A Triumphant Return

Posted on April 21, 2022

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Above, final dress rehearsal of “Porgy and Bess.” The cast included many UNCG alumni and several students.

In early 2020, the opening of Greensboro’s Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts signaled a state of unparalleled artistic growth for the city. And tickets were flying out the door for the fall production of Greensboro Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess,” directed by Professor of Music and Director of UNCG Opera David Holley.

Dress rehearsal of Greensboro Opera’s Porgy and Bess at the Tanger Center. UNCG School of Music alumna Rhiannon Giddens (“Bess”) with Thomas Cannon (“Porgy”) performing a moving duet.

When the Tanger Center directors had approached Holley about a production three years earlier, they said, “It’s got to be something special.”

So, he’d landed on the George Gershwin masterpiece that contains some of the most recognizable songs in the opera world, so much that they are now part of the Great American songbook.

Several high-profile UNCG alumni were perfect choices to star in the production, including MacArthur grant recipient, composer, and Grammy-winner Rhiannon Giddens ’XX and accomplished “opera powerhouse” Sidney Outlaw ’04, and Richard Hodges ’15.

Then, COVID-19 came crashing down on the arts world and forced a rescheduling. While other production companies may have tried to postpone a few months, Greensboro Opera wisely decided on an 18-month delay. The show would surely go on.

“We had the vision of how to accomplish it, even though we were fraught with Covid,” said Holley.

So, it was fall 2021 that they began rehearsals with the chorus – with UNCG students – and in January of 2022 the star-studded cast, including nine UNCG alumni, gathered at WellᐧSpring theater for their first all-cast rehearsals with stage director Everett McCorvey and conductor Awadagin Pratt.

The cast also included several UNCG professors and nine UNCG students. Forty UNCG musicians filled the orchestra. Alumni Spartans in the cast reported a familial homecoming feeling, and students were pleased to welcome them.

It’s always nice to come home. I got my feet wet in Greensboro, and this is where it kind of started for me.

– Sidney Outlaw ’04

“I didn’t realize there were so many alumni in the cast until we started interacting with each other,” said doctoral student Detra Davis, who played the role of Annie. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ You know, it was such a great feeling to be among UNCG colleagues and professionals.”

Setting the Stage

Carmens, Toreadors, and Figaros; Toscas, Besses, and Queens of the Night – where do they come from?

In North Carolina, UNCG Opera Theatre is the premier incubator for singers who advance to the world’s greatest stages.

In the past two years, they moved to virtual performances to modified live performances to almost-normal productions, except for the masks. But the School of Music continued to offer the best university-produced opera in the region, and the most comprehensive training in music.

As a training ground, UNCG Opera is rigorous, inspiring, and supportive.

UNCG is the only UNC System school where a student can earn a doctorate in voice and receive a comprehensive education in music that goes from a bachelor’s degree to the highest level. As Holley points out, that attracts a high caliber of artists.

Typically – as in, before the pandemic – UNCG Opera staged at least four operas a year, invaluable experience for students, and a boon for Triad music lovers. Their work has won seven first place and five second place awards in the National Opera Association’s annual Opera Production Competition and was named a finalist four times in The American Prize Competition. In 2019, “Falstaff” was a hit, with exquisite costumes. It took second place in the American Prize competition for production as well as for stage direction and conducting. Additionally, they brought fairy tales to life through opera for more than 10,000 elementary school children.

In 2020, Friday, March 13, the company had just completed a run-through of “Sister Angelic” – “which means we got to perform it,” said Holley – before things came to a halt. The rest of 2020 meant scene and aria work virtually and one-on-one with faculty.

“A lot of people took up singing arias from inside their homes – finding a way to keep working, trying to do what they do,” explained Holley.

“But you can only take so much of that. There’s no comparison to being live in the theater. And I don’t give up easily or lightly.”

Fortunately, Spring of 2021 offered more possibilities.

A live performance of “Roman Fever,” an opera based on a story by Edith Wharton, hit the UNCG stage, with a limited audience – 50-100, protected by 18-foot-by-6-foot plastic barriers – and more livestreaming the performance from home.

Also, Opera at the Carolina, which has been bringing opera to Guilford County Schools for more than 10 years years, came to life virtually, through a three-camera, green-screen format shot at the Greensboro Science Center for the productions of “Allison’s Voice” and “Cox and Box.”

Opera is every discipline that we have here… in one magical, fused art form.

–David Holley, UNCG director of opera

There were positives to the situation. Under normal circumstances, Holley and the performers brought 6,000 kids to the Carolina Theatre, but the virtual performances had the potential to reach up to 22,000.

Last fall, Holley was still eager to find a way for more of his singers to get back to the stage, and safely. With vaccination efforts lowering risk to some degree, they produced three operas in UNCG Auditorium, with masks required by both audience and singers, but otherwise in the usual way. There was one other prudent artistic-safety decision that Holley calls “a method to my madness.”

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At the Met

Life on opera’s grandest stage is a whirlwind.

“Carmen,” “Verdi,” “Tosca,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Turandot,” “Macbeth,” “Madame Butterfly,” and more classic operas are all performed every other year, as well as works by contemporary composers. The Met re-opened in September 2021, with strict COVID-19 protocols in place, but with all the gusto and artistic strength it’s known for. Several UNCG Opera alumni are among the 75 full-time performers, and several others join the chorus on a contract basis.

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