There’s a boatload of reasons why Wichita Grand Opera is hoping audiences line up two-by-two to see the return of its production of “Noah’s Flood.”
It’s the directorial debut of Michael Nansel, who returns to the title role after a WGO production of the Benjamin Britten work two years ago.
It’s the full operatic debut of Natalie Davis, KWCH morning anchor and former Miss Minnesota.
And the May 23 production is a last request of the recently retired couple who formed the company.
Nansel is marking his 22nd performance with Wichita Grand Opera, and his first time as a director.
“I’ve always thought of myself as maybe too vain to be a director,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been fascinating, especially to work with the kids and watch their eyes kind of focus on me in a completely different light than they were if I were the lead character.”
After performing with companies around the world, Nansel said he hadn’t imagine he would want to direct, but looks to Alan Held – the successor as Wichita Grand Opera artistic director, as well as head of the opera program at Wichita State University while still performing regularly – as an example.
Nansel is one of four adult cast members who have returned in the same roles after two June 2017 performances at Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
In addition, three of the children who played animals are returning – but kids being kids, they have all grown in nearly two years.
“They’re no longer the size of a ladybug, they’re the size of an ostrich,” Nansel said.
This time, the production is being staged at the Mary Jane Teall Theatre in Century II. Nansel said Britten – a composer known for works such as “Peter Grimes,” “Billy Budd” and “War Requiem” – wanted it played in churches and smaller venues.
“It’s become relatively common for groups to stage this at a children’s theater or a more intimate space, because the voices of the children and the youth are smaller than most opera people’s voices,” Nansel said.
The tunes in “Noah’s Flood,” Nansel said, are atypical from what people might expect from opera.
“I hear moments of 1920s’ Ziegfield girls, I hear moments that sound like they’re right out of ‘The Music Man,’” Nansel said of Britten. “It’s very fascinating how he, rather than writing for large, opera singer voices all the time, he changes his style to be able to write for these different characters. I find that (a) refreshing and (b) fascinating.”
A new voice
Davis, who has been with KWCH for nearly a year and a half, was crowned Miss Minnesota in 2011, winning the talent award for her performance of “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot.” She competed for Miss America in 2012, singing a piece from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Nansel said Wichita Grand Opera’s relationship with Davis began not long after she arrived in town. She was one of the performers for WGO’s “Opera on the Lake” last year at Bradley Fair, and sang at a WGO ball last spring.
“The artistic director at the time, Parvan Bakardiev, really liked what he saw from her, and he wanted her to have this opportunity – not only to have a local TV talent star in the show, but let the audience see her in a different light from what they have already seen her,” Nansel said.
Davis said her performing career began when she was 7 or 8 years old, when she would sing solos during offertory at her church while her mother accompanied her on the piano.
“I’ve always loved to sing, and that translated to musical theater,” she said. “The Miss America program was an awesome venue for me to be able to continue my love of singing.”
She’s had some plum musical theater roles – Cinderella in “Into the Woods,” Grace in “Annie” and Patty Simcox in “Grease” – and classical singing helped propel her to Atlantic City, but “Noah’s Flood” is her first full opera.
“I’ve done a ton of musical theater and operatic singing, but I’ve never been in a quote-unquote opera,” Davis said. “I’m really excited. It’s the same thing as musical theater, there are just no spoken words.”
The part of Mrs. Noah – she never had a name in the Bible, likewise there’s not one in the opera – is written for an alto and Davis typically sings a high soprano. “It’s fun to sing in that lower register,” she said.
Nansel said Davis brings unique qualities to the role.
“(Mrs. Noah) likes to hang out with her friends and have a good time and party. She reluctantly goes in the boat. (The character) sometimes comes off as being a little harsher than people are used to,” Nansel said. “But Natalie is bringing a grace and elegance to her that is refreshing. I’m really enjoying watching that happen.”
Davis takes new steps in opera as changes are abounding in her life. She and her husband, an orthopedic surgery resident in Wichita, gave birth to their first child, a son, 4 months ago. Her family, including her recently retired physician mother, and a brother who has autism, moved from their home west of the Twin Cities to help with baby Alden. The house also includes two Golden Retrievers.
Nansel said he’s had to prepare the child performers that their co-star is someone they’ve seen on screen.
“Some of those kids will have seen her on TV and are very excited to be getting to work with her in the setting of a rehearsal room,” he said.
Davis will continue her relationship with Wichita Grand Opera, including a return to “Opera on the Lake” later this month, and a patriotic concert scheduled for June.
A final wish
Bakardiev, who retired last year, had been pushing for the company to perform “Noah’s Flood” for years, and was excited to stage it in 2017 after success in San Antonio. One of his last requests before he and his wife, fellow company founder and artistic director, retired was for Wichita Grand Opera to stage “Noah” again.
“It was always a very beloved piece of his,” Nansel said.
“Noah’s Flood” by Wichita Grand Opera
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 23
Where: Mary Jane Teall Theatre, Century II, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $40-$90, from the WGO box office inside Century II, by phone at 316-262-8054 or selectaseat.com
The opera will also be staged at 6 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at the McPherson Opera House. Tickets are $10-$35 and are available at https://mcphersonoperahouse.ticketforce.com