Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Producing 'Romeo and Juliet' is hard work, but Toledo Opera wouldn't have it any other way


Lee Gregory, left, and Eric Fennell rehearse a scene of Toledo Opera's production of <i>Romeo and Juliet</i>.


It's a quiet night in downtown Toledo - except on the sixth floor of 425 Jefferson Ave.

There, it's armed combat. Gang warfare. Family feud.

Sword fights erupt as men and women wield lethal-looking epees. Combatants flash daggers as they crouch and circle; others wave long menacing poles at nervous clusters of onlookers. A tall, curly-haired man takes an apparently lethal sword thrust to the midriff and crumples in the arms of his friends.

Think the city's safe these days? Actually, it is, unless your name's Montague or Capulet - or you're in one of their posses.

Shakespeare's classic love story, Romeo and Juliet, set to lush music in 1867 by French composer Charles Gounod, reminds us just how much love can hurt when eclipsed by clan conflict.

The fights and general melee in this venerable downtown building are preparation for the Toledo Opera's coming production of the Gounod classic. Performances are set for Saturday and Oct. 13 and 15 in the nearby Valentine Theatre.

"There's nothing more complicated than putting on an opera," says Renay Conlin, the opera's general and artistic director since 2001. "People think it's like shows at the Stranahan - a bus and truck show. It's not. Ours is totally a Toledo Opera production.

"I want it to be great theater," Conlin says of her productions. "Opera is a living, exciting form of entertainment. It's like Sex and the City, but we sing it."

Surveying with apparent satisfaction the perpetual motion around her: dozens of choristers, soloists, director Marc Verzatt, conductor (and Renay's spouse) Tom Conlin, choreographer Arkadiy Orohovsky, stage manager Kathryn Wilson, and rehearsal pianist Curt Pajer, Renay Conlin says, "I have never done Romeo and Juliet before. I've always wanted to."

Outside the big open rehearsal hall, racks are crammed with elegant Baroque costumes, each with a name and scene designation card pinned to it, like a kindergartner's first-day identification. At an adjacent table a quartet of women work their way through labeling, folding, and other of the myriad tasks required to fill the house for each season-opening performance.

The Gounod opera is a first-time experience, too, for soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, the fiery mezzo playing Gertrude, Juliet's nurse. "I'm the soprano wrangler," she says with a grin, looking up from a book of crossword puzzles.

Since Sept. 15 rehearsals have been going at a rapid clip, six intense hours seven days a week. But this is really the culmination of months and years of work planning and preparing for adrenaline-fueled moments in the glare of stage lights.

For starters, there's the combined experience of soloists or principals including baritone Lee Gregory, tenors Eric Fennell and John Pickle, mezzo Leah Wool, and bass baritone Stephen Bryant - at least a century of singing, rehearsing, memorizing, and learning the staging. Both Conlins have decades of performing, conducting, and producing. Verzatt, the hilarious live-wire director, has been a dancer at the Metropolitan Opera, a stage manager at Chicago's Lyric Opera, and is now teaching theater at Yale University.

Lining up this cadre of top performers started well over a year ago, in auditions in New York City, the country's biggest operatic talent market. "I can tell after the first 10 measures if the singer is right for us," says Conlin, who has found she can offset lower fees for the artists with a stellar artistic stint in Toledo. "Having been a singer, I try to give them a positive experience."

But well before auditions, Conlin has to plan the entire season on a $1.1 million budget. At $220,000, Romeo and Juliet has the largest cast and highest costs of the 2006-2007 season, which also will include Donizetti's Don Pasquale in November, Puccini's Tosca in April and May, and the Russian-themed gala in February.

Singers claim the largest portion of the production budget, but "The set is the first decision to make," Conlin said during an earlier interview. "Does it exist and can we afford it?" After locating the set, she contacts trucking companies to bring the structures into town. "Trucking is a huge expense." Other fixed costs include hiring musicians from the Toledo Symphony for the pit; engaging union stagehands, and finding appropriate wigs and props.

To ensure most of the budget goes to performances, Conlin has reduced her staff to minimal levels. She plans the season, writes grants, and oversees the opera's educational project in the schools, runs a resident artist program, and even labored over the opera Web site this summer. The director also is active in the Crescendo Campaign, a $2 million endowment-building project being run by Hussein Shousher, board of directors president, and James White, campaign chairman.

Last but not least in the production process is assembling a chorus of men and women who will, for nothing but the love of music and performing, learn parts in a language they don't speak, show up for long rehearsals, and practice, practice, practice.

"The chorus is impressive," Quintero says.

"The choristers are the backbone of Toledo Opera. They're extremely important," Conlin says. On this night, her musical/marital counterpart, Tom, is working them hard, going over and over pronunciations and tempos until they are just right. Meanwhile Verzatt, cajoling, joking, and poking, sends them through endless repetitions of staging he has devised. They tramp and creep and posture on a concrete floor that's a maze of colored tape designating blocking for each of the five acts of Romeo and Juliet.

Mark and Alice Lemle, newcomers to the opera chorus world, stand patiently between run-throughs. "We turned 50 and decided to do something we'd never tried before," Alice Lemle said. Other chorus members, so in love with the pressure and excitement of sharing in an opera production, have been stalwarts for decades.

Conlin feels gratified, after all the work, to see the company gaining recognition from near and far. Opera News in the United States and Opera Magazine in England review Toledo productions.

"How wonderful to have people around the world reading about Toledo," Conlin says.

The Toledo Opera will present "Romeo and Juliet" at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 13, and 2 p.m. Oct. 15 in the Valentine Theatre, 401 North Superior St. An informal preopera chat in the theater lobby is free to ticketholders. Tickets, $26 to $95, are available through the opera office, 419-255-7464 or

Contact Sally Vallongo at or 419-724-6101.

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