The goal of the newest Wichita Grand Opera is to get its audience to church – figuratively and literally.
“Noah’s Flood” by Benjamin Britten is a Biblically themed opera taking over the sanctuary of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Wichita on June 9. (The production will be repeated June 11 at the McPherson Opera House.)
“It’s exciting for me, because this is a very religious community in general and people who would never come to the opera will feel much more comfortable” coming to church, Grand Opera president and CEO Parvan Bakardiev said. “Besides, the story is so well known from the Bible.”
The origin of the piece, which premiered in 1958, was as a church service.
“The composer had originally intended it to be sung in sanctuaries, and to fit into that one hour (church) service time,” said baritone Michael Nansel, a Kansas native who sings the role of Noah.
Noah’s Ark will be created on stage during the course of the opera, with more than 100 performers in the sanctuary, from child singers and dancers to a professional cast. An onstage orchestra will be joined by a bell choir. Headpieces and other effects will help suggest the various animals that board Noah’s Ark during the course of the production.
Although “Noah’s Flood” is a first for Wichita Grand Opera, Bakardiev previously staged the work in San Antonio, Texas.
“People who didn’t usually come to opera were flocking there because of the unique sentiment and performances by adults and child musicians,” he said. “It’s a lot of community involvement on an exciting scale.”
Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Hendrix, who plays Mrs. Noah – her name is never mentioned in the Bible – said there’s a childlike appeal of the story.
“The whole production is appealing because it’s got the whole parade of animals and that sort of Christmas Eve, Nativity-story feel to it,” she said, “but it’s Noah.”
Nansel, the son of a pastor, compares “Noah’s Flood” to the Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
“‘Amahl’ is truly a children’s opera, written from the perspective of a child. The adults behave in ways that children believe adults behave. It has that innocence about it, but it also has a simplicity about it,” he said. “This is written for adults to remember what it was like to be a child. It’s not necessarily a ‘children’s opera,’ but a way of looking at the innocence of the Noah story and the story of the majesty we remember when we were taught the Noah story for the first time.”
Tom Frye is the stage director, with Edward Lada conducting the orchestra.
Bass Andrew Hernandez is the voice of God, while Noah’s sons are played by Evan Schelton, Daniel Carney Jr. and Hayden Kalp. Their wives are played, respectively, by Skyler Dykes, Lauren Dowell and Maria Jose Fabara.
Hendrix, a veteran of WGO’s Young Artists Program, has performed with opera companies in Vienna, Frankfurt and San Francisco, and is a veteran of several Britten works.
“Britten is generally challenging, but I find this to be the easiest Britten,” she said.
Nansel, appearing in his 16th WGO production over the past eight years, said the language has proven to be a challenge for the singers.
“It’s written in old English, and as a result is like memorizing Shakespeare,” he said. “If you pick the words apart you can understand exactly what you’re saying, but the memorization is not in your vernacular. Even though it’s English, it’s not your version of English.”
It won’t be a passive experience for those attending “Noah’s Flood,” Bakardiev said, with hymns as a part of the program.
“Britten envisioned the audience getting involved,” he said. “They’ll be singing with the cast in the beginning, the middle and the end.”
What: An operatic version of the story of Noah and the ark
When: 8 p.m. Friday, June 9
Where: Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 600 N. Greenwich, Wichita
Tickets: $35 for general admission, by calling 316-262-8054, in person at the Century II box office or online at wichitagrandopera.org.
Additional performance: 6 p.m. June 11, McPherson Opera House, 219 S. Main, McPherson.