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OWR prepares hybrid version of ‘Romeo + Juliet’

Opera Western Reserve Production Director Scott Skiba takes a musical theater approach to an operatic version of “Romeo + Juliet.”

While all dialogue traditionally is sung in an opera, the staging Friday at Stambaugh Auditorium blends Charles Gounod’s opera with dialogue from Shakespeare’s original play. And the only opera singers in the cast, Sarah Joyce Cooper and Jesus Daniel Hernandez, play the young lovers named in the title.

“I thought it would be an interesting way tell the story if we bounced between spoken word and singing and if Romeo and Juliet are the only people who sing,” Skiba said. “They live in this world, but they are part of their own world.”

Taking that approach allowed him to rethink the other characters. Instead of casting with vocal ability as the top priority, he could cast with other skills in mind.

“My imagination always goes a million miles a minute,” he said. “I started to think, what if for the sword fighting, if they don’t have to be opera singers, we could focus on stage combat specialists? Not only are they creating the fight choreography, they are fighting as the principal fighters.”

Some of Skiba’s creativity was driven by necessity. Instead of staging a full-length opera in front of a live audience at Stambaugh in 2020, Skiba and OWR created “A Taste of La Traviata,” an abbreviated version of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera that used the auditorium itself instead of sets as the backdrop for the action.

When preparation began earlier in the year, there was no way of predicting what, if any, kind of restrictions might be in place in November.

“We could easily make a movie again (if necessary),” Skiba said. “If we could do more of a live performance, then we could slide the scale of the audience, maybe big or maybe limited to a handful that could come live or it all could be streamed.”

Changes were put in place to increase the safety of the performers. Most auditions were submitted online.

“We sorted through and listened to all of the submissions,” Skiba said. “We contact some of them, either to record a couple new things or to come to Youngstown and sing live if possible. We ended up with a fantastic up-and-coming soprano, Sarah Joyce Cooper (as Juliet). I think her vocalism, her phrasing, her artistry just jumped off the screen. Oh, wow, she’s perfect. Yes, I can believe this person as Juliet.

“Jesus, he was with us in June to do a concert and has appeared on stage many times. He’s a great artist, a great colleague and a fun guy to have around. I needed someone who cuts a dashing figure. It’s absolutely believable that he would risk anything for her.”

Jason Paul Tate does double duty as Tybalt and as the fight choreographer, and he just finished working on a production for Metropolitan Opera before coming to Youngstown, Skiba said. His adversary in the sword fight is Leilani Barrett, a professional dancer and choreographer.

The rest of the cast includes Joz Vammer, Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Carla Baldwin (as Magistrate Prince), Jonathan Stuckey, Stephanie Chavara, Joe Soriano, Tommy O’Donnell, Lynn Ohle, Alex Kluchar, Robert K. Ellway, Colleen Sabeh and Lisa Torrence.

Safety precautions continued during rehearsals. With fewer singers on stage, there’s less chance of the circumstances that turned some choral performances into superspreader events in the early days of the pandemic. A smaller orchestra, led by guest conductor Dean Buck, favors strings over woodwinds in an effort to limit aerosol contaminants.

The familiarity of the story and the hybrid approach could make the production more appealing to those who don’t normally attend opera, and Skiba said he believes this is a production that will hook those novices who give it a chance.

“‘Romeo & Juliet” was the first opera I was ever involved in in 1998,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful rendition of the story. The music is soaring and gorgeous and that combined with Shakespeare … The curtain opens and within 30 seconds there’s this orchestral overture, dynamic ‘Prince Bride’-level sword fighting and that text. We have all of these happening right at the beginning. This is the ride you’re on.”

If you go …

WHAT: Opera Western Reserve — “Romeo + Juliet”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Stambaugh Auditorium, 1000 Fifth Ave., Youngstown

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $25 to $75 and are available at the Stambaugh box office, online at stambaughauditorium.com and by calling 330-259-0555.

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