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The coronavirus pandemic has pushed performing arts organizations to find online methods of keeping their presentations, classes, and fund-raising events available to their audiences. Over the last six months, there's been a steep learning curve for these organizations as they grapple with the technological demands of virtual presentations.
That N.C. Opera's annual fund-raising gala made the transition so successfully this year to computers, tablets, and smartphones was yet more evidence of the company's continuing commitment to high professional standards. In a compact 75-minute event, the gala handily accomplished its multiple goals of entertainment, tribute and funding, combining pre-recorded segments with live ones, including contributions from performers and supporters around the U.S. and in Europe.
Soprano Madison Leonard and pianist Claire Pasquier provided the musical portion of the event with four selections spread out over the evening. Leonard, a 2018 winner of the Metropolitan National Council Auditions, has already sung roles for Seattle and Wolf Trap opera companies and has performed with the National Symphony Orchestra. She was to have sung Pamina in the N.C. Opera production of The Magic Flute, but a necessary schedule change, from January to May 2021, currently conflicts with other engagements. Leonard's accomplished singing for the gala provided a tantalizing hint of what might have been.
The performances took place in a church in St. Gallen, Switzerland, with Pasquier at a Fazioli grand and Leonard in front of a microphone. Although the venue was a little echo-y, the transmission was clear and full, allowing Leonard's warm lyric-coloratura to float freely in three arias and a popular song. Her confident approach to characterizations exhibited obvious understanding of the moods and emotions in each piece. Juliette's "Je veux vivre," from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, had the rush of youthful first love; Adina's "Prendi, per me," from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, offered an honest admission of love after having played hard to get; and Giuditta's "Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss," from Lehár's Giuditta, exuded sensuous flirtation. Lastly, Leonard sang Gershwin's "Love Is Here to Stay," switching to a relaxed, non-operatic delivery, pointing the lyrics with mellow charm.
In all four, Leonard impressed with her musical precision, winning personality, and fluent command of French, Italian and German, signaling a fine career ahead. Pasquier, a noted performer in her own right, was no mere accompanist but a full collaborator through her vibrant and sensitive playing.
The non-musical portions of the gala were admirably succinct, personal and well prepared. The company's chorus master, Scott MacLeod, served as overall program host, while company general director Eric Mitchko hosted several sections, including a tribute to long-time Triangle arts supporter and performer, Florence Peacock.
Peacock's active board duties for N.C. Opera (as well as for N.C. Symphony and PlayMakers Repertory Company) and her musical contributions as soprano with Chapel Hill's Baroque & Beyond (along with regular appearances at the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute) have endeared her to artists and board members alike.
A particularly heartfelt video tribute came from countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose rise to international stardom had its roots in the Triangle. A Durham native, he performed on local stages from an early age. Costanzo praised the support he received from Peacock in a warmly enthusiastic video from his New York apartment.
Well-known Triangle auctioneer Benjamin Farrell helped raise funds by leading online auctions of jewelry and luxury vacation trips contributed by local companies, and then acted as cheerleader for live donations. The goal had been set at $60,000, but that amount was quickly reached, fifteen minutes later, donations had surpassed $90,000, the highest figure of any of the company's previous fundraising events and an encouraging sign that the company continues to have strong support even in this economically challenging time.
Although the technicians behind the online presentation were not credited, they deserve the highest praise for a glitch-free program with imaginative graphics and expert transitions, setting the bar high for similar online events from other presenters.
And echoing a refrain from another review, since this was a gala, contributions are always welcome. Go here to give. And unlike voting, you may give more than once.