In Anne Arundel County, the number of opera devotees has grown over the past four years. That may be largely a result of Mary Ann Cashman's opera appreciation courses at senior centers in Arnold and Annapolis, and her classes sponsored by Annapolis Opera.
Beginning Feb. 7, on Monday afternoons for 10 weeks, Cashman will teach a World of Opera class on the Arnold campus of Anne Arundel Community College. Adding this course will bring the number of opera students well above 100.
Cashman has increased opera appreciation among students ranging from lifelong opera lovers to novices who had never heard a complete opera. In Cashman, students find a gregarious, exuberant instructor who encourages them to enjoy the art form.
Having grown steadily since 2001, the now 30-member Arnold class has a waiting list, and some students (including myself) who have been there since the beginning say they are addicted.
Former opera neophytes have returned each session, drawn by Cashman's enthusiasm and expertise and to view video productions from unique perspectives.
Although Cashman has taught college classes in voice and acting and is the founder of a professional opera company, she began teaching opera appreciation classes only after being recruited by then-Annapolis Opera President Anna Marie Darlington-Gilmour.
Cashman began offering preperformance lectures on Annapolis Opera productions and later added a series on composers Puccini, Verdi and Mozart. She said she found inspiration in spreading the word about the art form to audiences of varied degrees of knowledge.
"This came about in February 2000 through Anna Marie, and now it seems that my entire life I've been preparing for these courses," she said. "I'm now teaching five opera appreciation classes - three on Monday, starting with the one at Arnold Senior Center, then a new one on AACC's Arnold campus that will cover whatever class interest dictates and a third one for Annapolis Opera."
Opera on video, she said, "enables us to comment on staging, or to stop and play other artists' interpretations of arias for comparison, as the situation presents. ... Even when a video may be dated as to costumes and hairdos - as in Grace Bumbry's Carmen - the piece still has charm, and some early videos are wonderful, as those recorded at Wolf Trap [in Virginia] with Beverly Sills."
Cashman has access to such an extensive video library that she can devote eight-week sessions to Russian composers Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and include works by Czech composer Leos Janacek.
In a recently completed session at Arnold, Cashman offered Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle in two-hour segments, covering Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung - a daunting undertaking that proved rewarding.
Cashman also offers optional live opera performances, such as trips in the spring to free dress rehearsals of Washington Summer Opera at the Catholic University of America. Past trips include one to New York's Metropolitan Opera to hear Placido Domingo in Sly and another to the Kennedy Center for Kiri Te Kanawa's farewell performance in the Washington Opera's Vanessa. On Jan. 23, 20 students will attend Kirov Opera's Boris Godunov at the Kennedy Center to start off the next session of opera classes.
Esther Cohen, who attends the classes with her husband, Don, expressed her reasons for attending opera classes and her appreciation for Cashman.
"She shares her immense knowledge of opera, supplying meticulous attention to costumes, lighting and details that I'd be completely unaware of," Cohen said. "She provides excitement into a part of the opera world where I consider myself an amateur."