North Carolina Opera is not your grandparents' opera company. Last year, the institution kicked off its season with Approaching Ali, a one-act opera about the boxer born Cassius Clay that was as light on its feet as its main subject. The current season opened with a different sort of heavyweight: Wagner's formidable Das Rheingold, which featured an eighty-three-piece orchestra. Following this canonical work came Hercules vs. Vampires, a contemporary musical theater work based on a campy early-1960s cult movie. Look for jazz in January, when vocalist Candice Hoyes and her ensemble present On a Turquoise Cloud, a cabaret-style performance based on recently discovered Duke Ellington compositions.
It's not an easy task to convince the public, many of whom have never been to the opera, that it's not a stuffy relic enjoyed exclusively by the rich, the old, and the obtuse. It is, in fact, one of the great storytelling mediums, more affordable than you would think, and yes, fun. Since 2010, N.C. Opera has proven itself to be the kind of company that's up to the task of reshaping such deep misconceptions.
"We just want to present fantastic pieces to the public," says Eric Mitchko, N.C. Opera's general director. "Opera, with its combination of music and speech, it has this unique affective power. It's very much an ongoing thing. We want to entertain people with great music, and there's a lot of great music being written right now."
It's not that N.C. Opera isn't interested in the past. A fervent belief in the great works is a core belief for the company, according to Mitchko, who says that part of N.C. Opera's responsibility to its audience is to present classic works like Mozart and Wagner. Timothy Myers, the company's conductor and artistic director, feels a similar duty to honor the centuries-long lineage of the art form itself. He says he believes that just because something's old doesn't preclude it from being applicable or relatable to the here and now.
"As soon as we dismiss those myths, then we can get back to the important part of art, and that is: What about this communicates to people? To what parts can people relate?" Myers says.
"When this happens, we see people who are already opera lovers see their passion reignited and encouraged, and people who are not, being surprised and inspired by what they see and hear. That's really been our goal at N.C. Opera," he adds.
In working toward this goal, the company has earned national attention for its willingness to make unorthodox choices: presenting works by contemporary composers instead of comfortable staples, making novel staging decisions, and not relying on familiar works that go down easy.
N.C. Opera most recently took this route with Hercules vs. Vampires, the work of Los Angeles composer Patrick Morganelli. Before its Raleigh debut, the piece had only been performed in Portland, Oregon, and L.A.; Phoenix's Arizona Opera, and the Washington, D.C.-based Washington National Opera are on deck to present it next. N.C. Opera, it seems, is on the cutting edge of programming, in an unexpected market hundreds of miles away from the country's main cultural hubs.
"Not only are they doing the great works of the operatic repertoire, and doing them extremely well, they're also willing to take a chance on things that are either modern or very unusual or both," Morganelli says. "Everyone in leadership with that company feels that for the art form to flourish, it has to break some new ground, and it has to find the new audience. They're doing a really good job with that."
Making opera an accessible commodity doesn't mean making it easy on the audience—or on itself for that matter. Taking on Wagner's massive works, as N.C. Opera did with Das Rheingold in September, presents a challenge to any opera company, but the institution turned some of those challenges into sound artistic decisions. Instead of building scenery, for example, the company used video projections, which worked quite well. But a full orchestra was an absolute necessity.
"We haven't apologized and said, 'Well, we can't really do Wagner, so we we're gonna do it with an eighteen-piece orchestral reduction and hopefully you get the gist of it,'" Myers says, noting that what makes Wagner's music most thrilling is the volume and weight of the collective sound of a large orchestra. So N.C. Opera went all-in on its production, with eighty-three musicians taking the stage at Meymandi Concert Hall for its season opener.
"When you are in it in a hall with that size of orchestra playing that music, there's no other experience that can replicate that," Myers says.
Myers and Mitchko are quick to credit the Triangle community's open minds and ears with the company's success and for strengthening its close ties to the area. Through its work, N.C. Opera has achieved national stature, but it is first and foremost an artistic enterprise; the work is what matters most, and the framework is local.
"Our focus is really on Triangle audiences and giving people here who are our supporters and our public what we think is going to be interesting and enriching for them," says Mitchko. "In some regional markets, there's the conception that you can only do the top twenty standard operas. I'm happy to say the Triangle is not that place."
Myers and Mitchko base their artistic partnership on a shared aesthetic; they're not in lockstep, but both men usually agree when it comes to the singers, directors, and conductors they admire. They maintain a constant, lively dialogue about their work, which fuels the enthusiasm behind the projects they stage.
"In order for us to get our audience excited about something, we have to be excited about it. People really connect to that energy," Myers says.
"And I'm very aware that when I go and stand in front of that orchestra and with the orchestra and singer, I have to love it. It starts with us generating that love and excitement about what we do."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hitting the high notes."