By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Opera Western Reserve’s production of “Carmen” this Friday at Stambaugh Auditorium will mark the first time in the company’s 18-year history that a performance will not be directed by David Vosburgh.
It’s a time of transition for OWR. Vosburgh, who founded the company, is gradually passing the torch – although, as production manager, he is involved in “Carmen” at every level.
Directing the show is Scott Skiba, an opera professional in Cleveland who has also appeared in several past OWR productions. He was a natural choice.
“Scott’s not an unknown quantity,” said the 78-year-old Vosburgh. Skiba sang three roles for OWR, including Escamillo, the bullfighter, the last time OWR did “Carmen,” back in 2009. His first appearance was in “Le Nozze do Figaro” in 2007, in which he sang the title role.
Skiba has sung Escamillo dozens of times, but this will be his first time directing “Carmen.”
The Pittsburgh-area native is the artistic director of Cleveland Opera Theater, and serves as the executive director of the Oberlin College in Italy opera program. He is also the director of opera studies at the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music.
Susan Davenny Wyner remains the musical director of Opera Western Reserve, and will again conduct the orchestra.
As for Vosburgh, he said the time is right to pass the torch.
“I don’t have as much stamina as I used to,” the 78-year-old said. But he plans on making it a smooth and slow transition.
“I’m not looking at retirement, but I am concerned with succession,” he explained. “Too many artistic ventures end when the creator dies or retires, and Opera Western Reserve is too good to do that. I want to ensure its future. That’s my responsibility.”
Skiba’s opera background and familiarity with OWR made him an ideal choice to begin the transition.
“He’s highly qualified,” said Vosburgh. “We enjoyed working with him in the past, and he’s doing a wonderful job.”
Skiba is expected to return to direct future OWR productions. But the director of next year’s production of “Lucia de Lammermoor” is expected to be Austin Pendleton, the great stage and screen character actor who hails from Warren. Pendleton works as a playwright, actor, educator and director in New York.
“The company is growing and reaching out to other artistic people,” said Vosburgh. “It’s important for both audiences and singers. We cannot continue to be a one-man band ... that’s not a healthy way to run a company.”
Even though he is gradually relinquishing control, Vosburgh intends to be involved with OWR for years to come.
“I’m not going to fold up and go away,” said Vosburgh. “I’m going to to shuttle back and forth [from my home in Massachusetts] and be ‘The Phantom of the Stambaugh.’”
The last time OWR did “Carmen,” it was set in the 1870s, as written by Georges Bizet. This time, OWR has set the story in the 1930s.
“Carmen” is arguably the most popular opera of all time and its central plot conflict – choosing the exciting lover over the stable one – resonates in any century.
It also has some of the most memorable and recognizable music, including the Toreador song and Carmen’s Habanera aria.
OWR’s production features Rhea Olivacce in the title role. At a recent rehearsal at Stambaugh, Skiba gave stage movement to his star in order to maximize her connection to the audience.
A trained dancer and actor, Skiba knows that it takes more than just great singing to tell the story.
“I take the approach that opera is physical poetry,” he said. “The whole body is involved in the singing, and the movement should enhance what you are singing. If a singing actor is doing it right, the audience should not have to look at the supertitle screen [the English translation is shown on a screen above the stage]. They will hear the truth.”
Olivacce, a native of the island of Dominica, is making her debut in the role, but she has appeared in past OWR productions.
The cast also includes Kisma Jordan as Micaela; Matthew Vickers, Don Jose; Luke Scott, Escamillo; Alexa Lokensgard, Frasquita; Shafica Kaleel, Mercedes; Michael Pegher, El Remendado; Giustino Carrano, El Dancairo; Brian Keith Johnson, Morales; and Jason Budd, Zuniga.
Skiba’s love of all opera, and “Carmen” in particular, has something to do with the timelessness of the truth in its stories.
“‘Carmen’ is not about what happened,” said Skiba. “It’s about what will happen. It’s not a museum art form. It’s a story that happened once upon a time and could happen again.”