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Published: Sunday, 10/9/2011

‘La Traviata’ signals Toledo opera’s rejuvenation

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Sarah Jane McMahon will be playing Violetta in the Toledo Opera's production of "La Traviata." Sarah Jane McMahon will be playing Violetta in the Toledo Opera's production of "La Traviata."
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Spoiler alert!

Right at the end of Verdi’s great tragedy, La Traviata, Violetta Valery, the benevolent Parisian hooker who finds a better life through her true love, Alfredo Germont, dies.

Ah, that’s opera.

So many memorable heroines — Lucia, Tosca, Desdemona, and Gilda among many — kick the bucket just after their final arias. Death, it seems, becomes them best in the tumult of untenable love matches.

Still, a sad ending is no reason to miss the Toledo Opera’s season-opening production of La Traviata next weekend.

For one thing, it will be the area’s first opportunity to hear rising star soprano Sarah Jane McMahon, who will sing the title role with the Toledo Opera on Friday and Oct. 16. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Valentine Theatre.

McMahon, a protégé and colleague of tenor Placido Domingo, has performed with the Los Angeles and Virginia opera companies, as well as Michigan Opera Theatre. A summa cum laude graduate of Loyola University, she has a master’s degree from Yale University. Her debut as Violetta in Hartford drew critical acclaim.

Also making his local operatic debut, as McMahon’s true love, Alfredo Germont, will be tenor Shawn Mathey. Yes, that Mathey: Shawn’s father, Richard, is an emeritus professor of choral music at Bowling Green State University.

A graduate of the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts, Mathey today maintains a busy performance schedule on stages from Chicago, Cincinnati, and San Francisco to Salzburg, Paris, Vienna, and Munich.

There’s more: Not only are two exciting young performers showing up for the first time, but the sheer fact that this phoenix production is almost ready for curtain signals a rebirth of Toledo’s recently beleaguered opera company.

Comeback story

Last spring, the opera was down, if not out. This fall, it clearly has its game on. The new motto for the 52-year-old arts organization is "Sound Vision."

That means, according to executive director Suzanne Rorick, building solid financial underpinnings so the artistic product can thrive.

Determined fund-raising has paid off. So has identifying and engaging local, regional, and national support through partnerships and collaborations.

“We have an arts performance fund,” Rorick said. It’s separate from other components of the the opera’s nearly $1 million annual budget.

Staging La Traviata with sets from the New York City Opera, elegant costumes, and all the other stagecraft involved, will cost about $200,000, she said, about half the annual total. (The next opera, Puccini’s Turandot, will be presented in less lavish, semi-staged production on May 11. The annual Gala, set for Feb. 11, typically is a concert.)

One definite new thrust by the opera is hiring local whenever feasible. Or, at least hiring former locals, in the case of James Meena, who is directing the opening production.

“It will be a very special moment when I am able to greet my friends in the [opera] once again, and bring this great opera to life for the public,” Meena said.

Until 2000, Meena was artistic director and conductor here. During his tenure, he helped shape the major renovation of the Valentine, before leaving to lead Opera Carolina in Charlotte. Meena also conducts opera in Arizona and Maryland.

Rorick and her deputy, Loviah Aldinger, credit Meena’s quick step-up last spring with generating the hope and energy needed to pull the Toledo Opera out of its financial morass and, following general manager Renay Conlin’s rapid departure, its artistic doldrums.

“Returning to Toledo Opera is a great joy for me,” Meena said. “I am proud of the role the company played in bringing this beautiful theater back to life, and I am thrilled to lead performances of what we know will be the beginning of a rebirth for Toledo Opera.”

Rorick praises the Toledo Symphony’s use of musicians to fill administrative positions and has hired local experts for marketing and communications, choral preparation, auditions, and other vital back of house functions as well as education and outreach.

“We’re looking for young people who want to make a career in opera,” Rorick said.

Challenges ahead

Meena, who has reduced his fee for these performances, helped cast the production and arranged to bring in sets and costumes.

Rounding out the leads for Traviata will be baritone Scott Bearden, who made his memorable local debut as Falstaff in 2009; former resident artist Adam Cavagnaro, Bowling Green State University voice professor Sean Cooper, and BGSU graduate student Rebecca Eaddy. Mezzo Fenlon Lamb, a popular recitalist here, will stage direct.

Despite her elation at pulling off this season-opening production, Rorick knows that the company faces many challenges, and not just continued fund-raising.

“We have no artistic director — and that may never happen. We are looking for advice on directions forward. And we still don’t have a board president.” Longtime opera supporter and board member Ann Sanford, she said, has done yeoman’s duty as interim.

“What kind of opera company do we want to have?” Rorick said.

Violetta will die for her art, but in her death can be found the emerging vision for this unsinkable company.

The Toledo Opera will present La Traviata at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Valentine Theatre. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and are available at 419-255-7564 extension 1 or toledoopera.org.

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com.



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