Asheville Lyric Opera launched its third season on November 9 with a beautifully-sung performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia , presented in the intimate confines of the Diana Wortham Theatre in that Western NC city’s Pack Place. The cast was splendid and remarkably well matched. The small orchestra, which included something that sounded like a real harpsichord, was presided over by Durham-based Scott Tilley, one of our state’s leading operatic conductors. They played a reduced version of the score that was more than adequate during the sung portions and tolerable enough in the Overture and various orchestral interludes, although things would have been much better and richer, too, with another five or ten string players augmenting the thirteen valiant souls who were in the pit. That the band sounded as good as it did is a tribute to Tilley and to the individual players, some of whom have appeared in various Triangle programs. Crawford Murphy’s sets were simple but functional and elegant as well. The costumes, coordinated by Sue Cannella, were excellent. The show was very nicely lit by Dan Henry. The on-stage business flowed smoothly thanks in large measure to Production and Stage Manager Tom Mosher. The small theater, which has a fairly shallow pit, proved to be a good venue for opera, for no amplification was needed. It surely helped that the singers were mostly forward on the stage. Every word told, even when the artists faced away from the audience (which happened from time to time, albeit rarely). Stage Director Kevin Patterson clearly worked closely with Tilley and with his singers. Chorus Master Paul Templon moved his dozen or so charges nimbly. Supertitles were smoothly projected for the most part. This was a class act in every important respect, one in which Rossini and his bubbly score were exceptionally well served.

The cast was headed by the distinguished Rossini tenor Rockwell Blake, whose recent Triangle recital apparently still resonates among those who heard it. His numerous contributions included the interpolation of an aria (based on “Non piu mesta,” from La cenerentola, but with different words) that was fashioned by Rossini for Manuel Garcia; this was restored at the Met for Blake, and it was therefore a special treat to hear it, live, in Asheville. The guest artist was in remarkable form, but he certainly didn’t dominate the proceedings, for he was beautifully partnered by baritone James Taylor, as Figaro, by soprano Melody Morrison (whom Triangle music lovers will recall from her National Opera Company days), as Rosina, and by bass-baritone Stephen Eisenhard, whose portrayal of Dr. Bartolo was far more musical than many we’ve seen and heard, over the years. Other members of the cast included Juan Jose Ibarra as Basilio, Anjelique Grady as Berta, Jeremy Scroggs as Ambrosius, Ruth Butler as the Notary, and Barry Pate, Jr., as Fiorello and the Sergeant. The latter singer merits special mention since this was his operatic debut. He’s not likely to give up his day job as an ear, nose and throat surgeon in Asheville, and his contributions to the Lyric Opera as a Vice President of the Board may be worth more, long term, than his singing, but his presence reflected the importance of opera in his community and is, therefore, praiseworthy.

There was hardly a dull moment, vocally or otherwise, in this Barber . Blake was spectacular, and his presence in the cast made the trip worthwhile, but as noted this was not Blake’s own private show-it was, instead, an excellent ensemble performance of one of the great works of the operatic literature, given in a lovely little theatre that allowed the audience to savor everything. One might quibble about some of the stage business, which veered toward slapstick in the second act, but otherwise the show was a winner on almost every count. Had it been done anywhere in, say, the Triangle, it would have been one of the highlights of the season, and it was certainly a big event in Asheville.

That last thought brings us to another subject, which is the sad plight of opera in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Asheville’s population is a bit more than 60,000 while the combined population of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary totals over 600,000. How is it that Asheville can have a viable opera company and we Triangle residents do not? The National Opera Company, which offered opera in English only, has moved to Winston-Salem. Long Leaf Opera, an offshoot of the Durham Savoyards, offers British and American operas only. There are various opera workshops and theatres in our colleges and universities, and they do good work, but our leading production companies, Durham-based Triangle Opera and Raleigh-based Opera Company of North Carolina, have been silent thus far this year, and it remains to be seen if either of these outfits will offer anything of substance in the rest of the current season. This is unsatisfactory by any standard. Something’s got to give. We’re poised, methinks, to loose both of ’em to bankruptcy courts if we can’t figure out a way to consolidate our operatic undertakings. If Asheville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro can “do” opera, why can’t the Triangle? Are we so bull-headed and so hung up on our own egos that we can’t figure out a way to work together and forge a single company? Come on, guys and gals, let’s get past the bitterness, end the war and make some opera! Hiring Asheville’s bright little company to do runouts would be a step in the right direction. Those folks, headed by David Craig Stuckey, have mapped a successful approach.

And if the principals don’t want to kiss and make up, then what? Well, we might learn something from our fairly recent history. Let us say, in effect, “a pox on both your houses,” and start over again, from scratch. Let’s find a Ward Purrington type with a passion for opera and have him or her hire a operatic double of Ricky Weiss to come in and do the job. 

The Triangle has all the essentials in abundance-decent halls, plenty of people, a surfeit of fine instrumentalists, a professional dance company and lots of theatres wherein work lots of people with set design, lighting and costume experience, not to mention stage direction skills. We have singers in abundance, more choirs than we know what to do with, and several conductors who could pull things together on stage and in a pit at the same time. Do we have the requisite will? Who knows. Will it happen in our lifetimes? The answer is anyone’s guess. Years ago, I was the junior man on a little subcommittee formed by the state Arts Council to discuss professional opera in North Carolina. The other members of that committee are all dead now, and still we wait, in the Triangle. The clock is ticking. Surely – with ten times the population of Asheville – the Triangle can come up with a formula that will work for us. Let’s do it!