on — to Vicenza, where they will reprise their U.S. opera and concert performances.

“The whole company gets on a plane and we go to Italy for two weeks and do classes with different master teachers there and perform in the theater,” says Meena, who is ILA’s guest conductor in Italy. “Vicenza is between Venice and Verona. So basically, we take over the theater for two weeks. These emerging artists get to perform here, and then they actually get to perform in Italy. We’ve invited a handful of intendants [opera impresarios] from Italian theaters to come to the performances and hear the kids. So it’s an amazing opportunity for them.”

The new festival in Charlotte represents a quantum leap in Opera Carolina’s youth education program and a magnificent expansion of their resident company. Now that the pilot program has emerged from under the radar, Meena will meet with his board to decide whether to authorize a complete integration of the Academy into Opera Carolina or whether they will continue working as separate entities to produce future Summer Festivals.

Working with so many emerging artists at the same time clearly had Meena excited when we spoke. While he was in rehearsals getting ready to conduct a week of performances of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, ILA artistic director and founder Stefano Vignati was readying the full-dress version of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a comedy masterwork that figures prominently in any serious discussion of the greatest operas ever written.

The breadth of the program is as breathtaking as its sudden arrival.

A Black man wearing a suit sings opera
Luvo Marati (Photo by Perry Tannenbaum)

“Our education department all of a sudden becomes youth through young adults!” Meena exults. “So it’s really pretty audacious. No other company that I know of other than Chicago Lyric and the Met and San Francisco are providing professional opportunities like this for emerging artists. So it’s pretty cool. We’re pretty excited about it all.”

Advertisements to attract young artists to the program began last July, and the program already has a network of university instructors spreading the word in Toronto, Cape Town, Seoul, L.A., and other U.S. locations. The audition process began virtually before the decisive live auditions in six different cities.

When you add up the 86 opera aspirants with the 30 musical theatre recruits, you have a youth program that begins to rival that of Spoleto Festival USA, the annual arts behemoth that takes over Charleston for 17 days. Meena doesn’t shy away from the comparison.

“If we do this well,” he says, “this can become different than Spoleto but on that scale.”

There’s certainly a niche for it, since Spoleto has never done Sweeney Todd or West Side Story — and CPCC Summer Theatre staged both of those Broadway classics in its long history before making a quiet exit last year. But the combination of opera and musical theatre in programming or in pedagogy is nothing new.

“We’ve been blurring the lines between American music theatre and opera for decades, really,” Meena explains, “since Beverly Sills first started the City Opera, when she did Brigadoon. So it makes sense for us to get music theatre kids, teach them a bit about classical singing, which can only help their performing, and then work that curriculum, really, to add some more diversity to the performances. If we do this well, by 2024, the music theatre program will be probably two weeks. The opera program would be four weeks.”

Not only a big deal but a great deal. Two of the ILA Summer Festival concerts are free, and ticket prices top out at $35 for the rest. Festival passports are also on sale.

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