A beloved staple of the holiday season in a new medium

Eklund Opera brings ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to the Macky stage

By Peter Alexander

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Photo by Glenn Asakawa for the University of Colorado Eklund Opera Program

It’s a Wonderful Life, a new opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, started its performance life with a workshop at CU Boulder in 2016, then went to its world premiere in Houston, followed by performances in Indiana and San Francisco, and now it returns to Boulder.

Based on the much loved film of the same title, the opera will be presented this weekend (Nov. 15–17) in a completely new production by the CU Eklund Opera Program. The student orchestra will be conducted by Nick Carthy. Leigh Holman, head of Eklund Opera, will direct the student cast.

“To take it home to Boulder is special, because we workshopped it there, and made so many artistic decisions in the process of creating it there,” Scheer says.

It’s a Wonderful Life was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, Indiana University and San Francisco Opera. Essentially the same production was used in all three locations. After Houston, Scheer and Heggie trimmed, streamlined and improved the opera in various ways. Eklund Opera will therefore present only the second physical production in the latest version of the opera.

The opera follows the basic story of the film, which tells of George Bailey’s despair and thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve. He is rescued by an angel who shows him all the people he has touched in his life, and what his hometown of Bedford Falls would have been without him. The 1946 film, directed by Frank Capra, has become a beloved staple of the holiday season.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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It’s a Wonderful Life
An opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer
CU Eklund Opera

7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 16
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17
Macky Auditorium

Tickets

 

CU NOW presents selections from new opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer

If I Were You’ addresses questions of identity, life and death

By Peter Alexander June 14 at 6:30 p.m.

Jake Heggie, composer of the opera Dead Man Walking, and Gene Scheer, who wrote librettos for Heggie’s Moby Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life, are hard at work again.

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CU NOW Rehearsal. L to R: Erin Hodgson, assistant to the composer and librettist; Gene Scheer, librettist; Jake Heggie, composer (photo by Glenn Asakawa)

Their latest project, an opera that addresses existential questions about identity, life and death, has brought them to Boulder and CU Eklund Opera’s New Operatic Workshop (CU NOW). Selected excerpts from the new work, If I Were You, will be presented to the public for free, performed by CU student singers.  The Composer Fellows’ Initiative (CFI), a separate project of CU NOW will present four short operas by CU composition students: three 8-minute works and one 30-minute work.

CU NOW invites a composer and librettist every year to come to Boulder for a couple of weeks in June as they develop a new opera and work with student singers. The composers have the opportunity to hear portions of their own work and make changes as necessary before it’s complete. As part of his association with CU NOW, Heggie has also been working with the students whose works will be presented by the Composer Fellows’ Initiative.

If I Were You, as Heggie describes it, is “a modern-day Faust story” with an overlay of Gothic romance. “It’s about a disillusioned young man who wishes he could be anyone else,” he says. Heggie and Scheer will decide which portions of the opera to perform during the workshop. They will introduce the musical excerpts to the audience and explain the plot as they go along.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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CU New Opera Workshop festival (CU NOW)
Leigh Holman, director
Jeremy Reger, director of music

 

If I Were You (selected excerpts)
Libretto by Gene Scheer
Music by Jake Heggie
Adam Turner, guest conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday, June 15, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 17
Music Theater, CU Imig Music Building

Composer Fellows’ Initiative (CU NOW—CFI)
Daniel Kellogg, managing director
Four short operas by student composers
Steven Aguillo, guest music director
Bud Coleman, stage director

7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16
ATLAS Blackbox, Roser ATLAS Center

Performances free and open to the public

 

 

LIVESTREAM: You can see Jake Heggie’s opera that was workshopped at CU

It’s a Wonderful Life available Friday–Saturday, Nov. 10–11, from Indiana University

By Peter Alexander

It’s a Wonderful Life, the opera by Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer based on the beloved film of the same title, was workshopped in Boulder as part of the CU New Opera Workshop (CU NOW) in June, 2016. The world premiere followed at the Houston Grand Opera.

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CU NOW workshop of Jake Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” June 2016. Heggie is at the far right, in blue. Photo by Peter Alexander

Now Boulder audiences will be able to see that original production, in a revised version of the score, through livestreaming from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Performances will be available live at 5:30 p.m. Mountain Time (7:30 p.m. EST), Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10 and 11. The performances will be streamed from the Musical Arts Center on the IU campus in Bloomington.

All live streams and archived performances from the Jacobs School of Music are available here.

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Houston Grand Opera production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo by Brian Mitchell.

It’s a Wonderful Life was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, with the Jacobs School of Music and the San Francisco Opera, all of whom will share the original production. The world premiere was in Houston Dec. 2, 2016. Indiana performances will be Nov. 10, 11, 16 and 17, with the first two streamed live.

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Jake Heggie (left) with librettist Gene Scheer. Photo by Brian Mitchell.

The San Francisco Opera will present It’s a Wonderful Life during the 2018–19 season. After that, the next scheduled performances, and the first new production will be presented in Boulder by the CU Eklund Opera program in 2019.

Since the Houston opening, Heggie and Scheer have made a number of revisions to the opera. Heggie is currently in Bloomington observing rehearsals, to make sure that the changes work well on stage.

“The spots where it needed revision seemed very clear to me and to Gene, once we saw the production [in Houston],” Heggie says. “We cut a lot of material but we also rewrote, and I added new material where it was needed.”

Compared to the version performed in Houston and the workshop performances in Boulder, there are some major changes. “The whole prologue is cut way down so we get right into the story,” Heggie says. “We’ve tightened things up to make sure that we’re always telling the story.”

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Houston Grand Opera production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo by Brian Mitchell.

Heggie has also written some new material. “I expanded two arias, one for George and one for Mary in Act I that really help them open their hearts, and then I’ve added a beautiful—I think—duet between Mary Bailey and Claire the angel in Act II,” he says.

While Heggie has made revisions in earlier operas, he says these are the most extensive changes he’s ever made. “We cut an entire character—Mr. Gower, the pharmacist,” he explains. “We realized that we actually didn’t miss anything. We got all of the information we needed elsewhere, and the thing is that in opera you’ve got to move things along so that there’s time for the music to tell the story.”

The result of all these changes is that the opera has been tightened to a total running time of less than two hours. Heggie expects that these will be the last changes he will make, meaning that the version livestreamed from Bloomington will be the same for both San Francisco and the CU production. “My hope is that we’re really set after IU, and that we don’t have to do any more tinkering or trimming,” he says.

Indiana University’s other performances online

The Jacobs School of Music livestreaming site is a broad resource for classical music audiences, and especially opera fans. The school has a long and distinguished history of high-quality opera productions and other performances, dating back more than 50 years. Past opera productions and concert performances of both classical music and jazz from the Jacobs School of Music are available on demand.

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The Musical Arts Center at Indiana University, the venue for the Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater performances.

All but the very oldest of the archived opera streams include subtitles throughout. According to Philip Ponella, the Leonard Phillips and Mary Wennerstrom Director of the William and Gayle Cook Music Library at IU and director of Music Information Technology for the Jacobs School of Music, performances are generally archived if copyright restrictions allow, and left on the site for as long as practical. The project is still being developed, and policies may change.

The current site has performances archived, available on demand, from the past eight seasons. Opera performances on the site include standard repertoire, including Don Giovanni, Carmen and La Bohéme; less familiar rarities including Puccini’s La Rondine and L’Étoile by Emmanuel Chabrier; new works including The Tale of Lady Th Kính by P.Q. Phan; and several operas by Handel.

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Philip Ponella

Ponella says that it is important for the school to provide public access to their performances, and they encourage access to their streams from around the country. “First of all, many of us are concerned about the future of classical music and opera and the kind of things that we do here,” Ponella says. “One thing [Jacobs School of Music] Dean Gwyn Richards says that resonates with many of us is, how can we be more relevant to more people.

“The other part is, we like to think that this is one of the best music schools in the United States, and when you’re not located in New York or Boston or Los Angeles, sometimes that’s a hard sell. This gives us the opportunity to walk the walk, and not just say this is a really great school.”

Ponella points out that the livestreamed performances also include a pre-performance presentation given by a musicology Ph.D. student in the school, presented 30 minutes before the livestream is scheduled to start. “As Dean Richards says, whenever we can, we show that we’re not just about performance but our academics are of equal quality. And the fact that we stream at this high level of quality points to the kind of institutional resources that we’re drawing upon as well.

“We’ve got a very large pipe out to the internet that many institutions don’t have access to, and (we have a) recording arts program and audio engineers.”

Classical Music Livestreamed from Indiana, Boulder, and around the World

IU is only one source of livestreamed performances available from around the world. In addition to the performances from the Jacobs School of Music, in Boulder faculty Tuesdays and other performances from the CU College of Music are available online.

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Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

Opera is available from many different sources, mostly by subscription but with occasional free performances. Livestreaming from individual companies include the Metropolitan Opera, The Vienna State Opera, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich . There are also sites that bring operas from many different companies, such as OperaVision with productions from several European countries. A careful Google search will turn up other sites.

With so many different sources of performances that you can watch live from home, wearing your PJs and enjoying a bowl of popcorn or a glass of wine, for the classical music lover it really can be a wonderful life.

I’ll meet you at the computer!

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Houston Grand Opera production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo by Brian Mitchell.

Renowned composer Jake Heggie is working on his newest opera in Boulder

“It’s a Wonderful Life” at the CU New Opera Workshop

By Peter Alexander

It’s a wonderful life for composer Jake Heggie right now.

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Left to Right: Libretist Gene Scheer; Leonard Foglia, Houston Grand Opera; composer Jake Heggie; and Bradley Moore, Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Alexandria Ortega for CU Presents.

As the composer of two highly successful operas, Dead Man Walking (2000) and Moby Dick (2010), he finds that commissions for his works keep coming.

“People keep asking me,” he says. “A commission is a huge gift.”

Now he is in Boulder to work on his latest opera, based on Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Joining him for work at the CU New Opera Workshop, (CU NOW) are librettist Gene Scheer and staff from the Houston Grand Opera, where the finished opera will have its premiere in December.

Under Leigh Holman, director of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, CU NOW offers composers the opportunity to workshop new operas prior to their first productions. For more than two weeks, they can try out their new works with CU student singers and other support staff, seeing what works and what doesn’t, making changes as they go.

After 18 days of intensive work, CU NOW will present performances of selected scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 19, in the ATLAS Black Box Theater. Between those two performances, CU NOW will also present scenes by CU student composers at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 18) in the Imig Music Theatre. All three performances are free and open to the public.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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CU New Opera Workshop (CU NOW)

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Rehearsal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at CU NOW. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Workshop: It’s a Wonderful Life by
Jake Heggie
Libretto by Gene Scheer

7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17
2 p.m. Sunday, June 19
ATLAS Black Box Theater, CU Roser ATLAS Building

Composers Fellows’ Initiative
Performances of student opera compositions

7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18
Music Theatre, CU Imig Music Building

Performances are free and open to the public

 

 

Jake Heggie will be the 2016 guest composer for CU NOW

Composer of Dead Man Walking will workshop new opera at CU

By Peter Alexander

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Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie, a composer who achieved considerable renown in 2000 with his opera Dead Man Walking, will visit the University of Colorado College of Music for three weeks in June.

Heggie will be in Boulder to develop a new opera at the Eklund Opera Program’s CU New Opera Workshop (CU NOW). The new work, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, will be based on the 1946 Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

At the end of the workshop period, portions of the new work will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday , June 19, in the ATLAS Black Box Theater, located in the basement of the Roser ATLAS Building on the CU campus. These performances will be free and open to the public.

Seating will be first come, first served. The ATLAS Black Box Theater seats approximately 80–100.

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Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart and Karolyn Grimes in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

It’s a Wonderful Life has been commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera (HGO). The workshop process will allow Heggie and Scheer to work with CU students, trying portions of the new opera, making changes and rewriting as they go. Leonard Foglia, director of the HGO who will stage direct the world premier of It’s a Wonderful Life in Houston, will also be working with the student singers during the workshop, along with Jeremy Reger, a vocal coach with the CU Eklund Opera Program.

At the end of the workshop performances, the composer and librettist will ask for questions and feedback from the audience. Leigh Holman, director of the Eklund Opera Program, says “These workshops are for the intellectually curious. With the question and answer sessions, the creative team learns so much from the people asking the questions!”

Dead Man Walking, with a libretto by playwright Terence McNally based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, took the operatic world by storm in 2000. His other operatic works have included Three Decembers (libretto by Scheer, 2008), Moby Dick (libretto by Scheer, 2010), and Great Scott (libretto by McNally, 2015).

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Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk, Central City Opera

Dead Man Walking has been presented more than 50 times around the world. It was produced by CU in 2007 and by Central City Opera in 2014. Central City Opera also presented Heggie’s Three Decembers in 2010.

One of the busiest opera librettists working today, Scheer has collaborated with several prominent composers. In addition to the work he has done with Heggie, his works include An American Tragedy by Tobias Picker, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005, and last year’s Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon, premiered at the Santa Fe Opera.

This will be the seventh year for the CU NOW program. Previous operas that were developed through a CU NOW workshop have included Kirke Mechem’s Pride and Prejudice, Herschel Garfein’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Alberto Caruso’s The Master, and Zach Redler’s A Song for Susan Smith.

 

Opposite poles attract success at Central City Opera

Dead Man Walking and Marriage of Figaro are worth the trip into the mountains.

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The two productions currently running at the Central City Opera (CCO) are not so much contrasting shades of opera as opposite poles.

At the dark end of spectrum is Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, a setting of playwright Terence McNally’s powerful libretto, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. The true story of a nun’s efforts to reach out to a brutal death row convict, the book also inspired the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. This seems unlikely material for operatic treatment—the drama is largely psychological and very little happens in the conventional sense—but Heggie and McNally have created a gripping work of musical theater that keeps the audience riveted, even as they know the inevitable outcome.

The opposite pole is represented by Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, one of the greatest and most luminescent operatic explorations of human emotions ever created. A politically and socially dangerous work written on the eve of the French Revolution, it cloaks its subversive message with the light of compassion and humor in Mozart’s transcendent setting of a masterful libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

As different as they are, these works are given wholly satisfying and powerfully moving productions by the Central City Opera company. With strong casts, well conceived productions and thoughtful direction, both operas are well worth the drive into the mountains—even if you don’t need an excuse to drive into the mountains.

In his notes for Dead Man Walking, director Ken Cazan observes that the opera “doesn’t tell the viewer what to think and feel. . . . [It] poses questions, not answers.” Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the work is how well it conveys understanding and sympathy for all of the characters, even the murderer Joseph De Rocher.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

If the work has a flaw, it is the sustained intensity of its emotional expression. Though unavoidable considering the subject matter, the unrelenting high tension of the music leaves no scope for the shattering musical climax we might expect. As a result, the ending, when De Rocher finally faces his execution, provides a dramatic resolution but not a musical one. The final scene, where Sister Helen returns to the tender hymn that opened the opera, “He Will Gather Us Around,” rounds out the opera on a quiet note that feels inconclusive.

But perhaps that reflects the reality that the questions faced by the opera’s characters—questions of guilt, of punishment, of retribution and redemption—remain unanswered for the characters and for us, as they must always be.

As the murderer De Rocher, Michael Mayes gave a committed and muscular performance—even singing while doing pushups in one scene. His voice conveyed menace and danger from his very first entrance, only softening in the second act when he sang of being “Down by the river with your woman.” The transformation from the threatening figure of Act I to someone who could admit his fear and his guilt and tell Sister Helen “I love you” at the end is an accomplishment of both vocal and dramatic artistry.

Jennifer Rivera ably filled the role of Sister Helen, who is onstage for most of the opera. The throbbing orchestral accompaniment, the range and contours of her part push her into an intensity of expression that make vocal control difficult. Fortunately, she was able to convey small contrasting moments of humor and tenderness as well as the overarching spiritual struggle that defines her role.

Of the many supporting roles, several stand out: Maria Zifchak as De Rocher’s mother was especially moving in the final scenes when she has to face her son’s death; and Robert Orth as Owen Hart commanded attention as an angry father whose daughter died at De Rocher’s hands, but who manages to move toward acceptance by the end.

Other, more one-dimensional supporting roles are well handled: Thomas Hammons as the warden; Jason Baldwin as the unsympathetic Father Grenville; Karina Brazas, Claire Shackleton and Joseph Gaines as mourning parents. Jeanine De Bique was on target but vocally strained as Sister Rose. John David Nevergall added a light touch as the Motorcycle Cop.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The coloring of vowels by the singers to suggest the Louisiana locale of the story was only intermittently successful, and considering the universality of the questions we are asked to ponder, I am not sure that it is necessary.

One of the pleasures of opera at Central City is seeing the creative ways the company makes use of its limited stage and wing space. Alan E. Muraoka’s minimalist stage designs were highly effective, using angled fences to convey the enclosed space of the prison as well as the emotionally closed world of the convicts. In other scenes, pieces of furniture—two chairs, a table and a chair—or the execution gurney that De Rocher is strapped to, Christ-like, at the end, were sufficient to set the changing scenes and illuminate the changing relationships.

Ken Cazan’s direction was efficient and effective, especially in making use of the limited space to convey relationships among the principal characters. John Baril lead Central City’s fine orchestra with a firm hand.

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CCO’s production of The Marriage of Figaro has been updated from the 18th century to Spain in the 1920s. Director Alessandro Talevi justifies this through the political situation of the time. “Spain . . . .was deeply conservative and religious in conflict with dynamic progressive movement of secularism,” he writes, establishing a parallel with the pre-revolutionary Europe of Mozart’s time.

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

I am not sure the intellectual justification is necessary, or even helps for that matter.

For the most part the setting and costumes were successful, the 1920s being long enough ago that audiences readily accept the social hierarchies and conflicts of the plot. That said, I do have one reservation, in that British costume dramas are now so familiar to American audiences that many must have thought of Downton Abbey, and the Count reminded me inescapably of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. These resonances do not enhance Mozart’s masterpiece.

The one essential of any production of the opera is a Figaro who can command the stage. CCO is fortunate to have a vocally secure Figaro in Michael Sumuel, whose genial presence was always welcome onstage. He sang expressively, handling Figaro’s wide range of emotions with aplomb.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

As Figaro’s intended bride Susanna, Anna Christy was a secure vocal partner in her many duets and ensembles with the other cast members. It is her relationship to each of the other principal characters that drives the plot, and Christy was a solid anchor for the drama. In spite of an occasionally nasal sound, her expressive phrasing brought her character warmly to life.

Another critical role is Cherubino, a “pants” role taken by a female mezzo as an adolescent boy who is in love with every woman he sees, from the young Barbarina and Susanna to his godmother the Countess. Tamara Gura was excellent from her first entrance, moving with all the awkwardness of a teenager. I found her unusually convincing throughout, and her aria “Voi che sapete” was especially charming.

As the Count, Edward Parks was perhaps too measured at the outset, neither commanding enough nor bombastic enough in the first two acts. He grew into the role, however, and by the end his confession and plea for forgiveness brought the opera to an effective end.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Sinéad Mulhern played the countess with grace and delicacy. Her lovely voice lost quality when pushed, but otherwise her portrayal was pleasing.

Madeleine Boyd’s flexible sets made effective use of the limited stage, even if they recalled an English country house. Talevi’s direction captured the comic qualities of the libretto perfectly, with one exception: the unnecessary comic business during the Count’s Act III aria badly upstaged the singer and undermined the emotion of the scene.

Conductor Adrian Kelly led the performance ably, setting solid tempos and supporting the singers well for most of the opera. The opening overture was full of energy but occasionally smudged, a minor flaw that recurred during the opera as well.

Unfortunately, Central City does not have a genuine harpsichord at its disposal—perhaps due to limited space in the pit or the difficult of caring for a natural instrument at 8,500 ft.—and has to resort to a Kawai electronic keyboard. This is unfortunate whatever the reason. The sound may be adequate for amateur keyboard players who fancy 18th-century music, but it is not suitable for a truly professional performance.

But make no mistake: All reservations aside, this is a sparkling production, full of comic energy and good spirits. The stark contrast between this Figaro and the darkly impressing Dead Man Walking only enhances them both.


Central City Opera

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
2:30 pm July 15, 16, 20, 22, 26
8:00 pm July 10, 12, 18
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here

Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie
2:30 pm July 13, 19, 23, 25
8:00 pm July 11, 17
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here