Timothy Myers' voice quivers when he remembers the first time he heard soprano Angela Brown. It was the Giuseppe Verdi opera A Masked Ball, and her performance that evening changed the course of his life and career, which now finds him holding the baton as principal conductor and artistic director of the North Carolina Opera.
"Angela was one of the first professional opera singers who I heard live," Myers remembers. "I'd never heard singing at that level, with that kind of power and artistry. She's one of the ones who ultimately inspired me to do what I'm doing now."
Brown has voiced Verdi's enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida in the greatest opera houses in the world. This weekend, she brings the timeless role—with all its tragic romance and subterfuge—to the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall and Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall.
"One of the greatest things about Angela's voice is the way it blooms in the top part of the range," Myers says. "The bloom and the sheen that the sound takes on as she moves higher into the range is really stunning. In Italian they call it squillo—a resonant, trumpet-like sound necessary for a voice to be heard over big orchestras."
Aida will be semi-staged—the third such production treatment by the N.C. Opera. It's the full, two-and-a-half-hour opera, with costumes, props, lighting and dramatization. There's simply no set. Sitting onstage rather than beneath it, the orchestra will provide the backdrop.
One might assume that an audience base that's consistently turned Broadway shows at the Durham Performing Arts Center into hot tickets would miss cinematic production values. But run some quick numbers: For a full production, you have to design and build the set and add at least two weeks of rehearsal time for the orchestra and singers. When you forgo the set for a semi-staged show, not only is the rehearsal time halved but also substantial money is saved to pay A-list talent such as Brown.
"'We don't miss the set. We don't care,'" Myers says he hears from operagoers. "People have gone further and said that they love the orchestra being onstage to see them and hear them better."
Indeed, popular opera has become such a platform for spectacular productions that the human subtleties of the story are lost amid lavish, mechanized sets. It's a far cry from when Verdi debuted Aida in Cairo in 1871 to a hall of about 800 people. To wit, the Metropolitan holds five times that.
"I find it really interesting to strip away all of that and look at what the piece really is on its own," Myers says. "If you look at it that way, to me, Aida is a chamber opera with a big orchestra and one really big scene. Other than that, it's all about the intimate detail of relationships."
This production also features Issachah Savage as the pharaoh's commander Radames, Aida's love. Savage says that the staging has allowed him to delve deep into the character of Radames, whom he's playing for the first time. Although he's studied the role thoroughly, the triumphal scene became more psychologically complex only upon rehearsals here.
"Radames is very human," Savage says. "Aida's feeling entrapment: 'Oh my god. All this is happening, I'm captured.' She's still stuck. But he's walking in—'How wonderful to see you'—giving her all this big talk. It reminds me of a young guy who's really not sure of himself or how he's going to be able to deliver on any of his promises. It's a very human moment."
Those are the sort of human moments the N.C. Opera is hoping that, sans a theatrical set, audiences will notice on stage.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bloom and sheen."