Annapolis Opera celebrates turning 40 with pair of Verdi classics

Annapolis Opera is on fire with excitement about its 40th-anniversary season.

That much is evident from its season brochure — the company's best ever — on which a flaming "V" proclaims a celebration of the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi's birth. Italy's pre-eminent composer will be honored at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis Opera's productions of two masterworks — a concert version of "Aida" and a fully staged "Rigoletto."

This season also celebrates the 25th annual Vocal Competition, which introduces outstanding young singers from the Mid-Atlantic region who compete for more than $10,000 in total prizes. It is also the 30th season for artistic director Ronald J. Gretz, who despite some lean years has managed to keep every Annapolis Opera production grand.

"As I look back over 30 years that I have been artistic director, I have so many great memories of wonderful singers who have sung with our company," Gretz said recently. "Many of them are singing in major houses throughout the U.S., including the Metropolitan Opera and in various European opera houses. Over these 30 years, the quality of the singers we have used for our productions has constantly improved. Annapolis Opera has been committed to giving young singers on the brink of a major career the opportunity to 'try out' a role they have not yet done."

Recalling that Annapolis Opera did "La Traviata" in 2003 and "Rigoletto" in 2000, Gretz explained, "For Verdi's 200th birthday, we thought we would celebrate two anniversaries: Annapolis Opera and Verdi. Because we could not mount an opera like 'Aida' at Maryland Hall, we decided to do a concert opera without the spectacle, with its great music expected to attract an audience for the singing. The triumphal scene calls for a double chorus, and we are thrilled that members of the Morgan State chorus will be joining the Annapolis Opera chorus to make the spectacle the singing."

Under Gretz, Annapolis Opera has been led by volunteers dedicated to the company's survival and growth. Unafraid of bold decisions, the company charted a new course last season, moving its major fully staged opera from its usual March date to a May slot, where it drew a much smaller audience than usual.

We who attended this artistic triumph of Charles Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet" regretted that a larger audience could not enjoy one of the most memorable productions in Annapolis Opera history. Our disappointment turned into a major financial loss for the company in projected ticket revenue.

But, because of its leadership, it appears that Annapolis Opera will not only endure but could thrive during its 40th season. In recent years, the company has been sustained by such volunteer leaders as Leah Solat, who served as president during Annapolis Opera's most successful season in 2007-2008, when both "Carmen" performances sold out, and returned as president during a more difficult period from 2009 through June of this year.

In order to go forward with the Verdi anniversary season and still be able to break even, the board temporarily returned to all-volunteer management, with Lee Finney taking over as president July 1.

A former chief negotiator in labor contract negotiations for public employers in the San Francisco Bay area, Finney retired in 2005 and moved to Annapolis, where she began volunteering. Having served on the Annapolis Opera board for three years, Finney seems well-equipped to handle this demanding post. Acknowledging that she feels she is "working without a net," Finney says that "preserving Annapolis Opera is well worth doing by making a push to restore it to a sustainable footing at a level where we can present two operas every season and be here for the next 40 years."

The future looks bright for Finney with the support of volunteers like Kathleen Booth, who chairs the marketing and public relations committee and will work to increase Annapolis Opera's visibility, and former Naval Academy music department chairman Barry Talley, who now chairs the company's artistic committee, where he will do more educational outreach to various communities.

The Oct. 27 performance of "Aida" is already creating considerable excitement among Verdi fans. I had my own fire lighted hearing the soprano to sing Aida, Adrienne Danrich, deliver a magnificent "We Shall Behold Him" on YouTube. It is clear that "Aida" is not to be missed.

Annapolis Opera's season also includes a Children's Opera performance of "Little Red Riding Hood" on Feb. 2, the Vocal Competition on April 27-28, and the productions of "Rigoletto" on March 15 and 17.

Subscriptions to "Aida" and "Rigoletto" are $110 (Section B) or $135 (Section A) and can be ordered online at Information: 410-267-8135.

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