Wichita celebrates a grand decade of opera

Ten years ago when Parvan Bakardiev and his wife, Margaret Ann Pent, founded Wichita Grand Opera, they had one primary objective —"getting people to love opera in a town that was unfamiliar with it," says Bakardiev. It's been an auspicious start. This November, Wichita Grand Opera will officially mark the 10th anniversary of its incorporation. While anniversaries are generally causes for celebration, they can also be occasions to take stock and plan for the future.

According to Bakardiev, Wichita Grand Opera's president and CEO, the opera company is well positioned to continue its ambitious and diverse season lineups of opera, ballet and outdoor concerts — even in today's tough economic climate.

"In these difficult times, any company that is able to produce should be content," he says. But he says, while many national and regional opera companies have been forced to cut their number of offerings — or, in a few extreme cases, fold altogether — Wichita Grand Opera has weathered the financial storm relatively well with no dramatic changes.

It still prudently keeps to an annual budget of about $1 million, carries no debt and, unlike some arts organizations, doesn't have to rely on an "angel benefactor" who writes an emergency check at the end of a season.

"We accomplish a lot with what we have to work with," says the 64-year-old European-born impresario.

"Our mission has been to lift the spirits of many people with something special. That's been the inspiration," he says. "People should be proud that Kansas has such great culture and great talent."

Tomorrow's superstars

True to the "grand" in its name, the ninth subscription season of Wichita Grand Opera begins in January with a one-two punch of Italian blockbusters, Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." They're followed by a cultural smorgasbord of Viennese operetta, French comic opera, Russian ballet and, on March 26, a 10th anniversary concert gala featuring three Kansas-born opera stars with acclaimed international careers: mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, veteran bass Samuel Ramey and Wagnerian bass-baritone Alan Held.

Not including the annual Opera on the Lake concert at Bradley Fair, that's six productions. It's a rare regional opera company that offers so much variety. According to Bakardiev, WGO's dense season is ideal for spotlighting a wide range of talent and, in particular, gifted young voices. As a presenter with a track record of luring operatic sensations such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo to Wichita, Bakardiev believes that many of this season's young artists could become the superstars of tomorrow.

A look at this year's opera titles —"Madama Butterfly," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "The Merry Widow" and "Daughter of the Regiment" — reveals a high number of female leads. Productions of Puccini's tearjerker "Madama Butterfly" have been known to succeed or fail based on the performance of its Butterfly.

Bakardiev has every confidence in Korean soprano Yunah Lee, who will perform the emotionally and vocally punishing part of the abandoned geisha Cio-Cio San. Lee has made Butterfly a signature role in opera houses across the United States

Singing opposite her will be Russian tenor Alexey Sayapin as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, Butterfly's American husband and one of opera's most notorious cads. The beauty of Sayapin's voice will undoubtedly captivate, says Bakardiev, citing Placido Domingo's high praise of Sayapin as the "Russian Corelli" — a reference to the legendary Italian singer.

Another Russian singer, soprano Olga Orlovskaya, will take to the stage in "Lucia di Lammermoor," one of opera's great vehicles for virtuosic, bel canto singing. It also has a title role made famous by sopranos Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas and one of the most famous "mad scenes" in all of opera.

Romantic magic

Later in the WGO season, tragedy turns to romantic comedy with Franz Lehar's lighthearted operetta "The Merry Widow" and Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment." Soprano Kallen Esperian, a proven favorite with Wichita audiences, will sing the title role in "The Merry Widow," including the operetta's famous "Vilja-Lied." Timed deliberately for Valentine's Day weekend, the two performances will be sung in English, rather than the traditional German.

Having presented Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" last spring, Wichita Grand Opera hopes to recapture the same fun magic with the composer's "Daughter of the Regiment." Bakardiev says he's excited about the production's young soprano, Lindsay Ohse, who hails from Topeka and recently made an auspicious debut at Santa Fe Opera.

"She's a great Kansan singer following in the footsteps of Joyce DiDonato," he says.

The opera's other linchpin role, the character of Tonio, will be sung by European tenor Otakar Klein, who returns to Wichita after performing in last season's "Elixir." Klein's music includes the demanding aria "Ah! mes amis," with its trademark string of high C's, so famously sung by Luciano Pavarotti and, most recently, by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez.

For classical ballet fans, Wichita Grand Opera will present the Crown of Russian Ballet performing "Romeo and Juliet" on March 13. Sergei Prokofiev's infectious and rhythmically jaunty score will provide the soundtrack.

Wichita Grand Opera's anniversary celebrations will culminate in May when the opera company plans its first Kansas tour with three performances across the state, playing in renovated historical theaters in Salina, Hutchinson and McPherson.

'No Place Like Home'

For all the talk of opera as an elitist art form, Bakardiev views it instead as the "ultimate entertainment" and a powerful cultural force that can unite communities.

"Americans like to listen with their eyes," he says. "And opera gives the pageantry of costumes, real voices and great music."

Bakardiev looks at the annual Opera on the Lake, an outdoor extravaganza on the island at Bradley Fair, as an example of a concert experience that can bridge the gap between middlebrow entertainment and high art.

This year's program on May 21 will include a first half of operatic excerpts, many of them culled from this year's productions, fused with a second half of show tunes and popular songs, tentatively titled "Dancing With the Stars."

The "Wizard of Oz" theme of "There's No Place Like Home" is the title of the 10th Anniversary Gala with DiDonato, Ramey and Held, with conductor Steven Mercurio. Arias and duets by Mozart, Puccini, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner share the program with musical selections from the beloved MGM musical. Bakardiev even plans to present ruby red slippers to the soloists as gifts.

The gala title is an apt choice for a once globetrotting impresario who for a decade has made Kansas his home — and has helped make Wichita a dependable home base for opera in the region.

"In our current environment, people are often bombarded by cultural garbage," Bakardiev says. "So our role is more important than ever, to bring this source of encouragement, glory, happiness and talent to the public."