What is Asheville Lyric Opera?
“Opera is a combination of every single form of communication ever used by humans: Architecture, food, clothing, gestures, words, song, and jewelry. Everything is used to tell the greatest stories in the world by the greatest storytellers in the world. It is the ultimate collaboration. The cherry on the very top” – Anonymous
In 1999, founder David Craig Starkey envisioned a professional opera company that would complement the strong, existing arts community of Asheville, North Carolina. This Appalachian mountain region shaped by the legacy of the American arts and crafts movement, including poet Carl Sandburg and novelist Thomas Wolfe, both of who walked the mountain paths. The area’s numerous galleries feature works ranging from classic fine art to fiber and glass art and traditional quilting. An accomplished symphony orchestra, ballet companies, and the opera company create a trio of performing arts that supplies a rare strength for a growing city like Asheville.
What is Asheville Lyric Opera?
As the name suggests, the Asheville Lyric Opera’s repertoire includes a variety of opera styles and encompasses a range of artistry ranging from the Broadway classics to the light operatic comedy of Bel Canto Opera and to the high drama of classic Verdi and Puccini operas. Whether experiencing the adorable characters in The Barber of Seville, or the raw emotion of Carmen and Tosca, audiences are treated to professional, high-quality entertainment provided by acclaimed guest artists who perform extensively in the United States and abroad. Asheville possesses a significant amount of local opera professionals who are attracted to the city. Thus many of Asheville Lyric Opera’s principal and secondary cast members are local residents.
Where We Perform: The Diana Wortham Theatre and other Venues
Together with the area’s natural beauty and strong cultural arts tradition, the Diana Wortham Theatre offers an intimate and welcoming setting for a professional opera company like the Asheville Lyric Opera. This 500-plus-seat theatre gives artist and audience the kind of intimacy one can find in a living room conversation among friends. It provides an opportunity for “give and take” between performer and audience that cannot be found in larger auditoriums. The amazing acoustics and classic design have earned the Diana Wortham Theatre a respected place in Asheville. Other venues include the historic Masonic Temple, built in 1915 with a theater that holds 350 (?). It features hand-painted sets created in 1915 and 52 back drops.
Some History of Asheville Lyric Opera
Founder of the Asheville Lyric Opera, David Craig Starkey, wished to develop an opera company with an intricate and community-based structure building upon a career in opera performance and production. Starkey holds a Master of Music degree in opera performance from Indiana University and he studied with pioneers of the vocal arts, including Giorgio Tozzi, Mark Oswald, Katy Olson, William Hicks, Dale Moore, and Dr. David E. Starkey. As an opera production staff member and educator, he is affiliated with numerous opera companies. David Starkey met with Paul Kellogg of the New York City Opera and a conversation about how to start a company from scratch expanded. Starkey and Kellogg wanted to see if they could start an opera company based on all the ideal scenarios of top performances and life impacting education, instead of an opera company based just around finances and profit. They agreed that the ideal location would include: An artistic community, academic institutions or some aspect of higher education in the area, a community of giving and a spirit of philanthropy, a desire for entertainment, and a “center of energy,” or localized focus in the city.
Starkey searched across the country for cities that met these requirements and came up with a list of about ten. Corporate support wasn’t in the criteria since companies come and go, but people don’t and people buy the tickets. According to Starkey, the people are the reflection of the community and when looking at Asheville, it met all the criteria. With a hopeful attitude, Starkey reached out into the Asheville community to see if he could make the dream of an opera come alive.
The First Season – 1998-1999
Starkey met Dr. Robert C. Moffatt, a well-respected oncology surgeon in the area who loves classical music and opera. With Dr. Moffatt’s community based support, Asheville’s new opera company had its first meeting in the fall of 1998, and its first event in April 1999. Angela Simpson, a dramatic soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, performed with Starkey in a joint recital, and attendance and audience response was enthusiastic. The company used the money it raised from that event to bring in Susan Dunn, a Verdi soprano also with the Metropolitan Opera and a faculty professor at Duke University. The first season, though short, was enough of a success for Starkey to pursue a second season.
The Second Season – 2000
Asheville Lyric Opera’s office only consisted of an 80-foot closet space, a card table, a folding chair, and a telephone with which to schedule and produce their second season. They wanted to push for a variety of performances including operetta and classical musical theatre like Rogers and Hammerstein. One of the biggest events of the season was Live from Broadway with performers from Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. Trying to get the best performers the company could afford, they booked Francisco Cassanova, who was at that time, Luciano Pavarotti’s cover performer. Unfortunately, he called two weeks before the show was scheduled and canceled. Pavarotti was sick, so Francisco had to stay in New York to sing in place of Pavarotti. Instead of Francisco, they were able to bring in Rockwell Blake, who is considered to be the finest Rossini tenor in the world. Although Blake only performed for a week, the reception was phenomenal and the company could really envision the idea of a permanent opera company in downtown Asheville.
The season continued with La Bohème, Asheville Lyric Opera’s first full production in conjunction with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Although the show was sold out, an unexpected snowstorm hit the morning of the performance. The company rescheduled the performance for the next evening and hoped for the best. Nineteen hundred people showed up the next night. This was the boom that Asheville Lyric Opera needed. Mr. Starkey served already as the artistic director, and then was appointed to a full-time position as general director by the board. With the success of the first two seasons, Asheville Lyric Opera only continued to change and grow.
The Company Grows
Throughout the next seasons, the Asheville Lyric Opera grew and developed with a succession of great shows with nationally renowned guest conductors, directors and rising singers from both the US and Europe.
Dr. Robert Hart Baker, former conductor of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, became the principal guest conductor of Asheville Lyric Opera in 2004. With his addition, the company’s musical quality of main-stage productions continued to improve. In 2006, the company expanded the Education and Outreach Program as a mission to include the children and family in the community in its seasonal programming. Amahl and the Night Visitors, a collaboration between local schools and Asheville Lyric Opera professionals, was the first Education Opera. And since then the Program has continued the annual collaboration.
As the artistic style and quality grew throughout the seasons, so did the audience recognition throughout the country, especially in the Southeastern region. In the fifth season, the company started a touring program after it was inspired by a joint production with the South Carolina Opera Company. The annual tours have taken the company from Indiana to Florida. They have worked with a wide array of organizations, including universities, symphonies, opera companies and theatre companies. The company continues to tour, a tradition that makes the company incredibly unique compared to the majority of opera companies in the country that have ended their tour programs.
Besides full opera productions, the Asheville Lyric Opera produces concerts, recitals, including school programs, and fund raising events. In 2007, the opera company began a partnership with the Met Broadcast. Asheville was one of the first cities added to the Met schedule after the initial role out of the live theater broadcasts. The MET and the Asheville Lyric Opera work together to feed the conversation about opera. A small and local opera being recognized on such a national level builds Asheville Lyric Opera’s credibility, and allows for them to host superb quality singers. Asheville Lyric Opera can serve as a trampoline of sorts for artists who are just beginning their journey and trying to make it or for more experienced performers, including those on the international stage, who are breaking into the top tier. The opera gets excellent performances and the artist gets to build his or her experience and career, adding classic operas under his or her belt. These relationships help the opera continue to grow both within the opera and within the larger Asheville community.