Annapolis Opera celebrates 50th anniversary, charges ahead

By Sigurd Neubauer

01/23/2023

In December of last year, the Annapolis Opera Company celebrated its 50th anniversary. Since its inception in 1972, the Annapolis Opera has come a long way from a volunteer-run organization to one that has become fully professionalized. It has even established its own unique identity in the process: it specializes in featuring up-and-coming arts professionals, which not only include aspiring singers but stage managers and others who have demonstrated a commitment to pursuing a career in the arts.

Annapolis, the state capital of Maryland, is known for its stunning architecture. It even briefly served as the capital of the United States, from November 26, 1783, to August 19, 1784.

While Annapolis is home to the oldest continuously used state house in the country, the city has more than 1,100 historic buildings and the largest concentration of 18th-century architecture in the United States, according to the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

“Our mission is to provide excellent art above all, while at the same time, promote emerging professionals on their way,” says Kathy Swekel, the General Director of the Annapolis Opera Company.

She’s referring to the singers and the technical staff. “Our primary goal is to help them grow and develop professionally.”

The company’s vision, Swekel explains, is to be an “important cultural asset” within the broader Annapolis community.  “We want to be a robust and healthy company capable of not only engaging our own community but also to collaborate with other arts organizations across the country. We’d like to keep at it for another 50 years,” Swekel says with a laugh, then quips: “Even bigger and better, I hope.”

Over the past eight years, since Swekel assumed the position of Director General, the opera company has slowly but surely built out its repertoire and community programs. 

While it survived the Covid 19-Pandemic, which dramatically impacted the world of culture across the United States and beyond, many of what Swekel refers to as the “mid-level opera companies” have faded away over the past 20 years. The pandemic only exasperated this trend.

Kathy Swekel has spearheaded the Annapolis Opera Company since 2014

The Golden Gala was an unforgettable, one-night-only celebration of five glorious decades of opera in Annapolis, which honored our past and looks forward to the next 50 years: Swekel

On what it takes to run an opera company, the Director General explains that it comes to having a board of directors who have embraced a clear vision and goals of what it wants the company to achieve. 

“My goal, along with my colleague Craig Kier, the artistic director, is to bring that vision to fruition.” 

“The art must be quality and feature the best people, even at a budget. This allows us to connect better with the community as we try to offer programs that they are interested in,” Swekel explains.

It’s all about community.

“Opera is an extension of a healthy civic community. Art is where everyone can connect on an equal footing. It doesn’t make a difference what the color of your skin is or how much you make. Music and art are a rare international language to understand and relate to the music and characters,” Swekel says while noting “that’s why entertainment is so important.”

“There is nothing second to experiencing a live opera performance,” Swekel says, adding that she’s always marveled when children experience the art form for the first time. Swekel, a proud grandmother, also brings her grandson to opera whenever the opportunity present itself, she reveals. 

“We have found that by presenting different types of programs, we’re getting a stronger base of supporters,” she adds.

Presently, the organization earns 25 to 50 percent of its annual budget from ticket sales. 20 percent comes from corporate sources, and the remaining from arts councils and large foundations, which are mostly regional.  The Arts Council of Anne Arundel County plays an important role as it provides the Annapolis Opera Company with the operating expenses it requires, Swekel says.

Kara Goodrich and Rafael Moras in Puccini's La Boheme, August 2022

 

Programming 

The Annapolis Opera also offers free programming to the community about the art form. For instance, in 2016, it offered a series featuring the musical South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein – followed by Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) Madam Butterfly – and a lecture at the Naval Academy and a separate one on Japanese kimono dress. 

Rodgers and Hammerstein were a theater-writing team of composer Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) and lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960).

“Our Asia, East meets West series, appeals to people beyond the world of opera. By connecting to other art forms beyond opera, our patrons get a lot out of it,” the General Director explains.

In January 2020, a few months before the pandemic’s arrival, Kier, the Music Director,  was hired. But the company couldn’t produce any performances until the fall of 2021.

“We always produce from the core canon of opera,” Swekel says, referring to Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Puccini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). “Their operas – the top 10 most performed works of all time – are so important and wonderful, which is why they are so beloved and popular.”

Swekel, however, concedes that the company also tries to bring new performances that are not widely known in order “to provide what people feel connected to.”

Jarrod Lee in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, March, 2016 

During Covid, for instance, “We filmed Georg Friedrich Händel’s (1685-1759) Acis and Galatea. It was 40 degrees outside, and they were freezing,” she says with a laugh.  The opera was set in a contemporary setting.

On the Annapolis Opera Company’s guiding principles of staging traditional versus modern productions, Swekel explains that “it all comes down to what is worthy of change,” before quipping: “it also comes down to what our patrons are familiar with.”

For instance, in 2019, it staged Puccini’s Tosca in the setting to the 1920s during the era of Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945).  

The plot centers around three main characters: Rome’s diva Floria Tosca, her lover Mario Cavaradossi (a painter and republican) and the corrupt Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia, according to Opera North.

A few years later, in 2021, the Annapolis Opera produced Gioachino Rossini’s (1792-1868) La Cenerentola(Cinderella), which was staged to match the time and style of America’s 1950s. 

“Our audience is familiar with the film Sabrina – starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden – and The Marvelous Mrs. Maiselrespectively. “The La Cenerentola – or the Cinderella story  – was therefore something that our audience could relate to,” Swekel explains.

She makes one point clear, nonetheless: “We don’t want to alter the context of any opera that we produce. Before producing a modern production, we’re always asking ourselves: are we ‘adding to the experience’ or is it going to be a negative one? It is never capricious progress. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean that we should.”

Shannon Jennings and Derek Taylor in Puccini's Tosca, November 2019

To produce an opera, it takes years of advanced planning. In the case of the Annapolis Opera, the casting of a production begins a year in advance. 

“Then we do the hard work of producing it, which includes finding the talent. We receive around 300 applicants, but only 175 of them will make it to the audition,” she reveals.

Each production requires the various principal roles, which accounts for a dozen singers. If a production requires 30 principal roles, the company then reaches out to its contact network within the world of opera to find the remaining talent to ensure that the standard is being met.

Swekel is referring to Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) La Bohème, which premiered at the Teatro Regio, in Turin, Italy, on February 1, 1896. 

The Annapolis Opera performed it in August of last year.  

In 2019, the opera company staged Puccini’s Tosca in the setting to the 1920s during the era of Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)

On what it took to staff and produce it, Swekel points out that after the 10  principals had been selected a chorus consisting out of 30-50 had to be established.

Next, costumes must be selected, which can become quite complex especially if each member of the chorus has to change costumes once or twice while each of the principals would have to do it at least several more times. “It takes 30 people behind the scenes to make it happen,” the Director General explains. 

When it comes to rehearsals, the company schedules them three weeks prior to the performance, which includes enhancing the vision on how the performance will be on stage.  “There’s always need for improvement,” Swekel says, noting that the singers rehearse six days a week and six hours per day.

The Annapolis Opera plans to announce the 2023-2024 season on February 1.  

All images are credited to the Annapolis Opera Company. 

Meroe Adeeb and Christopher Carbin in Händel’s Acis and Galatea, May 2021
The Annapolis Opera plans to announce the 2023-2024 season on February 1
The Annapolis Opera Company's offices and its principle theater are located at Maryland Hall
[ Annapolis Opera Gala ]

On Friday December 2, 2022, friends and supporters of the Opera gathered at Maryland Hall for hors d’ouerves, drinks, and a concert featuring soprano Colleen Daly, mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, tenor David Walton, and baritone Kevin Godinez. The artists represented the company’s past, present, and future . The music performed reflected the company’s rich history and its artistic excellence: Swekel

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