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Published: 2/9/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

Toledo opera gala to present lush musical bouquet on Valentine's Day

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Stepping up to cover many musical styles will be Sarah Jane McMahon, the bubbling, multi-talented New Orleans native last heard locally in 2011 as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. Stepping up to cover many musical styles will be Sarah Jane McMahon, the bubbling, multi-talented New Orleans native last heard locally in 2011 as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata.
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The Toledo Opera has a shimmering Valentine’s Day present for the community: Ladies in Red, a bouquet of beautiful voices in a gala setting.

Yes, it’s at the Valentine Theatre. Where else?

Actually, this year, Ladies in Red will happen twice, first at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Valentine’s Day, then at 2 p.m. on Feb. 16.

Think of it as a surfeit of sopranos, from the lower range of mezzo skyward, to lyric and coloratura, voices capable of soaring vocal embroidery as well as great dramatic potential.

But, instead of a single opera presented from start to finish, this will be a “greatest hits” evening, a musical sampler of arias which often come to symbolize, in three to five minutes, the entirety of a three-hour production.

This year’s bevy of vocal beauties all have made themselves welcome through wonderful performances in recent Toledo Opera productions.

Audrey Babcock, who stirred audiences in the title role of the Toledo Opera’s 2007 Carmen, then returned the next season for Rigoletto, will be in town for the weekend.

Elizabeth Baldwin, a young and rising star, will emerge from the Toledo Opera chorus to savor the musical spotlight.

Stepping up to cover many musical styles will be Sarah Jane McMahon, the bubbling, multi-talented New Orleans native last heard locally in 2011 as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata.

And adding her saucy acting ability to first-class vocal gifts will be Jennifer Rowley, who wowed audiences as Musetta in the 2012 Toledo Opera production of La Boheme.

But for Amy Yekel, who is to sing both Wagner and Gershwin, returning to Toledo to perform has special significance.

Her appearance as the title character in the Toledo Opera’s 2012 production of Puccini’s Turandot had audiences buzzing because of the power, richness, and resonance of her mezzo soprano voice.

Not only did Yekel score an artistic triumph, she proved — to herself and those who had supported her through many dark years — that with determination and hard work, she could overcome injuries following a near-fatal 2007 accident in Arizona.

Before that, the singer, now 34, was as interested in gymnastics and body-building as she was in music. “I rode my bike to and from school. I swam every day. I was fit, very fit, and muscular.”

She studied vocal performance at the University of Akron, but admits she was not a serious student until discerning ears noticed her unusual voice.

“People told me I sounded like a 40-year-old, like an adult,” Yekel said in an interview last week. (Typically, soprano voices start out light and high, deepening and darkening as time passes and they continue using their vocal cords.)

Her voice had a rare early maturity and depth.

“I kind of brushed it off. I thought, ‘Oh, everybody sounds like this.’”

After graduation, Yekel hustled off to Arizona State University at the urging of Akron teachers.

“Then, I realized, OK, I really want to be serious about this,” Yekel continued.

“I was winning a lot of competitions and things were going extremely well. I was asked to sing in New York City.”

But before she could make the trip, a speeding drunk driver slammed into her car while she was leaning into it. Her torso was crushed and terribly bruised.

Though Yekel did not suffer a single broken bone, the damage to muscles and connective tissue was devastating. She used a wheelchair for years. Yekel credits her physical strength with saving her life.

Miraculously, she could still sing. She continued her studies, earning a master’s and doctorate in vocal performance at Arizona State, planning to come back to Ohio to teach.

“I never really felt sorry for myself. Was thankful I lived through it,” said Yekel.

When the Toledo Opera booked her to sing Turandot, Yekel had just mastered the capability to use stairs again.

Her professional debut was also a spiritual triumph.

Now back in Canton, teaching at her alma mater, Yekel is beginning to make artistic waves, even though she still is working her way back to physical wholeness.

Hers is a voice seemingly created to sing Wagner.

In 2012 the Wagner Society of New York agreed, awarding Yekel the Robert Lauch Memorial Fund Award and sponsoring her debut recital in the Big Apple in 2013.

Last year, Yekel performed signature works by Wagner with the Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting.

Of her performance of Wagnerian excerpts, critic Thomas Wachunas wrote: “her singing was a thrilling embodiment of all the agony and ecstasy that engulfs the characters of Isolde and Brunnhilde. . . The powerful, warm sonority of her voice was of world-class quality.”

Yekel will sing Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

Later in the program, she’ll summon the Deep South in Summertime from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess.

Providing sympathetic musical support for Yekel and the other four singers, the Toledo Symphony will be led by both James Meena, former TOA artistic director, now head of the Carolina Opera in Charlotte, NC., and Robert Mirakian, assistant director of the Toledo Opera.

These concerts will mark Mirakian’s debut leading the TSO for the opera.

Major domo again this year will be Kevin Bylsma, to provide introductions and piano accompaniment for several songs.

What’s in store for folks who buy tickets is a wealth of beloved arias from operas by Puccini, Verdi, Gilbert & Sullivan, Bizet, Delibes, and Korngold, among others. Plus, there will be popular hits from Broadway shows and some traditional vocal faves in a program notable for variety and international flavor.

In Spanish mode, Babcock is down for a sultry performance of the Seguidilla, from Carmen, but she also will sing “Granada,” the hymn to the Spanish city written by Mexican composer Agustin Lara.

And she’ll join Baldwin for the beloved Flower Duet from Leo Delibes opera, Lakme.

Baldwin, the youngest of the quintet, also will show off her solo chops singing Marietta’s Lied from Erich Korngold’s opera, Die toe Stadt, as well as the ever popular Vissi d’arte, from Puccini’s Tosca.

Jekel, possessed of a soprano version of the basso profundo – deep, resonant, and highly colored – is to venture into Wagner, singing Liebestod (Love Death) from Tristan und Isolde. And, in a display of her dramatic range, shewill pour out Summertime, from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

For McMahon, the evening offers a wealth of styles to cover, from the evergreen O Mio babbino caro of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, to Mabel, the heroine of the G & S classic, Pirates of Penzance, singing “Poor Wandering One,” to contemporary Broadway singles.

Rowley, also a power hitter in both vocal and dramatic efforts, will sing Tu che la vanita, from Verdi’s Don Carlo, and the Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello.

An interesting sidenote, beyond the obvious Toledo Opera connection linking the singers, is their larger ties to the Buckeye State.

Besides singing in the TOA chorus, Baldwin has been building her artistic reputation with featured roles in concert and opera productions across the country.

She’s a 2013 International Finalist in the Francisco Viñas Singing Competition in Barcelona; a 2012 National Semi-Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions for the central and Illinois district, and 2011 Grand Prize winner in the William Matheus Sullivan Musical Foundation competition.

McMahon’s Ohio connection began when she was chosen to be part of the Ohio Light Opera Company’s summer repertoire cast in Wooster, while still a student at Loyola University.

McMahon has won critical raves in major publications and was selected by Placido Domingo to perform with him in Los Angeles. She has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, Munich Philharmonic, and the former New York City Opera.

Rowley is a Buckeye who earned her undergraduate music degree at Baldwin-Wallace College, then finished a master’s degree at Indiana University. She’s scheduled to make her Metropolitan Opera debut this year as Musetta, and will reprise the role in 2015 at the Royal Opera House in London.

Babcock, who has made the role of Carmen hers – including here in Toledo -- has branched out into related musical fields with recordings that trace the Gypsy roots of the powerful character. Recording as Aviva, Babcock sings in Ladino, the early language of Jews living in Spain – including this city’s namesake, Toledo. She also has produced a dramatic recording as Lily, a young German Jewish girl trying to survive in Nazi Germany.

So, a rich evening of song and drama on the day dedicated to Love.

Tickets for the Gala are $30-$75 at www.toledoopera.org or 419-255-7464.

To enhance the performance, the Toledo Opera has planned a benefit dinner preceding the show, at the Valentine. Live music by Toledo Symphony players will accompany the service, and more music from Hepcat Revival is scheduled for a post-performance party. A dinner at Real Seafood Co. is slated to precede the Sunday show.

For more information on any of those options call 419-255-7454.

What is an opera gala but a classical cabaret?

Toledo’s resident cabaret expert, Denise Ritter-Bernardini, will give a preview talk, Deadly Divas: The Baddest Women in Opera, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Secor Gallery, 425 Jefferson Ave., on the first floor of the old Secor Building. The talk is free to the public. A wine reception catered by Registry Bistro will follow, with tickets for that $15.

Contact Sally Vallongo at: svallongo@theblade.com



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