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Opera Carolina Pushes Back on Stereotypes with New Productions

A woman in traditional Japanese garb singing onstage
Opera Carolina’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ will debut on Jan. 25. (Photo courtesy of Opera Carolina)

Claudio Ferri walks into The People’s Market on Elizabeth Avenue in a sports coat and tie, looking almost intimidatingly dapper for an early Monday morning meeting. He joins me at my table as we begin to discuss Opera Carolina’s upcoming lineup, but we’re overtaken by the building’s chill and the overpoweringly upbeat music playing just above our heads. 

“How much time do you have?” he says. “Let’s walk down to my office.”

Ferri, Opera Carolina’s senior director for community advancement, guides me less than a block down the street, across the sometimes-operational Gold Line tracks into the opera’s nationally registered historic office, the Richard C. Biberstein house, which has miraculously survived Charlotte’s development since its 1905 inception.

Hardwood floors creak beneath our feet as we walk through the corridor to his office, the walls to the 12-foot ceiling filled with framed posters of notable operas in which Ferri has had a hand. Ferri dives right in.

He is preparing for Opera Carolina’s production of Madame Butterfly, which will grace the stage of Belk Theater for three shows between Jan. 25-28 as a part of Opera Carolina’s 74th year’s lineup. It’s one of two upcoming Opera Carolina productions based on the true stories of dynamic women.

Set in Nagasaki, Japan, Madame Butterfly centers around Cio-cio-san, a Japanese woman,  who falls in love with an American naval officer played by Opera Carolina resident company star tenor Jonathan Kaufman. 

The narrative unfolds through her struggle with unrequited love and the consequential  challenges. Joining the cast are Japanese-American mezzo Nina Yosida, recognized as a “richly powerful singing actress,” and Chinese soprano Chia-Ling Ho, who will sing the title role on Jan. 28.

Madame Butterfly is one of the most performed operas in the world,” he says of the iconic performance that “Originally, it was not successful, but it is incredible. You will find this show in opera houses all over the world.”

Falling into opera

And Ferri would know — he has been a part of the international opera scene since taking a job with a 1999 festival in Rome led by an American conductor as a high school student. He put brochures in the hands of hotel concierges and began making connections in a world that would become his own. 

His work as a young publicist led to a manager position for American mezzo soprano Alice Baker before he knew what being a manager entailed and, after securing Baker top-tier jobs across Italy, others like Janet Perry began to flock to him, at the time making him the youngest agent in Italy.

“As an Italian, I cannot stop talking about the things I’ve done,” Ferri says with a look of nostalgic joy. “But this is not a job — it is a life.”

This life brought him to Opera Carolina under the direction and insistence of general director and principal conductor James Meena.

Maestro Meena’s career debut role was as director of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1980, with a transition to the Pittsburgh Opera in 1983, later becoming the artistic director of the Toledo Opera before his appointment as resident conductor of the Toledo Symphony. He took a post as the conductor of the Cleveland Ballet in his native Ohio before his 2000 appointment with Opera Carolina. 

What brought Meena to Opera Carolina was what he calls a “passion for the job” — bringing to life the universal stories told on stage in an art steeped in tradition. 

“What we glean from opera are good lessons,” Meena says. “Lyric theater lets us reflect on society and the human condition in a safe way. It’s a combined social experiment; though we all see the same thing, we are watching through different lenses. We tell different stories in different ways and change the way people think about themselves, about community and how they relate to each other.”

In 1948, Opera Carolina began as the Charlotte Opera Association, founded by the Charlotte Music Club, and was a volunteer-run organization from set design to ticket sales. The last 74 years have seen the opera evolve into a fully professional company, one with a mission beyond telling stories from the stage.

Opera began as a retelling of Greek stories through the modality of music in the late-14th century, taking cues from each artistic period — from the Baroque era, out of which came Handel, to the Classical era during which Mozart made his mark. The end of the Romantic period saw the premier of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in 1904. In the tradition of Italian grand opera, it is this iteration of the art with which many associate today’s productions.

A 2001 Warren Wilson College graduate with a concentration in theatre, local writer Rosa Sprinkle says of opera, “It is the ultimate ‘go big or go home’ of performance types. Opera contains every single art element: singing, acting, dancing, music, and intricate set and costume design.” 

Maestro Meena shares these sentiments. “Everything in opera is big. That is why it is called the ‘grand’ opera.”

As such, however, Meena says opera is a victim of its own stereotypes. The overarching American view of opera is that of a caricature, one seen as a punchline in commercials or cartoon parodies dating back to the 1950s, which oftentimes serve as one’s initial introduction to the art. 

These operatic depictions are a hindrance for many, ones that often garner a reaction of disinterest, says Meena. 

“Another problem with all classical art is that it takes a bit of effort [from] the audience. It helps to know what you’re looking at — do a little homework to know the background of the show you’re attending. Sure, you can go in cold and experience it for what it is, the more you experience and know about it, the more impactful it will be.”

Pushing back on stereotypes

Madame Butterfly is a story that is both impactful and meaningful to the public, Meena says. Beyond the history and tradition that inspires Ferri to describe the show reverently as “incredible,” Madame Butterfly is not only a tragedy about love and betrayal but offers reflections on social biases; it is about the denigration of Asian culture through American imperialism. These are the lessons Meena lives to see taught from the stage.

Beyond the hindrance of genre stereotyping is the perception of audience and accessibility, something Meena and Ferri work diligently to overcome. “Our audiences are diverse and we create an atmosphere that is welcoming — no expensive fur and diamonds needed,” Meena says with a laugh.

He dates this prevailing stereotype back to the beginnings of opera in the United States. In the late 1800s, a group of wealthy, white individuals longed to make New York City a “world city,” which led to the creation of the Metropolitan Opera House (or “The Met”), the longest standing opera institution in the country. 

Meena says this high-brow stereotype persists “because of who opera was originally for.” The organization seeks not only to get past the “this is not for me” barrier but the idea that opera (still) exists for an audience of wealthy white people. 

The 2021 production of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, which will debut in Charlotte at Central Piedmont Community College’s (CPCC) New Theater on Feb. 16-17, is a story that continues this mission of diversity and representation not only within the audience but from the stage. 

The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson tells the story of the titular character, a North Carolina native who founded the National Negro Opera Company, and the lengths she and her company had to go to circumvent the barriers of racially segregated performance halls. 

A Black woman in mid-20th century clothing stands singing in front of a chalkboard onstage as in Opera Carolina's run of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Davidson
‘The Passion of Mary Cardwell Davidson Cardwell’ opens at CPCC on Feb. 16. (Photo courtesy of Opera Carolina)

The title role is played by Denyce Graves, an acclaimed mezzo soprano, and features selections from the repertoire of Dawson’s opera company. 

The selection of CPCC’s New Theater is an intentional one. The 435-seat venue provides an intimacy for the immersive experience of what Ferri calls a “very emotional and powerful story” — a firsthand embodiment of transforming opera from its whites-only origins.

Opera Carolina operates as a nonprofit, which boasts a robust community program beyond performances, striving to communicate these ideas of inclusivity and accessibility through various modalities. Half of Opera Carolina’s activities are civic and educational endeavors around the Carolinas, led by senior director for learning Ashley Lam. 

The Youth Academy provides foundational training while the in-school touring company immerses students in workshops, all with the hopes of shifting these perceptions and providing transformative experiences for those who may not otherwise have access to the opera. 

Bringing well-known opera singers to the stage and employing local artists and designers makes opera productions a costly endeavor, however. Ferri works to ensure accessibility by building relationships with would-be donors and sponsors, securing partnerships with Dolce & Gabbana, for example, as well as other high-end Italian companies, plus local venture capitalists. 

Ferri’s lifelong love of opera captivated Dr. Shante Williams of Black Pearl Vision and Black Pearl Global Investments. A large part of Dr. William’s work is changing the shape and future of Black communities through her financial support of Black-owned businesses. She has been revolutionizing sponsorships with Opera Carolina, serving as the main sponsor of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson.

“Dr. Williams is not just a donor and sponsor,” Ferri says. “She believes in our mission and wants to communicate to younger generations that it’s possible to promote yourself through culture versus advertisement.” 

Despite a decades-long career, Ferri uses his role to learn from people and find ways to communicate his passion with sponsors directly, learning what they want and how each can better benefit from collaboration, something he acknowledges transcends money. 

A life in opera fell upon Ferri almost accidentally, and it is through this experience that he sees the value in a holistic approach to the arts, funding and community advancement. 

Learn more: Opera Carolina Takes off on an International Flight

Through their combined efforts, both with one another and the community, Meena’s and Ferri’s work preserves the art and legacy of the opera while furthering a culture that respects, invests in and captivates a new generation of opera audiences.

“The thing about great art is the more you experience the more you appreciate it and learn,” 

Maestro Meena says. “In opera, our stories are expanded by the sheer force of music and the aftereffects should be the same. You should walk away feeling moved, both intellectually and emotionally.”  

Whether you’re of a mindset that has been shaped by pop culture’s operatic portrayals or you’ve assumed all opera is for the upper echelons, take heed of the passion and deconstruction behind Opera Carolina and take your seat for this traditional and evolving form of the highest art — no fur or diamonds necessary.

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