One High Note After Another
Opera at Florham Nears Two Decades of Acclaim
The list reads like a compilation of some of the greatest operas ever written: Carmen, La Traviata, Aida, Il Trovatore and La Boheme. Throw in a prestigious vocal competition, a renowned cabaret series and popular educational programs and you have one of the most dynamic and versatile professional opera companies in the region. And the action all takes place at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
For 18 years, Opera at Florham has been providing stellar operatic and other musical performances. The company was founded in 1982 under the direction of then-chair of the fine arts department Charles Del Rosso (now retired) when it staged Puccinis Tosca during the 25th anniversary celebration of the Florham-Madison Campus. It began as a component of the fine arts department on the Florham-Madison Campus and later became a separate nonprofit entity in residence at FDU.
The University provides office and performance space (Dreyfuss Theater for full productions and Lenfell Hall in the Mansion for smaller events), as well as various support services; in return FDU gains access to unique cultural opportunities as well as added exposure from its association with a professional opera company.
Ursula Sommer, director of media services on the Florham-Madison Campus, is one of several FDU community members active with the company. A volunteer since the beginning, former interim administrator and current Opera at Florham board secretary, she says both FDU and the company benefit from their partnership. The company is fortunate because space is very expensive in this area, and the University is able to expose students and the community to an important art form that combines music, drama and dance.
Benefactor Violetta DuPont, who was formerly board chair and is now chair emerita, says, Were very fortunate to be at FDU. The facilities and the grounds are magnificent, and we hope we are an asset because of the range and quality of our work.
The latter point is not in dispute. Critics have been singing the companys praises since its inception. One wrote, This confirms that the residents of the Garden State do not have to go to Manhattan to listen to good music or see an impeccable operatic presentation.
Artistic Director David Reeves says, Our reputation remains strong in the professional community, as evidenced by the many agents who send their talent to us and the major artists who are eager to work with us. Also, our advisory board is made up of people from the industry, and the professional reviewing press has consistently given us positive reviews. Opera at Florham has worked to build a reputation of artistic excellence and professionalism in our industry, and we have been successful.
Since the beginning, Opera at Florham has had a twofold mission: to provide performance opportunities for rising young opera singers and to educate the general public, particularly young people, about opera. Overall, the company has produced 28 mainstage operas, ranging from the traditional favorites like Carmen and La Boheme to more innovative, rarely produced pieces.
The casts and choruses include some of the top names in the business, but are largely made up of rising artists from the metropolitan area, who benefit from working with experienced conductors, stage directors and singers, the caliber of which has been rising steadily.
The range of offerings also has increased. In addition to producing two operas per year (most seasons), in 1985, the company introduced cabaret concerts, which are administered by the Opera at Florham Guild, the educational and fund-raising arm of the company. Then, in 1987, the company launched the Violetta DuPont Vocal Competition to expand the opportunities for young singers.
Reeves, who started as a rehearsal pianist with the program 14 years ago, has been the artistic director for five years. Also chairman of the Opera Department at Rutgers University, Reeves performs regularly as an opera accompanist and is the music director for DiCapo Operas Young Artists Program. Were lucky to have David Reeves, DuPont says. He provides insightful commentary during the events, and theres almost nothing he doesnt know about opera.
Through his contacts in the music industry and through regular auditions, Reeves has helped garner a stimulating mix of experienced and young talent. For example, last year, the performance of La Rondine by Puccini featured Faith Esham, a leading soprano at New York Citys opera houses. Its very exciting to bring people like her together with upcoming stars, says Reeves.
Many of the Opera at Florham alumni have risen to the top of their field. Just one person cited by Reeves is Ainhoa Arteta, who sang at FDU in Las Golondrinas a decade ago and now is singing at the Metropolitan Opera House. Were hoping that some of our current performers will be singing throughout the world 10 years from now. Others who went on to enjoy successful careers include Michael Sylvester, Andrea Gruber and Young Ok-Shin.
While the fully staged operas receive a great deal of attention, the cabaret series has been equally successful. Artists in the early stages of their careers are engaged to sing arias and other musical works in Lenfell Hall. Two to four singers perform at each cabaret, and the season has grown from two events to six. Two recent programs celebrated the work of Verdi and music from Broadway.
Opera at Florhams commitment to the rising artist is seen most clearly in the Violetta DuPont Vocal Competition. Launched by DuPont herself an award-winning soprano as a young woman the competition now includes hundreds of entrants from around the country. Finalists compete on the campus for cash prizes and an engagement the following season. Many winners and finalists have gone on to perform at major opera houses around the world.
With such talented performers on stage, the success of Opera at Florham is no surprise, but Reeves also credits the stars behind the scenes, those who have put in countless hours setting the stage, including FDU students and faculty. FDUs Professor of Theater Richard Turick is Opera at Florhams technical director and has been production designer and production manager since 1997. Richard has been extremely valuable, as have many members of the University, says Reeves. Students have worked on the technical crew, helping to build sets and run lighting, and working as ushers and stagehands, etc. They really contribute greatly to our productions, and its a terrific experience for them.
The FDU contributions run all the way to the top. Currently serving as the chair of the companys board is FDU President Emeritus Frank Mertz, while his wife, Gail, current FDU President J. Michael Adams (an honorary member) and his wife, Susan, also are on the board. In addition, Richard Kopp, FDU languages professor and director of the University Honors Program at Florham-Madison, is president of the Opera at Florham Guild, a position previously held by Priscilla Dunn, office supervisor in student life.
Reeves adds that some faculty, like music professor Amy Rubin, have taken advantage of the open dress rehearsals and brought their classes. Its really important for students to know theres another art form they havent explored, Reeves says.
Serving the Community
Opera at Florham has long been recognized for responding to its audiences needs. For example, it is one of the few regional companies to use supertitles at mainstage opera performances. Since 1993, the audience has been able to follow the dialogue in English. Before that, Opera at Florham was well known for its innovative living libretto, a one-act drama in English summarizing the opera plot and performed right before the opera.
Even more significantly, Opera at Florham is heralded for reaching audiences who otherwise would not have access to professional opera performances. During the last three years, with the support of the Arts Council of the Morris Area, Opera at Florham has produced programs to introduce children of the area to this art form. We produce a fully staged childrens version of a classic opera to which grammar school and middle school students are invited as guests, says Reeves. We also invite high schools from surrounding counties to bring students to the final dress rehearsal of the mainstage operas.
And, reaching into the local communities, Opera at Florham participates in Morristowns First Night New Years Eve celebration and performs for local organizations. The company also brings its programs to retirement communities.
A Full House
Opera at Florhams recent accomplishments bode very well for the future growth of the program. Reeves singles out several recent sensations including Wagner Day, held in 1998, in which an entire days events focused on the work of the late 19th-century composer Richard Wagner. The program featured renowned performers like basso Jerome Hines and soprano Lucine Amara, as well as The New York Times writer Matthew Gurewitsch. To get all these people under one roof was really amazing.
He also points to the production of Lucia di Lammermoor in the spring of 1998, which marked a dramatic rise in our production values that continued with the fall 1998 version of The Magic Flute, the spring 1999 production of La Rondine and this years performance of Johann Strauss Die Fledermaus.
Perhaps just as important as the quality of the performances is the continued loyalty of the audiences. We have many subscribers who return year after year, says DuPont. We turn away potential ticket buyers at many performances because they are sold out, and our cabaret evenings are often filled to overflowing. Clearly, we are meeting a need in our area.
DuPont is looking for Opera at Florham and the arts in general to a play an even more significant role at FDU and in the region. Reeves, too, sees the company expanding its reach, especially among young people. We are looking not only to increase the frequency of our childrens performances, but also to hire an education director to work with the area school districts in order to have a systematic effect on the arts curriculum by incorporating the study of opera and classical music.
As DuPont says, such programs will enable FDU to do more for the arts and bring greater prominence to FDU in the arts world.