Wichita Grand Opera

As its 10th anniversary approaches, Wichita Grand Opera proves that resourcefulness and creativity are just as important as dollars to succeed.

By Bob Curtright, Photos by Mark Kiryluk

There was no shortage of skeptics in 2000 when Parvan Bakardiev and his wife, Margaret Ann Pent, landed in Wichita with the intention of bringing opera to the Air Capital.

Wichita had been born as a bustling frontier cowtown and blossomed into a blue-collar paradise of aircraft companies to become the largest city in the state. But Kansas was still stubbornly one of only two states along with South Dakota that didn't have it's own resident opera company.

But Pent, as founder and artistic director, and Bakardiev, as president and CEO, intended to change all that by launching Wichita Grand Opera.

We saw it as a challenge, says the Bulgarian-born Bakardiev, who began his career in 1970 as a singer with the Vienna Opera. He then moved into management five years later, first in Italy, then at other stops in Europe before coming to the US in 1978.

He and Pent figured that if Wichita could see and hear grand opera on a regular basis, the interest would be sparked sort of the Field of Dreams philosophy of If you build it, they will come.

And as the 10th anniversary of the company's incorporation approaches officially Nov. 15 to be followed in January by a new season of seven programs plus a first-ever tour to three other Kansas cities, it seems to have worked.

In its first 10 years, WGO has produced 40 full-fledged operas headed by international stars like Annalisa Raspagliosi, Marcello Giordani and Veronica Villarroel, as well as Kansas-born-and-trained Samuel Ramey and Joyce DiDonato, who have internationally acclaimed careers.

WGO has also hosted six international ballet companies and ethnic dance troupes from Russia, Spain and Ukraine as a complement to opera. This follows, as Bakardiev notes, traditions established by opera companies in London, Vienna and Paris. It just makes sense, he says, because many operas use ballet as part of the performance.

WGO has presented eight concert galas, including coup appearances by superstars Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, plus eight Opera Balls.

And each year, WGO offers a free, informal, open-air Opera on the Lake production at Bradley Fair as community outreach to bring opera to people who never thought they'd like opera.

Best of all, says Bakardiev, WGO did it all while operating consistently in the black even on a modest $1 million annual budget.

We rely on our ingenuity and our creativity rather than just dollars, says Pent, also a former opera star and winner of the Vienna Mozart Opera Competition. We do six or seven productions a season while others, like Tulsa, do three with a $6 million budget. We have very resourceful and dedicated people.

In tough financial times when many arts groups are scaling back or even shutting their doors, WGO is expanding to add a first-ever Kansas tour for performances in restored historical theaters in three cities: Salina, Hutchinson and McPherson.

We've had invitations before, even from out of state, Bakardiev says. I'm a firm believer in exporting our product. That's the name of the game for growth.

The new season opens in January with back-to-back Italian blockbusters, Madama Butterfly and Lucia di Lammermoor, followed by delicious operetta confection The Merry Widow in February and the comic romp Daughter of the Regiment in April. The Crown of Russian Ballet troupe will present the world's most enduring love story, Romeo & Juliet in February.

Then in March comes the 10th anniversary gala that showcases under the appropriate theme of There's No Place Like Home Kansas-born- and-trained Samuel Ramey, Joyce DiDonato and Alan Held, who have gone on to internationally acclaimed careers. Rounding out the season is Opera on the Lake in May.

Season tickets come in three packages 6, 5 or 4 productions and in three price ranges in each package. Prices for all six shows are $408 (best), $279 (better) and $168 (good) for a savings of 20 percent over buying single tickets. Prices for any five are $353 (best), $241 (better) and $145 (good) for a savings of 17 percent. Prices for any four are $292 (best), $200 (better) and $120 (good) for a savings of 14 percent.

Tickets are available through the WGO box office at 316-262-8054 or online at www. selectaseat.com.

Here's a closer look at the schedule. Performances are at 7 p.m. (unless noted) and in either Century II Concert Hall (CII) or Mary Jane Teall Theater (MJT).

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini (Jan. 8, CII). Korean lyric soprano Yunah Lee, who has been acclaimed for her handsomely colored, full lyric sound and her picture perfect acting in what has become her signature role, stars as the tragic Japanese courtesan, Cio-Cio-San, who falls in love with an America sailor. Rising Russian tenor Alexey Sayapin, first place winner in the Luciano Pavarotti International Tenor Competition in Moscow, stars opposite her as her faithless husband, Lt. Pinkerton. Puccini's 1904 masterpiece is at the top of the 20 most-performed operas and its arias, notably Un Bel Di, are known even to non-opera fans.

Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti (Jan. 14 & 16, MJT). Considered one of the best showcases for coloratura sopranos, Donizetti's tragedy about clan feuds, betrayal, murder and madness stars Russian diva Olga Orlovskaya, an international award winner and great-granddaughter of one of the most famous Russian opera singers of the 20th century, Fedor Shalyapin. The 1835 opera, ranked No. 13 on the most-performed list after being made famous by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, is known for perhaps opera's most famous mad scene. This is a co-production with Baltimore Opera Theatre.

The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar (Feb. 12 & 13, CII). Kallen Esperian, known as a premiere Verdi soprano since winning the Luciano Pavarotti Voice Competition in her 20s and performing opposite all three of The Three Tenors, stars in this witty, light-hearted 1905 caper about a young diplomat who must bailout his bankrupt country by marrying a wealthy heiress. Esperian previously won Wichita's hearts in La Boheme opposite Marcello Giordani and in Faust opposite Samuel Ramey.

Romeo & Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev (March 13, MJT). Premiered in 1938 but now known for its 1940 revised version, the ballet based on Shakespeare's famous star-crossed lovers features lush, evocative music by the 20th century composer that was once considered so innovative as to be undanceable. But it has endured to become one of the most popular ballets. The Crown of Russian Ballet troupe was founded in 1997 specifically to update choreography for contemporary demands.

10th Anniversary Gala: There's No Place Like Home (6 p.m. March 26, CII). Headlining this once-in-a-lifetime celebration are the Kansas Big Three of the Metropolitan Opera. After three decades, legendary bass Samuel Ramey, a native of Colby, has become the most-recorded bass in history and won three Grammy Awards, among many others. He has an unequaled record for portraying malevolent figures, from Faust to Mefistofele. Prairie Village native Joyce DiDonato is one of the reigning Met divas praised for her combination of supreme musicality and fearless interpretive resources. She was honored by both the Santa Fe Opera and Houston Grand Opera young artists programs, and has become acclaimed for her interpretations of Handel, Mozart and Rossini. Wagnerian baritone-bass Alan Held is recognized as one of today's leading singer/actors. He has made numerous appearances with the Met as well as all around the world.

Daughter of the Regiment by Gaetano Donizetti (April 29 & May 1, MJT). Donizetti's 1840 comic romp about a spunky tomboy trying to fit in with the French aristocracy stars Lindsay Ohse in the title role following her triumphant debut with the Santa Fe and Sarasota Operas as the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. Opposite her is Slovak-Hungarian tenor Otokar Klein, who wowed Wichita last season in The Elixir of Love. This opera is known for its Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fete aria, considered the Mount Everest for tenors with nine high Cs.

Opera on the Lake: Operatic Spectacular (May 21, Bradley Fair). WGO resident artistic forces will gather under the stars for music made famous by the Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli and Il Divo.

WGO Kansas Tour May 5 in Salina Stiefel Theatre: full production of Daughter of the Regiment with guest stars Lindsay Ohse and Otokar Klein. May 6 in Hutchinson Fox Theatre and May 27 at McPherson Opera House: highlights from Daughter of the Regiment combined with operatic pops program.

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