Beach blanket opera
Nevada Opera mixes opera “hits” and popular tunes in its Artown concert at Wingfield Park
Mention the word “opera” to a crowd, and wait for a response. Some people might answer with expressions of enthusiasm. Others might respond with groans of agony.
If you tend to be part of the latter group, you probably see opera as an ostentatious production with people singing in languages you don’t understand. You expect a fat lady in a horned helmet to sing at the end.
Nevada Opera hopes to change such attitudes with its upcoming Artown concert, Chorus Extravaganza, which will be performed in the outdoor setting of Wingfield Park. The program will highlight local vocalists and feature selections from several operas, as well as throw some pop tunes and Broadway numbers into the mix.
There’s no need to wear diamonds or tuxedos. Nobody will be scrutinizing your opera etiquette. You can even pack a picnic dinner and sit on a beach blanket, if you’d like.
“With this concert, we’d like to give it a little twist,” says Rick Comeaux, executive director of Nevada Opera. “We’re putting out some of the more popular music from different operas that people know, but we’ll also offer some other music, a theater/pop music kind of a blend, to cross that over. We want people to come to [this] concert knowing that they are going to hear other styles of music, and maybe that might open them up to … coming to a main stage production at the Pioneer [Center for the Performing Arts].”
Comeaux, who admits to being a late-blooming fan of opera, says some of that anxiety toward opera is because of language differences.
“I think that coming into opera, a lot of people feel intimidated a little bit by the language, or just the whole [experience] of the art form,” he says. “[But] you don’t need to understand the language to be able to understand what’s going on, because we put [the translations] in English for you above the stage.”
But there shouldn’t be much need for supertitles at the Chorus Extravaganza, as there will be vocal pieces sung in English. The two-hour concert will open with a segment featuring the Nevada Opera Chorus and the Nevada Opera Youth Chorus, which will be conducted by Nevada Opera Artistic Director Andrew Stamper. They will be joined by members of the University Chorale and the Reno Philharmonic Chorus, who will sing excerpts from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Il Trovatore, three operas that will make up Nevada Opera’s upcoming season.
The concert will close with the Nevada Opera Chorus performing music from Broadway musicals. Bruce Mayhall, director of choral studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, will conduct this segment of the show.
O solo mio
Comeaux will also be one of the featured soloists that night. Backed by the Tony Savage Band, he will perform a 45-minute set of popular songs and will do lead vocals during the show’s closing number, “Over the Rainbow.” He also performed a few solo songs at last year’s Chorus Extravaganza.
Before taking the helm of the Nevada Opera in 1999, he was a successful singer in Houston. He opened up for acts such as Kenny G, Liza Minelli and Kirk Whalum. He has performed at events honoring former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, as well as Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine and other celebrities.
He hadn’t ever considered opera much until the early 1990s, when he was told that some of the people coming to his shows were people from the Houston Grand Opera. He decided to go to the opera and see what it had to offer.
“When I went to see a production, I totally got turned on to it, and it suddenly became all I was listening to and was my total focus,” he says.
Comeaux says his current job just sort of fell in his lap after he moved to Reno two years ago. He wanted to take a break from singing and was planning to get his master’s degree in arts administration at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, but a visit to Reno made him change his mind. He decided to move here and find a job selling real estate, which he did before making music his full-time occupation.
After attending a Nevada Opera performance, he introduced himself to people involved in the company and was eventually hired on as a part-time consultant. In May 2000, he was hired as the executive director.
“I guess I’m kind of interesting in the sense that I’m running an opera company, I’ve been a musician and singer for most of my life, and that I come from South Louisiana … I should be running a country music festival, not an opera company,” he says. “But I like to tell people [that] if you can get a Cajun from South Louisiana to run an opera company, there’s got to be something to [opera].”
Opera is good for the economy
Comeaux says this past season was Nevada Opera’s highest attended one in 10 years, thanks in part to the success of La Traviata, which sold out both dates in February. He also credits some of that success to the new administrative and artistic team at the company, and the perception that local audiences are becoming more aware of the arts in the community.
“I think there’s a new energy with the opera, and we’re also trying to capitalize on what’s been happening with opera nationally,” he says. “Opera is the fastest growing art form in the United States. We feel like that’s sort of what’s beginning to happen in Reno with our audiences, and kind of the general excitement about what the company is doing.”
Comeaux predicts next season will be even more successful, with a program that mixes American classics with some of opera’s most famous works. Singer Toni Tennille will kick off Nevada Opera’s 2001-2002 season in September with a concert of American compositions, including those by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. The season continues with a double bill of Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci in November. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro will be performed in February, and the season will close in May with a three-date performance of Bizet’s Carmen.
Not only does Comeaux feel the company helps promote artistic awareness among children, but it also benefits the local economy. Nevada Opera’s productions are mainly homegrown events, with the company hiring hundreds of local chorus singers, orchestra players, costumers, wig makers, stage crew members and other professionals throughout the year. He says the opera also benefits local businesses, because audience members may take their dates out to dinner prior to the performance or buy a new outfit just to attend the show.
And as for the Nevada Opera’s quality, he says many of the company’s patrons also attend the San Francisco Opera. He says that these patrons often proclaim Nevada Opera’s productions as good as anything they’ve seen in San Francisco.
“Those people are coming out because they are opera people, and they want to see first-rate opera," he says. "So we feel we have a little bit to offer the interested, the uninterested and anyone in between."