Opera Noire returns to Union Chapel for one night


Last summer Opera Noire, an African-American opera company from New York City, performed two enthusiastically received shows at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.

Says artistic director Ken Overton, “As soon as the concert was over people were asking if we were going to come back next year. The energy of the people is something we love to feed off of and it was really something last year. We’ve been getting emails from people who were there ever since.”

M.J. Bruder Munafo, the artistic director of The Vineyard Playhouse, the sponsoring organization of the shows, was also swamped with requests to bring the professional company back. And so, Opera Noire will return August 25 for one show only, a performance featuring both classic opera and Negro spirituals.

The seven Opera Noire members who will travel to the Vineyard for the show are all professional singers — sopranos, tenors and baritones — who have performed in opera houses all over the world. Mr. Overton and Opera Noire general director and co-founder, Robert Mack, who are two of the seven, are very accomplished veteran opera singers who, among other things, have performed with the New York City Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera House.

For last year’s Vineyard visit, the program was divided into two nights — one dedicated to opera, one to spirituals. This time around a first half focusing on standard operatic repertoire will be followed by a concert-closing performance of popular spirituals.

Mr. Overton says that last summer’s performance inspired him to add more staging to the performance this time around. “Last year was more in concert form,” Mr. Mack says. “This year we’re going to use more staging. We’ll use the floor, the entrances, the balcony. The whole place will be the stage.” Mr. Overton adds, “The acoustics in that church are just stunning.” Another addition will be the inclusion of translations to the program.

The opera half of the performance will feature works by Verdi, Puccini, Donezetti, and Mozart, among others. Mr. Mack notes that there will be a mix of arias, duets, trios, quartets, and quintets. “A program of just arias and solos is very boring,” he says. “We like to see people interacting. It allows for more drama, more acting, more scenery.”

The program will be new to Vineyard audiences. “I wanted to do selections completely different from last years’,” Mr. Overton says. “These were specifically chosen for the people who will perform — what these singers do best.”

Some of the highlights will be selections from “Don Pasquale,” “Don Giovanni,” “Don Carlo,” and “The Magic Flute.” The program will also include some music from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” Says Mr. Mack, “We didn’t do too much Verdi repertoire last year. It really calls for more dramatic singing and performance.”

One of the pieces that Mr. Overton is most excited about is a sextet from the second act of “Don Giovanni.” “It’s six different characters talking about different things all at the same time,” he says. “It’s Mozart at his best.”

The second half of tonight’s program will feature such spiritual standards as “This Little Light of Mine,” “Oh! What a Beautiful City,” and “Fiyer, Fiyer” among many others. Mr. Overton notes that he has been singing spirituals since his days attending church as a child.

“As I started to become a classically trained singer I was always told about the importance of keeping them [spirituals] alive,” Mr. Overton says. “No matter where you are in the world, people react to spirituals in such an exciting, passionate way. It crosses language barriers, economic lines, ethnicity. It just goes right to the heart. The people created the music to get through some of the hardest parts of their lives.” He adds, “It’s something Opera Noire does and something I do in my personal career.”

Opera Noire of New York, 7 pm, Thursday, Aug. 25, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. Presented by The Vineyard Playhouse’s African-American Festival of Theater & Music. $35; $50 reserved seating. 508-696-6300; vineyardplayhouse.org.