Charlottesville Opera builds community, closes season with ‘Oklahoma!’

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Mary Birnbaum directs Charlottesville Opera’s summer season-closer of Oklahoma!, which plays July 29 and 30, and August 2, 4 and 5 at the Paramount Theater.
Photo courtesy of Martyn Kyle. Mary Birnbaum directs Charlottesville Opera’s summer season-closer of Oklahoma!, which plays July 29 and 30, and August 2, 4 and 5 at the Paramount Theater. Photo courtesy of Martyn Kyle.

What do cowboys, farmers and love triangles have in common with the United States of today? To Michelle Krisel, artistic director of Charlottesville Opera, the answer is a lot. That’s much of the reason why Krisel and Charlottesville Opera (formerly Ash Lawn Opera), chose Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! to close the company’s 40th summer season.


Oklahoma!

The Paramount Theater

Through August 5


“This piece is so important at this time for our country to come together,” says Krisel. “This is about farmers and the cowboys coming together to build a community,” noting that the musical takes place in the years before Oklahoma became an official state in 1907. “This is not ancient history. The issues that they were struggling with—coming up with their identity as a state, respecting the individual but building the community—is what makes America great.”

To open the opera’s 40th anniversary season, the company presented Middlemarch in Spring in collaboration with the Virginia Festival of the Book. It was the company’s first premiere in 35 years. Earlier this month, the Charlottesville Opera performed Rigoletto on the Paramount mainstage and at Virginia Tech’s Anne and Ellen Fife Theater. During Oklahoma! professional soloists and students from the Charlottesville Ballet will join actors and actresses. Together, these artists bring to life Oklahoma! main character Laurey’s opiate-induced dream ballet.

Krisel says creating these artistic partnerships built the foundation for the opera’s anniversary season. During her tenure as general director and artistic director, Krisel focused on collaborating with entities such as the Festival of the Book, Virginia universities and colleges and their students, and like-minded arts groups like the Oratorio Society of Virginia, the Wilson School of Dance and the Virginia Consort.

It’s a memorable season for Krisel, as she recently announced her retirement. She’s stepping down after nearly a decade growing the Charlottesville Opera, and prior to that she built a number of international education and community programs from the ground up at the Washington National Opera. Krisel says she’s excited about the season’s new artistic endeavors.

“If you scratch the surface of an opera singer, how did we fall in love with opera? We sang in our high school or high school musical. What is our national vernacular? It’s the American musical.” Michelle Krisel

“I conceived of the three pieces in our anniversary season as a way to make new friends through community-building, and each in a different way,” Krisel says. “I picked the repertoire by what I think the public will like, what we can do well and what we can afford to do but, more importantly, what can that piece do for us?”

Another of the opera’s relatively new partnerships is with Mary Birnbaum, a theater and opera director who directed La Traviata last year and returned this year to direct Oklahoma!.

Like many theater kids, Birnbaum says, she remembers casting her sister in shows she produced as a child in her family’s living room. She graduated from Harvard and L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris—a prestigious movement and mime school whose tradition stems from Italian commedia dell’arte. She now lives in New York, co-writes and directs productions around the world and teaches acting at Juilliard.

“It’s about the art you make, whether it’s inclusive and involves the community. That’s the way the arts will continue to flourish and have meaning in people’s lives.” Mary Birnbaum

Birnbaum “begged” Krisel to let her direct Oklahoma!, citing the timeliness of the musical’s story, the strength of Krisel’s artistic leadership and the cast’s “brilliant” talent.

“If you scratch the surface of an opera singer, how did we fall in love with opera?” Krisel says of finding the musical’s talented cast and crew. “We sang in our high school or high school musical. What is our national vernacular? It’s the American musical.”

“I don’t get to do musicals a lot, and had a sense that I needed to work on a musical this summer,” Birnbaum says. “Musicals are American opera, and [Oklahoma!] features our greatest composer and librettist.”

To materialize Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first collaboration as an artistic duo, Birnbaum kept the set sparse. As an audience member, Birnbaum says she never finds theatrical representations of the outdoors realistic, and wants her pared-down set to emanate feelings of unity, transformation and community engagement.

Birnbaum and her cast play around a lot to understand the dynamics of characters and how they “fought tooth and nail to get everything they have.” They explore feelings of deep political unrest, the shifting grounds that ensue from a disrupted status quo and discuss what it means to be American.

“In a time where you can have a hit like Hamilton, musical storytelling clearly isn’t dead,” Birnbaum says. “It’s about the art you make, whether it’s inclusive and involves the community. That’s the way the arts will continue to flourish and have meaning in people’s lives.”

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