Opera comes to Alpena

Event: A Spring Serenade, hosted by Thunder Bay Arts Council
Date: Friday, May 6, 2016

Opera and Alpena go way back. Way back. As in 1879 when George L. Maltz opened the Maltz Opera House on Second Avenue (where the current State Theater is located).

This past weekend, Thunder Bay Arts Council brought opera back to Alpena, bringing in the Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT) for a day of workshops with the junior high and high school choirs and a concert that evening. Michigan Opera Theatre, Michigan’s premiere professional opera company, is housed at the Detroit Opera House and in addition to productions from traditional opera repertoire, they also feature operetta, musical theater, and ballet productions and do a variety of education and outreach programming, ranging from vocal workshops in Michigan schools to Opera Clubs at nursing homes and smaller venues.

Similarly, the concert on Friday night featured not only some of opera history’s most beloved arias (“Habanera” from Carmen, “Flower Duet” from Lakme, and of course “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, to name a few), but also selections from modern musical theater, such as Man of La Mancha’s “Impossible Dream” and Carousel’s “If I Loved You.” In between selections, Associate Director for Community Programs and Tour Manager Mark Vondrak provided an introduction to each piece, remarking on the composer’s life, history of the opera, and the story behind each piece.

Associate Director for Community Programs and Tour Manager, Mark Vondrak
Fiiiiigaro Figaro Figaro. Baritone Jeff Byrnes. 
Soprano Mary Martin sings “Olympia’s Aria” from Tales of Hoffman.

Standing on an empty stage with no set, being accompanied only by piano and no orchestra, wearing normal clothes and out of costume, hearing these arias— some of the most famous, most loved, and most performed arias in opera— in a stripped-down context allowed the audience to truly hear them. Even a song like Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” which floats around in the consciousness of opera-going and non-opera-going minds alike, was performed in a way that erased the memory of how the song “should normally” sound like. The listener was able to focus only on the singer— and their ability to convey a story, even as they sung in Italian, in French, and their ability to convey the emotion of that moment. In a genre that is so often seen as elite, over-dramatic, and over-the-top, the simplicity of the evening’s performances and talent of the singers made opera human, and pairing opera pieces right next to more contemporary pieces of American musical theater provided the opportunity to reflect on the continuity between the genres: and how the “American” genre of musical theatre is maybe not so different after all from opera.

When I spoke with Andrea Scobie, who organizes and manages Education and Community Programs for the MOT, she said the goal of doing educational programming like this, especially in communities that otherwise would not have access to live opera performances, is to break down the stigma that often surrounds it and to allow the students to realize that opera is not an untouchable, elitist genre but rather that “opera is for them.” The arts, as Scobie stressed, “are enriching and remind us why we live and love.” The opportunity for Alpena students to perform and to sing with professional singers, the best in Michigan, is something that rarely happens. During the concert, Vondrak gave Alpena choirs and their  Jean Baker high compliments, saying she has taught her students “how to sing correctly, and how to sing well.” High compliments coming from a group that works with choir students all over Michigan.

MOT company members sing with Alpena High Concert Choir and Women’s Chorale.

Throughout the evening, as I heard these talented singers perform, both the MOT singers and Alpena choir students, I could only think that Morgan Freeman’s character in Shawshank Redemption said it best: “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about.Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.”


Thunder Bay Arts Council & Gallery is located at 127 West Chisholm in Downtown Alpena and operates on the premise that the arts, and promotion of the arts, make a lasting difference in a community. For more information on the gallery and upcoming events, please visit www.thunderbayarts.org or call 989-356-6678.

For more information on the Michigan Opera Theatre, please visit www.michiganopera.org

Blog Downtown Alpena is created and written by Anne Gentry in conjunction with the Alpena Downtown Development Authority. Have an idea for a potential story or want to see your event covered? E-mail anne_gentry@alumni.brown.edu.

3 thoughts on “Opera comes to Alpena

  1. Imagine that – Opera in Alpena. It took me back to 1968 when MOT performed at the opening of the Stanley Beck Theatre and I was first introduced to opera – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. I’ve not been the same since. Anne, that explains why I forced you and your brother to listen to “Live from the Met” with Tony Randall on our Saturday errands ending with coffee and slurpees at 7-eleven. Perhaps, some students live will have been similarly touched last week. One can only hope!


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