Annapolis performing arts scene is more vibrant than ever

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Maryland's state capital has always a cultural life, but the performing arts scene looks livelier than ever.

The crowd that crammed into the 850-seat Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts last weekend got a good taste of the increasingly vibrant performing arts scene in Annapolis — a musically and theatrically solid production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific," staged by Annapolis Opera with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Another sample could be experienced in a tiny venue the same weekend, as Annapolis Shakespeare Company delivered a rousing, songful version of "Twelfth Night," complete with a top-hat-and-tails chorus line at the finale.

Arts are certainly not new to the city. The Annapolis Symphony goes back more than 50 years, the opera company more than 40. The Annapolis Chorale has added its spirited voice to the arts community since the 1970s, the decade when the adventurous Ballet Theatre of Maryland also entered the picture. Various other enterprises — notably the Infinity Theatre Company, which enlivens the summer with Broadway-caliber musicals — have made significant contributions.

The 2016-2017 season has already featured impressive work in Annapolis, and promises to continue to be eventful and rewarding — with companies increasing their budgets, moving to improved homes and rolling out new initiatives. Here's a closer look at three organizations that are a part of this lively dynamic:

Annapolis Opera

For the first time in 14 years, Annapolis Opera has been able to afford presenting a season of two staged works instead of one. Last weekend's "South Pacific" will be followed in March with Puccini's perennially popular "Madama Butterfly."

The company's budget, now approaching $500,000, has grown 30 percent in the past couple of years. A professional administrator, general director Kathy Swekel, was hired, after a longtime reliance on a volunteer staff.

"We've been building our reserves so we can add productions and add performances of productions," Swekel says. "We have a protective cushion now."

And a three-year plan that envisions two stagings each season.

Artistic director Ronald Gretz, now in his 34th year with the company, suggested that one of this season's two works be a musical, a genre many opera companies have embraced.

"And I suggested we can tie 'South Pacific' together with 'Butterfly,' since both works involve an American naval officer and the very timely theme of racial insensitivity," Gretz says. "We saw more people for 'South Pacific' than we've had in a long time."

That the company was able to get some sets and props from the touring version of the celebrated Lincoln Center revival of that musical added to the production's success. An appealing cast helped, too. And it was wonderful to hear Rodgers' score played by a full orchestra.

Gretz has enticing ideas for future seasons, including the pairing of another musical, Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," with Rossini's opera about a much nicer razor-wielder, "The Barber of Seville." Mark Adamo's "Little Women," one of the most frequently performed contemporary American operas, is expected next season, along with Verdi's "La Traviata."

"We also try to do more things out of the opera house," Swekel says. "We've added concerts at pop-up operas at different locations. We want to make people more aware of us, so they don't go, 'Oh, really? Annapolis has an opera company?'"

Annapolis Shakespeare Company

The headquarters of Annapolis Shakespeare Company at a nondescript commercial building on Chinquapin Round Road, doesn't look terribly inviting outside. But inside, with the audience seated on three sides, the theater offers an inviting, intimate ambience.

That intimacy will be retained when the three-year old professional company moves in January to a more easily accessible space on West Street. Seating will increase from 75 to 99. (The company also offers productions at the Reynolds Tavern and Charles Carroll House.)

"Our budget is going from $250,000 to $450,000," says company founder Sally Boyett. "This is a big step, but we have a lot of support. We are starting to feel like we're getting a name for ourselves. I can't wait to have our wings and be in our own exclusive space."

Donald Hicken, a frequent director of plays at Everyman Theatre and other companies, heard a colleague sing the praises of Annapolis Shakespeare a year or so ago.

"I blew it off," Hicken says. "When you go to a little theater, you expect little theater. But I finally went. I saw their production of 'Sense and Sensibility.' I was amazed."

Hicken signed on as a resident director for Annapolis Shakespeare, where he will direct "Richard III" in the spring.

"Sally just has an uncompromised aesthetic," he says. "And she brings the energy of Broadway to Shakespeare. That combination is just fabulous."

Boyett set "Twelfth Night" in 1929 Hollywood. The character of the fool Feste, in a bravura performance by Jamison Foreman, evokes Charlie Chaplin. Characters often break into song, colorfully accompanied at an upright piano by James Fitzpatrick. The whole thing is an irresistible romp.

"I think the company has the potential to be a major presence on the theater landscape in this whole region," Hicken says.

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra

Although near to major orchestras in Baltimore and Washington, the Annapolis Symphony is hardly lost in their shadow. With music director Jose-Luis Novo, who started in 2005, the ensemble has consistently provided quality music-making and imaginative programming.

That flair for programming is underlined by this week's program, called "Dance Mix." It includes music from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and Adolphe Adam's "Giselle," as well as the American premiere of Zhou Long's "Postures" for piano and orchestra, with soloist Christopher Janwong McKiggan.

"Little by little, we should enlarge the horizon for the audience," Novo says.

The season's opening concert featured the eminent violinist Midori giving an impeccable account of Beethoven's Violin Concerto on a program of colorful orchestra works by Berlioz and Kodaly that benefited from Novo's keen ear for detail and the orchestra's cohesive, expressive playing.

The music director has become known for his chatty, witty remarks from the stage.

"It's about breaking down the stiffness that exists between the audience and the stage," Novo says. I just want to bring the audience along with us, show them that we're normal and we enjoy very much what we do."

They enjoy it even more after much-needed renovations to Maryland Hall in 2014.

"Before, the sound all went up, not out, so the orchestra had to play loud all the time," says executive director Patrick Nugent. "Now the sound wraps itself around the audience. It's like being in a chamber concert in an intimate space, but with a 70-piece orchestra."

The Annapolis Symphony, which has a budget of about $1.3 million, plays for Annapolis Opera productions and gives various performances at other spots around town.

"We plan to get out into the community pretty aggressively, even getting beyond the city limits and possibly beyond Anne Arundel County," Nugent says. "And I envision adding a second subscription series, which could feature Annapolis Symphony chamber ensembles and perhaps more experimental music."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Annapolis Shakespeare Company presents "Twelfth Night" through Nov. 20 at 111 Chinquapin Round Road, Suite 114. Tickets are $25 to $45. "Poe and All the Others" runs through Nov. 23 at Reynolds Tavern, 7 Church Circle. Tickets are $75, including dinner and show. For more programming, call 410-415-3513 or go to annapolisshakespeare.org.

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jose-Luis Novo, performs music of Tchaikovsky, Adolphe Adam and Zhou Long at 8 p.m. Nov. 18-19 at Maryland Hall For the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. Tickets are $10 to $75. For more programming, call 410-263-0907, or go to annapolissymphony.org.

Annapolis Opera presents "Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" on March 17 and 19 at Maryland Hall, 801 Chase St. Tickets are $27 to $82. For more programming, call 410-280-5640, or go to annapolisopera.org.

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