For 15 years, Long Leaf Opera enriched central NC with varied productions of musical stage works composed with English texts; it was the only US company with this specific mission. Along the way, LLO did exceptional work in education, training, advocacy, and promotion – of young singers and new works, too. The company grew out of musical and stage experiences gleaned by its founders during years with the Durham Savoyards, Ltd. – our regional Gilbert & Sullivan company – and, along the way, in outdoor drama and in numerous college and university shows, many of which were mounted at NC Central University.
These founders – playwright, poet, and composer Randolph Umberger and composer and conductor Benjamin Keaton – formed a team, a partnership, that over time became a powerful force in culture throughout our region, often exuding confidence, strength, and success far in excess of what casual observers might have had any reason to expect. Even after Ranny's death two years ago, Ben pressed forward with plans for yet another gala production of a new opera, given during a weekend that was studded with master classes, a recital by a prize-winning young vocalist, and – following the premiere – a concert of mostly operatic and musical theatre selections performed by LLO veterans dating back to the company's earliest days. The result was a celebration of one of our area's most important cultural organizations and its distinguished founders that surely warmed the hearts of all who attended.
Those Saturday morning master classes included students from the studios of several area singers and top-flight comments from mezzo-soprano Mary Gayle Greene (ASU) and tenor Timothy Sparks (UNC).
The recital, given Sunday afternoon, featured mezzo-soprano JoAna Rusche and pianist Benjamin Blozan in an attractive program of arias and songs, including four by Umberger; she won the 2012 LLO vocal competition.
A Shipwreck Opera, with music by John B. Hedges and a book by Aimee Bender, captured LLO's 2011 composition competition. It was slated for production a year ago but delayed when members of the proposed cast were injured enroute to the airport to come to NC for rehearsals. The premiere, presented in Kenan Auditorium at the Durham Academy, was forged this season by producer Richard C. Wall, working with LLO and with Durham's Legacy Repertory Company. (It would appear that the score enjoyed a reading in California earlier this month.)
The opera is in effect a coming-of-age story with some curious overlays. An infant survivor of a shipwreck washes ashore on an island where she is raised by a tree. As she begins to mature she dances with the wind, who awakens human passions within her. A second shipwreck brings a young lumberjack to the island who cuts down the tree, makes a raft with planks from the timber, and then persuades the girl to head off to the big city with him, assisted by favorable wind and following seas, as the saying goes.
The cast included some superior vocalists, most of whom excelled at putting across the words. The principals were Shannon French (Tree), Tara Sperry (Girl), Maurio Hines (Wind), and Daniel Crupi (Lumberjack); the ocean was depicted by Justin Beaman, Emily Byrne, Kirsten Cervati, Tom Terry, Ryan Widd, and Chris Yount. A superior chamber orchestra of 11 players – four strings, four winds, percussion, harp, and celesta - was led by the composer. The staging was minimal – a few props and a single projection sufficed – but the text and the music conveyed the story well and effectively. Bright costumes (by Carol F. Johnson) and good basic lighting (Andy Parks) helped. There is some humor, but this seems, overall, a serious work with a serious message. It lasts a little less than an hour. Given its growing-up themes and its sensitive hints of environmental issues on several levels, it could with minor adjustments in some of the on-stage business serve as a good opera for presentation by four strong visiting soloists in schools, with a student chorus of flexible size portraying the ocean. The vocal lines are not particularly melodic but the music is dramatically effective, and the voices are nicely set to ride its several crests. (Chances are this would also work well in concert, rather than staged.)
After the performance, there was a gala reception in the lobby of the auditorium, catered by Fresno Café, during which the audience and the artists were able to mingle.
There followed a truly heartwarming salute to Ben Keaton and to the memory of Ranny Umberger, hosted inimitably and (for the most part) accompanied by pianist Richard Wall. It began with a big excerpt from Amahl and the Night Visitors, a long-running LLO mainstay, performed by Denise Payton, Crupi, John Oliver, and Hines. There were nods to the Savoyards (with Cervati and Steve Dobbins), and to the Met (with Christine Weidinger). There were several Ranny and Ben songs (performed with keen sensitivity by Caryl Thomason Price and Evelyn McCauley) and, later, "I walked along the empty road," from a show written for Wilmington's Thalian Hall (sung by Crupi and accompanied by harpist Winnifred Garrett). This tribute concert also included music by Weill, Blitzstein, Sondheim, Bernstein, Gershwin, Ambroise Thomas(!) and more, and it ended with three stunning excerpts from Barber's Vanessa, featuring encore performances by LLO cast members Timothy Sparks and Mary Gayle Greene in solo arias and the quintet ("To leave, to break") as the grand finale. There can have been few dry eyes as all the singers and Ben Keaton himself assembled on stage for "Auld Lang Syne." Alas, there will be no next year for Long Leaf Opera, as this was its swan song – a good one, however, and one long to be remembered.
In truth, few have done more to advance the cause of superior musical theatre and operatic production here than Ranny and Ben. Our community shall remain deeply in their debt.
(For much more about this gala weekend, see Wall's extensive blog at http://richwah.blogspot.com/.)