New GSO Opera not just for kids

by Amy Kingsley

The Sandman is wearing a yellow henley. She’s stretched out in a corner of the rehearsal space, a trade paperback opened in front of her.

Her real name is Shana DiCamillo, and she is one seventh of the all-local cast of Greensboro Opera Company’s production of Hansel and Gretel. The production is the third in this, their 25th anniversary season, and it is a special one for a couple of reasons according to managing director David Barnwell.

The first is that it is pitched to children and families, no small feat for an opera, an art form with a reputation for exclusivity. For its silver anniversary the Greensboro Opera Company compiled a season with something to offer everyone. It’s about audience development, Barnwell says, and you can’t get much more forward thinking in that regard than targeting those several decades younger than your average Greensboro opera-goer.

In order to appeal to children, the Greensboro Opera Company has tweaked some of the art form’s dramatic convention to appeal to the Wiggles set. Opera, usually removed by distance, pomp and presentation, is being remade on a more human – make that tiny human – scale.

The remaking starts in a small room off Elm Street where members of the cast, the director, the conductor, a pianist and seven young ballerinas have gathered to rehearse. The evening starts with an intensive music practice, led by Evan Rogister, a conductor on loan from the Houston Grand Opera. He’s working with Elena DeAngelis, who is playing Gretel, on some of the trickier key and tempo changes.

Barnwell says Rogister is key to producing this new kind of opera here in Greensboro.

The company is making do with a limited number of props tonight: Two of everything – pitchers, buckets and jugs – sit on a side table; across the room a pair of lollipops sits atop burlap and greenery in a wicker basket.

At a little before 7:30, a small herd of ballerinas enters followed by their lanky ballet master Brad Parquette. The girls have had an hour to learn several minutes’ worth of choreography that ushers the actors from the opening scene to the second. The sequence involves a muslin canopy, wooden poles and rope that will eventually be replaced by elastic.

“Can we start taking this seriously?” Parquette comments on one of his charge’s efforts.

The girls are moving unsteadily through their marks, coached throughout by Parquette. First they line up behind DiCamillo and work the fabric into angel wings; once they’ve ushered her offstage, they use the implements to move through a number of children’s games until they end up in an oversized rendition of a cat’s cradle. The scene resolves around the two principals, who will be left in spotlights while the dancers – angels – fade into black.

Except for Rogister, all of the talent in Hansel and Gretel is local. The dancers, musicians, even the singers hail from the Triad. To stage manager Mary Tesh, who is usually a musical theater fan, it’s been a bit of a revelation.

“Whether you like opera or not,” Tesh says, “you’ve got to be blown away by the voices.”

In this production DeAngelis is working her voice acrobatically over the range of its timbre and dynamics. Her counterpart Hansel, who is played by Cheryse McLeod Lewis, delivers her lines in a lower, more powerful pitch. Both have voices that would be welcome on the world’s most renowned opera stages.

But instead of singing in Italy or New York, they are here in Greensboro. Barnwell puts it succinctly.

“Any of the seven people involved in this production,” he says, “you could run into them at the grocery store.”

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