For many, “William Tell” is synonymous with “The Lone Ranger.” The opera’s overture was the theme for the popular television show about a masked crusader fighting injustice in the American Old West. The rest of the work is virtually unknown to modern audiences; it has only been performed twice in the United States since the 1930s.
This Saturday, Wichita Grand Opera patrons will be able to see the first staging in over two decades of Gioachino Rossini’s masterpiece about freedom, liberation and love. It’s a complex undertaking that has attracted world-renowned talent while positioning the opera company at the forefront of renewed interest in the piece. It’s also putting Wichita on the map as a destination city for up-and-coming operatic performances.
“It’s got a beautiful story that is contemporary and especially relevant in many ways,” said Parvan Bakardiev, president and CEO of Wichita Grand Opera. “Globally, there is a lot of movement and interest for the spread of democracy and independence, and that is at the heart of this story. It’s also got elements of Romeo and Juliet because you have these two lovers torn apart.”
“William Tell” debuted in Paris in 1829 and enjoyed popularity for much of the next century. It was such a success that Rossini retired from opera writing after its completion, having composed 38 operas by the age of 38. When the Metropolitan Opera shuttered its performance of “William Tell” in 1931, it would be over half a century before U.S. audiences could see it again. The San Antonio Festival revived it in 1984, with Bakardiev at the helm as producer. The San Francisco Opera staged it again in 1992.
Bakardiev said that “William Tell” was performed often until the 1930s because there were a lot of tenors available in the opera world then, as well as many baritones and sopranos who could sing the work’s complex and multi-layered parts. A shortage of talent in terms of people who could take on the leading roles, combined with Depression-era economic turmoil, made the elaborate and expensive production unfeasible. It become somewhat forgotten after World War II, as opera shifted to more traditional and easier to produce works. “The Lone Ranger” was about the only thing that kept the music alive in people’s minds.
In taking on “William Tell,” Wichita is positioning itself to be at the vanguard of renewed interest in the work and other French operas from the period. The production stays true to how it was originally written and will be performed in French, with English supertitles broadcast above the stage. It unfolds over four acts, lasting about two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission. It will be directed by award-winning stage director Chuck Hudson, a fluent French speaker who has directed opera productions at major companies like Seattle Opera and Florida Grand Opera.
The grandiose sets and ornate costumes are being designed in-house. Stefan Pavolv, a European scenic artist whose designs have been seen in more than 500 opera house performances, is the set designer. Margaret Pent, founder and artistic director of Wichita Grand Opera, is creating the period costumes. Bakardiev said it’s his hope that future productions of “William Tell” may buy them.
While this will be the only U.S. performance in 2014, there will be six others internationally, and the Metropolitan Opera will present the Dutch National Opera’s production in 2016. Given its rarity, Bakardiev said he expects opera aficionados from across the country to travel to Wichita to see the performance.
“This is the highlight of our company’s 14 years of existence,” Bakardiev said. “It’s like the Super Bowl of operas.” The story itself details an epic struggle of patriotism, romance and betrayal, with the protagonist William Tell at the center of a beguiling tug-of-war between nations. It’s set in 15th-century Switzerland in the Canton of Uri, a province in the middle of the country.
The first act opens during a festival on the shore of Lake Lucerne. Merriment evades Tell as he bemoans Switzerland’s oppression at the hand of Austria. Arnold Melcthal is likewise disturbed, though for a different reason: A former soldier who once served under the occupying authorities of Governor Gesler, he is torn between his love for the Austrian Princess Matilde and his allegiance to Switzerland.
When the Swiss are later forced to celebrate 100 years of Austrian rule at the village fairgrounds of Uri’s capital, Tell refuses to bow to Gesler’s hat. He and his young son, Jemmy, are arrested. What follows is the best-known arc of the William Tell saga: the apple and arrow test. Knowing Tell’s prowess as a marksman, Gesler demands that he shoot an apple off his son’s head with a crossbow bolt.
“William Tell is revered by the Swiss people. They even built a monument for him,” Bakardiev said. “It’s a very attractive story for right now because there are so many revolutions going on globally. It’s a story about the struggle and fight for liberty. There’s also the love subplot that adds to the excitement.”
Bakardiev said the quality of the music matches the blockbuster story. European maestro Nayden Todorov will conduct the orchestra, his second time at the helm of leading the music for “William Tell” and the only European maestro to claim such a feat. He is one of the most recorded conductors in Europe. His assistant conductor and principal coach for this production is Tyson Deaton.
“It’s great, great music. The music is the best work of Rossini,” Bakardiev said of the score. “It requires five to six uniquely talented singers to do it. The music has so many nuances. It’s got incredible soul and dimension. Very few people have heard this because it’s difficult to find the people to sing the parts, in particular the tenor. It’s a role where the performer has to also be believable, dynamic, handsome and heroic.”
The difficulty in casting “William Tell” is central to its elusive repertoire. Only a handful of tenors worldwide can sing the demanding and dexterous role of Arnold Melchtal. American tenor Michael Spyres is sought after worldwide as a result. He will be in three of the six planned 2014 productions of “William Tell.”
“Michael is the tenor of choice globally,” Bakardiev said. “The role takes a lot of stamina. You have to be able to handle the agility and also the heroics. He does this masterfully.”
In addition to Spyre’s talent, baritone Lucas Meachem stars in the title role of William Tell. Bakardiev said his strapping physique and powerful, seductive voice make him perfect for the role. He is a frequent leading baritone at Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and other opera houses worldwide.
Zvetelina Vassileva, known for her performances of all of Verdi and Puccini’s leading roles, returns to the Wichita Grand Opera stage as Matilde. Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Hendrix will sing the role of Tell’s wife, Hedwig. The rest of the ensemble includes Alyssa Toepfer as Jemmy, William Powers as Melchtal’s father, Diego Baner as Gesler, Nicholas Masters as soldier Walter Furst, Christopher Trapani as fisherman Ruodi, Michael Nansel as the shepherd Leuthold and Patrick Greene as Rudolphe, captain of Gesler’s guard.
“It’s the grandest of the grand of music, very multi-dimensional. There is no dull moment it’s glorious in terms of the effects on the ears,” Bakardiev said. “This is also an opera that ends on a high note because liberation efforts are rewarded. There is a desire for independence and self-determination that will really resonate with audiences. It’s a very positive production. It’s thematic and lyrical, but also opera for the family because it’s fascinating for the young people to see that struggle.”