BRATTLEBORO -- If this were only a production of the opera "Tosca" it would be a big deal.
But there's more to it than that.
With what seems like a cast of thousands, the Windham Orchestra and PanOpera have joined forces to present Puccini's great work on Friday, May 30, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 1, at 2 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre, and later on Thursday, June 5, at 7:30 p.m, at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass.
That alone should be enough to draw opera-lovers to the performances -- especially because the production is led by three top-caliber soloists in Jenna Rae, Alan Schneider and Stan Norsworthy.
But what about the rest of us?
This production of "Tosca" includes an invitation to set aside our notions about what opera is. It will be presented in ways that aim to bridge the barriers between the audience and the art form, so they can see that "Tosca" for what it is -- us, in raw form.
"I think it dares to go where we, in our comfortable lives, dare not go," said Hugh Keelan, Windham Orchestra director and co-founder of PanOpera, a regional opera company founded on the principles of community building and cooperation. "Who hasn't been selfish and passionate in love? Now, watch Scarpia go the whole distance."
That distance includes torture, murder and suicide, and those, we hope, are not part of our everyday lives. But the essential drama of "Tosca" is.
"Opera is about us," Keelan added. "Puccini knew it, and his music is hair-raising, scandalous, ravishing, heart-achingly tender, as the moment requires."
This production of "Tosca" is about "us" in more ways than that. Featuring principal soloists who come from Chester, Brattleboro and Northampton, Mass., plus complimentary stars from local towns, and the community musicians of the Windham Orchestra, this production openly and proudly makes the case this community has the capacity and talent to produce "Tosca." Furthermore, it makes the case that opera does not have to be the province of an elite few but the proud endeavor of a community.
"We profoundly hope we're demonstrating that participating in the arts is key. Here, people can play oboe, clarinet, violin and bass in the orchestra; here, they can sing soprano, alto, tenor and bass in the chorus. If that's what the opera is, then there really is a space for anybody to contribute something," said Keelan. "We're holding up a mirror to say ‘Yes, you too are part of this.'"
And that includes the audience. At the Latchis, the Windham Orchestra will be on the stage, with the soloists and singers in front of them. The drama will be semi-staged, and the performers will occasionally move through the theater to give audience members more of a sense that they are in and among the events as they unfold.
Furthermore, the audience will be given a chance to sing a short passage -- 20 notes -- that concludes the first act. Those notes will be taught 30 minutes prior to the performances.
To help guide audience members, there will be projected titles, but not the running transcript most subtitles or supertitles are.
"We want to give the minimal amount of information to get everybody's attention back to the drama," said Keelan. "We want to leave some questions. At certain points, we withhold information."
Those titles will be projected onto artwork contributed by local artists. PanOpera is still welcoming artists to contribute artwork around certain themes and images associated with the opera. To fine out more, visit www.PanOpera.net.
The end result, hopefully, is to erase the distances that typically exist between audiences and performers and make everyone feel involved.
"We do intend to bring the drama into every seat in the audience," said Keelan. "What we want people to be left with is (the thought) ‘I had no idea that opera was like that.'"
"This opera is in your face," said Jenna Rae, PanOpera co-founder and soprano singing the role of Tosca in this production.
Rae is relishing not only the chance to stretch her chops -- this performance marks her first as a soprano -- and sing such lovely music, including the aria "Vissi d'arte," but also to tackle a juicy role.
"She's a narcissist. She is, at the same time, completely naive and a woman of the world," said Rae, known to local audiences as a mezzo-soprano in performances with Friends of Music at Guilford, the Windham Orchestra and in the Hugh Keelan Ensemble's 2008 production of "Suor Angelica." "It's the first time that I've gotten to be the prima donna. It's such a thrill to me to be able to do it here."
A graduate of Northwestern University, Rae went on to study voice and opera performance at the New England Conservatory and the Longy School of Music and sang with the chorus for Boston Lyric Opera. She is studying voice with Stan Norsworthy. She teaches music and drama at The St. Michael School in Brattleboro and lives in Putney with her two boys.
From Northampton, Mass., tenor Alan Schneider will perform the role of Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca's lover. Schneider has appeared in opera, operetta and music theater productions with many companies, including Opera Boston, Sarasota Opera, OperaDelaware, Florida Grand Opera, The Huntington Theatre Company, The North Shore Music Theatre, Opera New England and Boston Bel Canto Opera. With Boston Lyric Opera, he has appeared in "The Flying Dutchman," "La Traviata," "Lucia de Lammermoor," "Salome," "Don Carlos," "Carmen" and "Rigoletto." In 2010 he made his international debut as Idomeneo with IVAI in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is an alumnus of The University of Massachusetts at Amherst and received his master's Degree from Boston University.
Baritone Stan Norsworthy will perform the role of Baron Scarpia, who plots to possess Tosca and execute Cavaradossi. He has had a distinguished career in the U.S. and Europe, both as a baritone and a heldentenor. He has performed solo engagements with orchestras throughout North America and Europe, has participated in major music festivals, has performed many of the major baritone and heldentenor operatic roles, and has soloed in major concert works such as Handel's "Messiah" and the Requiems of Verdi, Brahms, Mozart and Faure.
Norsworthy completed a bachelor's in vocal performance at Baylor University. He won first place in the Metropolitan Opera Southwest Regional Auditions and the Young Artist Competition of the National Federation of Music Clubs. He continued study at Indiana University with a master's in vocal performance working with retired Metropolitan Opera singers Margaret Harshaw and Charles Kuhlman. After studies at the Academy for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, Austria, with a Metropolitan Opera National Council Grant, one of three that he has received, he was engaged as heldentenor by the German Staatstheater Braunschweig. Norsworthy lives and teaches in Chester.
The supporting cast members all have local ties, and are of varied backgrounds: a clown; a conductor, singer and teacher; an 11 year-old; a musicologist; three are novices to operatic singing. The supporting cast includes baritone Cailin Marcel Manson, Director of Music at The Putney School, as the Sacristan, Javier Luengo-Garrido as Cesare Angelloti, Patrick Donnelly and Preston Forchion.
Also joining the Windham Orchestra for "Tosca" are a children's group, an adult chorus and military drummers.
Tickets to the May 30 and June 1 performances at the Latchis Theatre are $10-40 general admission (pick your own price), or $75 for premium seating. They are available at BrattleboroTix.com or by calling the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523.
For the Northampton performance, tickets are $20 for all seats, available at academyofmusictheatre.tix.com or call 413-584-9032, ext. 105.
For more information, visit www.bmcvt.org or call the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523.