We are in the midst of an opera boom here in Central Washington.
Between the upstart Yakima Valley Opera Company and last year’s fully staged production of “The Marriage of Figaro” by the Yakima Symphony Orchestra and the University of Denver opera program, there’s already been more local opera than ever before. Now Central Washington University’s award-winning opera program is getting into the mix with its production of “Die Fledermaus” this weekend alongside the CWU Chamber Orchestra.
The show, a Johan Strauss operetta, will be sung in English by entirely different casts on Saturday and Sunday. It is a broad comedy, with slapstick elements that should be accessible to people whether they grew up listening to opera or not.
“It’s so funny,” says Lydia Gross, a first-year CWU opera grad student who will play Rosalinde in Sunday’s production. “It’s meant to be enjoyed by the masses. It’s not just for people who understand all the musical little nuances of opera.”
Indeed, the story is pure farce — characters getting drunk and mistaking each other for others, friends plotting vengeful pranks on friends and, of course, the spectre of the bat costume from which the operetta draws its name. It’s a great first opera for people who may be intimidated by the art form’s reputation of sophistication, says Gayla Blaisdell, a professional singer, CWU opera professor and the production’s director.
“We need to get the word out to people, and part of the way we do that is by programming comedies and doing them in English,” she says. “Not only will they understand it, they’re going to enjoy it. It’s a riot.”
Blaisdell, whose husband Tor Blaisdell is also an opera singer and is producing the show, is dedicated to expanding the audience for opera and breaking through the perception that it’s impenetrably sophisticated and serious.
“Opera is a lot more than that,” she says. “If we can get people to come in the door to see this funny, accessible, fanciful operetta in English, then maybe they’ll come back for the next one, too.”
CWU opera students have staged shows in the university’s Music Building and in Hertz Hall on campus, but they haven’t taken a show to a theater like the Capitol before, Tor Blaisdell says.
“They’re excited,” he says. “This is our first time in a full-on theater. This is the big time.”
It will be a new experience for students like Gross. She has sung in fully staged operas before, but she’s never had a leading role in one. The students have been rehearsing since before Christmas, she says, so while there is some nervousness left, she’s mostly just excited.
“We’ve had really great coaches and teachers,” Gross says.
The level of singing in the show will be near-professional, despite the fact the singers are students, Gayla Blaisdell says. The overall quality of the opera department is such that it allowed for two full casts, and some of the cast members have won National Opera Association honors.
“The level of singing is going to impress everyone immensely,” Blaisdell says. “Our students are incredibly talented. ... We’ve been working to raise the quality of singing overall, and it’s really paying off. Every singer sounds great, and they all sound different.”
The CWU Chamber Orchestra, directed by Nikolas Caoile, who was a finalist for the YSO conductor job three years ago, is also near professional level, she says.
“The orchestra is regionally and within the state considered one of the best,” Blaisdell says. “I just heard them play the overture and it sounds magnificent. Just the orchestra alone would be worth coming to the opera for.”
That’s something Gross mentions, too. Working with the musicians on this show has been a rare experience, she says.
“It’s not just singers; it’s a great music department all around,” she says.
Like the Blaisdells, she has become something of an ambassador for CWU opera and for opera in general. The tough thing is getting people to go that first time, she says. They’re usually surprised by how much they like it.
“Once you get them in, they’re kind of hooked,” Gross says. “I think it’s because opera has something for everyone. It has singing. It has acting. It has costumes. It has music. It has something for all of your senses. It really synthesizes everything .”