On a hot July evening last summer, an eclectic crowd of Western Montanans filtered into the University Theatre on the UM campus and found their seats for the opening performance of Montana Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto.
In a way, it was one of those quintessentially Missoula moments: grown men in shorts and Hawaiian print shirts found their seats next to kids dressed in their Sunday best; doctors and rockers shared armrests; people waved across the auditorium and chatted with old friends. Take off the roof and remove the plush chairs, and it could have been just another Saturday morning at the Farmer’s Market
Except it wasn’t that. Because it was also one of those unique Missoula moments, when the city’s newest performing arts organization staged the centerpiece of the first-ever Western Montana Summer Opera Festival.
Listening to the buzz of the crowd before the performance that night, one sensed an unusual kind of anticipation – a mixture of excitement and curiosity, as if people in the audience knew that something good was about to happen, but had little idea what it might be.
That was understandable. After all, professionally produced opera has scarcely been encountered in this corner of the world. Aside from a smattering of touring productions and the biannual series of student opera productions at UM, opera was always something that happened far away.
All of that changed that night last summer, when a cast of professional singers from around the country joined forces with musicians from across Western Montana to perform one of the most spectacular, dramatic, and beautiful operas ever written.
If you weren’t there, ask around. Because if you were there, you still remember it. Opera has a way of getting under your skin like that.
This summer, Montana Lyric Opera comes back to the stage with a production of Giacomo Puccini’s heartbreaking and beautiful opera, Madama Butterfly. Stacked with vivid characters, richly atmospheric orchestral music, and the kind of heart-melting melodies that made Puccini the most famous opera composer of his era, Madama Butterfly will serve as the centerpiece to this year’s expanded Summer Opera Festival – and a perfect encore to last summer’s mainstage production, said Gina Lapka, general director of Montana Lyric Opera.
“There are so many reasons why Madama Butterfly remains a cornerstone of our culture, generation after generation,” said Lapka, who founded the local company in late 2007. “It’s deep and yet accessible; it’s so human, and so universal. Not to mention the fact that it’s got probably the greatest – and certainly the longest – love duet in all of opera.”
Of course, it takes a lot more than nicely written notes on a page to make a memorable performance. This year’s production, which takes place August 11, 13, and 15 at UM’s Montana Theatre, features a stellar cast of singers from Montana and beyond, led by Daria Somers in the central role of Cio Cio San – aka Butterfly herself. A gifted (and gorgeous) soprano from Los Angeles, Somers comes to Missoula fresh off singing the same role with Nevada Opera Theatre; she has also performed leading roles with the Los Angeles Opera, Center Stage Opera, Operafestival di Roma, Red Rock Opera, and elsewhere.
Somers is joined in this production by three of Montana’s most successful and renowned opera singers: Jeffrey Kitto, of Bozeman, will sing the role of Pinkerton; Christopher Johnson, a native of Billings, will perform the role of Sharpless; and Missoula’s own Kimberly Gratland James, a UM professor of voice, will fill out the primary cast in the role of Suzuki.
Bolstered by a full orchestra, chorus, and large secondary cast, the production is led by Daniel Redfeld, a Los Angeles-based conductor (and composer) making his Missoula debut.
“We’re really going for an immersive experience with Madama Butterfly,” said Lapka. “We received such enthusiastic response from the crowds who attended last summer’s semi-staged production of Rigoletto; but with the addition of costumes and staging, and with a great cast and orchestra, I think this summer’s mainstage production will be even more gripping and wonderful.”
The three-performance run of Madama Butterfly forms the centerpiece of this year’s expanded Summer Opera Festival.
The festival kicked off last Friday, July 30, when Montana Lyric Opera returned to Missoula’s Badlander bar for the seventh installment of “Opera on Draft,” an irreverent and wildly popular night of song and suds, sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Singers from around the region took the stage in front of an overflow crowd to sing some of the most famous arias and ensembles from the world of opera and musical theatre.
Two nights later, the festival moved to the Stock Farm Club in Hamilton for “Opera Decanted,” a four-course journey through the life and music of Puccini featuring gourmet cuisine, paired wines and live opera highlights. For the event, Stock Farm executive chef Toby McCracken and food & beverage service manager Jason Wedl crafted an exquisite menu that transported the audience to Tuscany, Lombardy and Brussels as they traced the life of one of history’s most beloved operatic composers through four magnificent courses of food and wine pairings. Select cast members from Montana Lyric Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly presented arias to complement each course.
This year’s festival also highlights the talents of this area’s newest aspiring opera singers, when students at the third annual Summer Youth Opera Camp present Pandora’s Box, a staged and costumed opera based on music by Jacques Offenbach. Those performances take place this Friday and Saturday, August 6 and 7; tickets are available at www.mtopera.org.
The whole festival is geared toward offering diverse experiences of opera to Western Montana audiences while providing performance opportunities for a host of area musicians, said Lapka.
“Our goal is put together great performances that change the way people think about music, and about opera,” said Lapka. “I want people to feel what I have felt through this music.”