In the wings: Ash Lawn Opera’s Madama Butterfly alights the Paramount stage

Executive director Kevin O’Halloran and hundreds of community members prepare for Ash Lawn Opera’s season opening with Madama Butterfly at the Paramount on Friday. Photo: Chris Pecoraro Executive director Kevin O’Halloran and hundreds of community members prepare for Ash Lawn Opera’s season opening with Madama Butterfly at the Paramount on Friday. Photo: Chris Pecoraro

Every summer, Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall floods with a subtle siege: opera singers, orchestra members and technical crew members from all over the country. Unlike participants in traveling productions, they arrive to co-create a few gem-like original performances, shows that debut at The Paramount Theater under the direction (and extended logistical planning) of Ash Lawn Opera.

But for Kevin O’Halloran, the new executive director of Ash Lawn Opera, the biggest collaborative participants are Charlottesvillians themselves. In other words, it takes a village to host an opera.

“We work with lots and lots of community members to house our artists,” O’Halloran says. This summer, 103 out-of-town guests, including cast members and instrumentalists, will arrive about a month in advance of show time to live with more than 70 local families, many of whom have hosted professional musicians every summer for years.

Those professionals include very highly trained opera singers who come from leading opera houses across the U.S. In this season’s production of Madama Butterfly, for example, Ash Lawn has engaged four people whose resumes include the Metropolitan Opera. For local families, that means eating breakfast with artists who are performing at the highest levels of their profession.

Local rehearsal spaces are also contributed. “People are rehearsing both at the IX Art Park, our evening art space and Charlottesville High School for daytime rehearsals,” O’Halloran says.

For the summer’s “significant costuming enterprise,” which includes performances of My Fair Lady as well as Puccini’s 1904 classic, “we have a large room in one of the Jessup family buildings on Water Street downtown where our costumers are putting things together right now.”

The company even rents a barn at Morven Farm to build sets that will be transferred to the Paramount for the collaborative process of staging the opera.

“The cast and musical director and orchestra, we’re all working to try and tell the story the best way possible,” says Charles Murdock Lucas, the award-winning North Carolina-based scenic designer developing the set for Ash Lawn Opera’s Butterfly.

In opera specifically, says Lucas, designers not only need to interpret the libretto but the music. “Pace, rhythm, tone, the flavor of music can only be played in a certain way,” he says. “Unlike the script, which makes it a more rich and full experience in some ways.”

Lucas develops these emotional heights by pulling from historical research, the time and details of where the story takes place, and applying his talent to shaping the audience’s focus. For Butterfly, he found inspiration in Japanese historical photography archives, woodblocks from 1868 to 1912, and the 2000-year-old ceremonial staging traditions of kabuki theater.

He also followed Puccini’s libretto, which describes the moment when Pinkerton sees the home he’s rented. “He’s a U.S. sailor, a Westerner, and sees sliding panels and doors and how open it is. It’s an indoor/outdoor type of space, and [Pinkerton] comments on how changeable it is, like a house of cards.”

This description helped inspire the vision of a house abstracted, a platform with a roof hanging above it that makes careful use of Japanese aesthetics. “The composition of object and space around object [led me] to create a very big open space that is the home, isolated in the jewel box that is the Paramount Theater,” Lucas says.

The depth of careful construction and aggregate talent of Ash Lawn Opera’s 38th season is a testament to the organization’s transformation since it started in 1978. The first was the company’s move indoors, to the climate-controlled Paramount, after 30 years on in the sweltering July and August humidity of Ash-Lawn Highland. “It was fun, but the regular thunderstorms proved challenging,” O’Halloran says.

With the move came a concerted effort to shift from a summer festival led by a purely volunteer-based community organization to a full-grown company. In 2010, Michelle Krisel, a former vocal coach, agent, and special assistant to Plácido Domingo, came on board as the general director. Her mission was to grow a younger and more diverse audience, especially folks in their 30s and 40s, while continuing to fund the organization.

“The industry standard is that tickets only fund one-third of the budget and the rest needs to be raised,” Krisel says. “That fits into how I make my choices.”

In her first years, she chose repertoires that required children, shows like La Bohéme, The Magic Flute, The King and I and The Music Man. “That’s how I met the parents,” says Krisel. “Then I created a donor group just for them, and I encouraged them to be housing hosts.”

Ultimately, her efforts to build loyalty among the new demographic resulted in doubling Ash Lawn’s season, budget and audience “at a time when opera companies are shrinking and going out of business,” she says.

Krisel now acts as artistic director, working alongside O’Halloran. “It’s a huge challenge for the opera to find 103 beds, but that’s how we make new friends,” she says. “Once you’ve hung out with an artist, you become an insider.”

O’Halloran sees even broader benefits. Now that the company is “producing music at a level where we can attract the best talent, [Ash Lawn Opera] is a treasure right here in Charlottesville,” he says. “I think we should feel proud as Charlottesville residents that we’ve been able to sustain a professional opera company that, over the last six years or so, has become a very fine regional presence.”

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