Opera for the masses on Martha’s Vineyard

Children have an opportunity to be involved with Opera Fest on Thursday, Aug. 2, at Featherstone. — Photo by Sally Cohn

“Good starter opera” is how Wendy Taucher describes her choice for the first Martha’s Vineyard production of the Wendy Tauhcer Dance Opera Theater.

Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (pronounced skee-kee), to be presented on three evenings this weekend, is a farce involving a dead patriarch, feuding heirs, an imposter, and a clash of the classes. “This opera is very, very, very funny,” says Ms. Taucher. The nature of the material, along with its short running time (about an hour) make it, according to Ms. Taucher, “perfect for the Vineyard in the summer.”

Ms. Taucher has been directing opera in New York and elsewhere for many years. For the Vineyard production, she has gathered together a host of accomplished opera singers from New York, including some from the African-American performing arts company Opera Noire of New York. Members of the Opera Noire company have twice performed on the Vineyard in programs featuring classic opera material.

Among the stars of Ms. Taucher’s production is Metropolitan Opera artist Janinah Burnette. The acclaimed soprano will sing “O mio babbino caro,” one of the most recognizable arias in all of opera. The bittersweet aria has been featured in a number of Hollywood films and covered by popular bands.

Also appearing in the Vineyard production are the two directors of Opera Noire, tenor Robert Mack and baritone Kenneth Overton. Mr. Mack will reprise a role that he has previously sung at Lincoln Center for the New York City Opera. He has appeared on the Vineyard in previous years both at The Yard and at The Vineyard Playhouse.

Mr. Overton, also a New York City Opera veteran, will take on the title role. There is a cast of 15 (plus a corpse) in the opera, which is a through-composed – all singing – work. Also appearing is Island jeweler, singer, and dancer Sioux Eagle as the corpse (a non-singing role).

The comic opera is presented in full costume with headware designed specifically for the production. “I got really obsessed with the actual head gear from 13th century Florence [the opera’s setting],” Ms. Taucher says. “It was really over the top. I went with that and made it even more outrageous.”

Musical accompaniment is provided by pianist Matthew Labaugh. Jennifer Peterson will conduct. Both are from New York City.

Ms. Taucher has previously presented opera here at The Yard in Chilmark, including a version of Mozart’s “The Impressario,” which she co-rewrote. “The Impressario” is also a comedic piece featuring star turns for a relatively large cast. The short opera will be presented at the Laurie Beechman Theater in New York next May. Ms. Taucher notes that she enjoys “big, physical comedy” but she also recently directed a dramatic opera, “Madama Butterfly,” in New York. “I like to roll up my sleeves and roll around in what’s there,” she says.

In “Gianni Schicchi,” the director/producer has a lot of action to work with and she comments that her cast are especially adept at acting as well as singing. “Because I’m a choreographer as well as director, I love doing this opera,” says Ms. Taucher, “It’s ripe for movement.”

The three performances will take place under a large tent, donated by Sandra Lippens of Tilton Tents, on the grounds of the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs. The opening night performance on Friday will be part of a gala celebration that will include dinner and an awards ceremony.

During a 6 pm cocktail hour, local patron of the arts Anne Gallagher will be honored with the first annual Inspiration Award presented by celebration chairman Olga Hirshhorn. According to Ms. Taucher, Ms. Gallagher is a collector of local art and someone who has long been very supportive of people working in all of the arts on Island. A sit-down dinner will follow the Friday night performance.

From 1 to 2 pm on Thursday afternoon, Ms. Taucher will host a free workshop for kids in first grade and up. Working with the professional cast of opera singers, participants will see a selection from “Gianni Schicchi” and take part in opera theatrics and comedy. Children must be accompanied by an adult. Ms. Taucher notes that the evening performances can be enjoyed by kids as young as eight. “The story is written to be so silly,” she says. “Once it starts, it just races through.”