Last week I stopped by a noon rehearsal at the black box theater at Charlottesville High School, where the city has allowed Ash Lawn Opera to rehearse before its festival begins this month. The cast of The Barber of Seville, which opens at The Paramount Theater on July 15, wandered through the hallway, past dusty trophies and a fearsome, handpainted Black Knight (the school’s mascot). The show’s director took the stage and started whipping instructions around. A piano tinkled in, and a fight scene began to unfold; puff-chested soldiers singing “eEeEeEeEe” grappled, swinging the kind of bludgeons favored by Bamm-Bamm Rubble.
Ash Lawn Opera General Director Michelle Krisel says, “I think we’re the best combination of community spirit feel, but a very professional company.” The Barber of Seville opens at the Paramount on July 15.
It was a scrappy setting for what happened next, as the scene coalesced into stylized layers of action worthy of a Bruegel painting. As with this scene, even three years after moving its performances from Ash Lawn-Highland to the Paramount, Ash Lawn Opera is looking to transcend questions of location and retain its former audience. All this, while staging a form of performance—as easily parodied as it is divine—that registers as stodgy to the young audience it needs to court.
If you sensed a little bit of braggadocio in the marketing campaign of this year’s Ash Lawn Opera—“You can go to the Metropolitan Opera…to see our artists perform, or you can see them at The Paramount Theater”—thank necessity, but also thank Ash Lawn Opera’s new director Michelle Krisel. “I don’t think Charlottesville has ever seen the level of singing that is here right now,” says Krisel later in her office, where a team of young interns dutifully plugged away on laptop keyboards. “That’s not to criticize the past, but I think it will be a wonderful and huge surprise.”
Krisel’s ambitions for the festival are to make it even more professional. “My goals are to both win back the people that loved Ash Lawn-Highland for its setting and stopped coming when we moved to the Paramount, and to win the respect of the serious opera-goers who go to the Met HD performances at the Paramount,” she says.
The company maintains a homespun, community-oriented vibe. When not rehearsing at the school, performers stay in homes of friends of the festival. After school hours, some rehearsals move to the professional studio in Krisel’s basement. For an operation that brings talent otherwise booked at La Scala and The Metropolitan Opera, I asked Krisel whether Ash Lawn Opera is scrappier than others in the opera world. “It’s not scrappy,” says Krisel, “Just smart.”
Krisel was previously the special assistant to Placido Domingo (with Pavarotti and Carreras, one of the famous Three Tenors), through whom she founded a program for young artists. In the opera world, young performers rarely have the chance to perform their roles before an audience. “Ash Lawn was a place where young, unknown singers could get a first chance to perform,” says Krisel. It remains today “a stepping stone for young singers.”
Having been hired last year, this is Krisel’s first year with total control of the festival. Much remains the same: there are lectures, two performances, one of which is a musical. And the peacock feather on the festival’s insignia serves as a reminder of when arias would spontaneously become duets with the wandering birds at James Monroe’s nearby estate. But much is new, including “flash performances” at the new Whole Foods on Hydraulic Road.
There are two marquee events this year. The first is the production of The Barber of Seville, the 1816 opera that vaulted its composer, Gioachino Rossini, to worldwide celebrity. Its score remains instantly recognizable—think Figaro (you know the character) and Bugs Bunny, who sabotaged a production of Rossini’s original in “The Rabbit of Seville.”
The second production, which opens at the Paramount July 30, is The King and I, the musical. “I came in secretly hoping two operas, because I’m an opera person,” says Krisel. But she says that last year, “I watched the audience, and it was almost double the attendance to the musical, as to the opera. That’s something you don’t turn your back on.”
To make the performance more operatic, singers will perform the work without amplification. (Opera singers are trained to use their throats and heads as resonators, like the body of a violin, amplifying the sound of the vocal chords.) The King and I has the added advantage of featuring a large cast of young children, whose parents—the 30- and 40-something set—are the core of opera’s missing demographic.
“I wanted to have a lot of kids [in the show],” says Krisel. “Because that’s how I’m going to meet their parents.”