Opera fans have the rare opportunity to attend a live production of a familiar and cherished work by a master of the genre, Giacomo Puccini. In collaboration for the first time, two local and admired arts institutions, the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra and Opera Ithaca, now in its sixth season, present two performances of “La Bohème” on Saturday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. Both, to be conducted by the CCO music director, Cornelia Laemmli Orth, are at Ford Hall on the Ithaca College campus.
When I spoke with Orth last week, she told me that even before she had been appointed music director here, she received a message from Opera Ithaca’s former artistic director, Zachary James, welcoming her to Ithaca. Ever since there had been talk about doing “La Bohème.” Thus it was scheduled for this season.
The production, designated as semi-staged, will be not far from what you might see in a larger venue. The orchestra is on stage, at one side, and the set is limited, “condensed down to its essence,” according to Opera Ithaca’s artistic director, Ben Robinson, with whatever furniture and props are necessary to tell the story. The entire opera is to be played out, and in costume—“the focus is on action, acting, and singing.” Opera Ithaca, functioning like any modern opera company, plans a “truncated rehearsal period.” Rehearsals started last Saturday, beginning with the whole cast, Cornelia says, to make sure everyone was “on the same page musically.” Evening rehearsals continue through the week.
Robinson has been Opera Ithaca’s artistic director only since late May, so this is his first production here. An opera tenor, he teaches voice, and is also artistic director of Raylynmor Opera in Keene, New Hampshire. He told me he is involved this time “chiefly to fulfill the expectations of the company’s creative artistic team.”
Almost all the cast members, selected well in advance of course, have appeared at least once in previous productions. These singers, mostly unfamiliar names, are building their careers in smaller American opera houses and already have considerable stage and singing experience. Playing the tragic lovers Mimì and Rodolfo are soprano Megan Nielson with four previous roles here, and tenor Joshua Collier, founder of a Boston opera company and artistic director of BARN Opera in Vermont, making his company debut. Baritone SeungHyeon Baek (with two previous appearances) and his wife, soprano Nayoung Ban (making her debut here), are Marcello and Musetta. In smaller roles are baritone Michael Nyby as Schaunard; IC professor of voice and baritone Marc Webster, very well known to local audiences, especially for his oratorio work, is Colline; bass David Neal, from SUNY Cortland and equally well known locally, has the double role of Benoit and Alcindoro. All are repeat performers with Opera Ithaca. Playing a fleeting role are the Ithaca College Choir, directed by Janet Galván, and Ithaca Children & Youth Chorus from CMSA, prepared by Katie O’Connor-Ballantyne.
On the production team are the rehearsal pianist Maria Rabbia, who also does the supertitles, and Norm Johnson, who is in charge of sets. The costumes come from the TDF collection, located in the Queens borough of New York City. Apparently an amazing place, it is a warehouse containing retired costumes from past regional opera productions.
In the vital role as director is Emily Pulley, who has had a long career at the Met, mainly as a singer. She is, Robinson tells me, “an expert. She knows the show, and cares deeply about it. It’s something quite personal for her.”
Orth too is an opera expert, starting out with graduate studies at Northwestern University for her conducting degree, where she became assistant to the head of the opera department. Since then, she has conducted operas in Europe and in her three-state region. As for “La Bohème,” about 15 years ago she was brought in by the Symphony of the Mountains in Kingsport, Tennessee, to conduct it, and it was clearly a success as she is now in her 14th season as music director. And, even better, the cast and production team will take this “La Bohème” there for performances on Oct. 5 and 6. Conducting this opera is a special challenge, Cornelia explains, not only do you have singers, orchestra, and two choruses, but the music is constantly changing tempo. “There is so much flexibility,” and one needs the “willingness to go when something happens. And something always happens. It’s a constant give and take.”
“Everybody gets along,” Robinson added. “There’s a sparkling creativity and learning from each other.”
But the last word goes to Cornelia. “I love opera. This is something special. It’s a big deal.”