It all began in Sacramento twelve years ago, where singer and voice teacher Kathleen Torchia started up a local “mom and pop” opera company so that the area’s stable of talented singers would have a place to perform ( Now she’s, in effect, franchising the concept with the goal of creating 50 such companies in all the state capitals. Friday evening, she joined a newly proposed company in Raleigh with mostly local singers in a bare-bones production of La Bohème .

Let us begin by stating that our assessment of the performance’s strengths and weaknesses is designed as constructive criticism. There is simply no way that an ad hoc bunch of singers, instrumentalists and directors can pull off a flawless product on the first night of its first project. That being said, here goes.

The performance took place in the Long View center, a converted church on Raleigh’s Moore Square. It’s not a bad site, considering its proximity to good restaurants and the center of what there is of the inner city’s cultural and night life. In a carpeted space that is wide, rather than deep, a small semicircular stage below the choir loft is about all the production had to work with. There is no theatrical lighting nor any place for a backdrop or flies. Furniture and props were about all there was to create the scenic effects. Will Triangle opera lovers flock to Long View or some other low budget venue for the opera experience?

If the singers are good, probably yes, especially if there are tickets for low-budget opera lovers. And Friday’s Bohème did indeed offer good singers, some of them already familiar. In fact, a number of them are graduates of the National Opera Company. The evening’s star was tenor Timothy Sparks as Rudolfo. We’ve lauded Sparks in the past for his oratorio work and operatic roles. If Sparks is representative of what the future holds, then maybe this baby will fly.

Also excellent were the rest of the male cast: Ray Fisher as Marcello; Greg Honeycutt as Schaunard; Roger Smith as Colline and Randall Morgan Kilgore double cast as the landlord Benoit and Alcindoro, Musetta’s rich sugar daddy in Act 2. Kilgore is one of those character singers whose voice is passable but whose acting is more critical for the roles he is cast in.

Karine Eva Darrah as Mimi has a voice a bit wobbly for our taste. Her best performance was in Act 4 where she stays low in her range and is too sick to gesture much. And speaking of range, Katie Welch Folland as Musetta, made her way reasonably well through a screechy role so unflattering that it’s wonder any soprano is willing to go public with it. The best that can be said for any Musetta is that she acted well.

The less said about the “orchestra” the better, but we have to say it anyway. Capitol Opera calls itself an all-volunteer/community-benefit organization. We’re not sure exactly what this means but if it means that the ensemble consisting of piano and one each violin, cello, flute and French horn wasn’t paid, maybe instrumentalists will need to be paid in the future if only to ensure that they at least play in tune and come in on cue – or come in at all, for that matter. This problem applied to the chorus as well, and we suspect that both groups were assembled and rehearsed in haste. The singers, on the other hand, had no such difficulties; they are professionals whose previous gigs, training and passion has familiarized them with this potboiler since heaven knows when.

And on the subject of potboilers, if this company gets going, please give us some variety, even if its standard repertory variety. Some of the roles for La Bohème were double cast-a practice of Fletcher Opera Theater as well – to provide more opportunities for more singers, but we just couldn’t bear sitting through another one tonight to hear Torchia as Mimi and Kimberly Bentley as Musetta. Frankly, we don’t need another Bohème , Traviata or even Così fan tutte . Capitol Opera’s newest franchise in Harrisburg PA just did a low budget Turandot !!

So what have we got here? So far, a pilot production with a bunch of talented and eager singers, an untried management consisting of Ellen Williams and Stephanie Dillard, both veteran singers and voice teachers from Meredith College, and no money. Torchia explained to us that she helps organize and even fund satellite companies for a while but that eventually they will have to stand on their own. An advantage, she noted, of belonging to the Capitol Opera consortium, however, is that the companies can share sets, costumes, singers and other resources. It remains to be seen whether our community loves opera sufficiently to attend and support this new grass roots venture, or whether it just wants grand opera with glitz and glamour à la the Opera Company of North Carolina. We wish them well.