A fairy tale, Figaro, pirates and death row make up the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s 2016-17 season.
As always, Deborah Sandler, general director and chief executive officer of the Lyric, has put together a season to please opera newbies as well as seasoned audience members looking for something challenging.
The season will begin with “Hansel and Gretel,” a beloved work by Engelbert Humperdinck — the original from the 19th century, not the ’60s-era singer.
The Lyric hasn’t presented “Hansel and Gretel” since 1995, so a performance is long overdue for the opera favorite. Sandler said the Lyric’s production, which originated with Minnesota Opera in 2014, will be a mix of opera and dance.
“When you think of ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ you may not necessarily think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but when you see ours, you may revisit that assumption,” she said. “The work is being directed by the choreographer Doug Varone, and he’s bringing with him his company from New York, so there’s quite a bit of movement in the work. I’m always excited to bring visually and aesthetically inventive productions, and this will fall very happily into that mold.”
In November, the Lyric will present Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in a joint production with Opera Philadelphia and San Diego Opera. Sandler says that Kansas City is the lead co-producer and will be doing all the administration.
“The director and the scenic and costume designer have been busy at work, and when we agree on the plans, we’ll build the production here in Kansas City in our fabulous facility,” Sandler said. “We’ll make the costumes here, as well. There will be shopping trips all over the country for fabric. Then we will launch it out onto the world. We’re very proud of that.”
For those who like their Mozart straight without the imposition of some avant garde director’s vision, not to worry.
“I said I wanted a very traditional ‘Figaro,’ ” Sandler said. “It is not an update in any way.”
But for those who like a challenge, the Lyric has an important production coming in March 2017: Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.” First performed by San Francisco Opera almost 20 years ago, “Dead Man Walking,” based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book about her experiences as a spiritual adviser to those on death row, has been acclaimed as one of the most important operas of our time.
“It’s believed to be the most produced contemporary opera,” Sandler said. “It’s a fabulous piece and has made the career of many a mezzo. The role of Sister Helen Prejean was first performed by Frederica von Stade, and (Prairie Village native) Joyce DiDonato did it very memorably as well. We are having the role sung by Kate Aldrich, who is an internationally known mezzo-soprano.”
After its premiere in 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle declared “Dead Man Walking” “a triumph beyond what even its most optimistic boosters could have predicted.”
Sandler says that Heggie’s score is very accessible and the story of Joseph De Rocher awaiting execution for his brutal murder of two teenagers is powerful and compelling.
“It’s certainly topical for mankind and it’s topical for this country and it’s topical in Missouri,” Sandler said. “We will be doing a lot of ancillary events around the topic. Sister Helen Prejean will be here and the composer will be here. We are having other community partners involved who deal with this issue (capital punishment) on a daily basis. So there will be a number of activities around this.”
The season will conclude with a sure-fire favorite, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”
And what would a Kansas City production of “Pirates” be without Robert Gibby Brand as Major-General Stanley rattling off “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”?
“People love Robert, and we love having him” Sandler said. “We’re also bringing in Kevin Burdette, who plays the role of the Pirate King. He’s tearing up every opera stage in the country. It’s funny because he’s very well-known for doing a lot of roles in contemporary operas, but he has incredible comedic timing and flair.”
Next season, the Lyric is also beginning a resident artist program. Four singers and one pianist, who have completed all of their studies, will be chosen by a national audition to take part in the program to help them transition into a professional career.
The Lyric’s Young Artists program with the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance and the University of Kansas School of Music also is expanding. Renowned tenor and local treasure Vinson Cole will help guide young performers who are at the next step in their professional development.
Sandler hints at other projects in the works, including a series of four smaller-scale vocal performances, which sound quite intriguing.
“They’re not necessarily full productions,” she said. “They’re musical offerings. Each one will be different. Three of them will probably be here in our production facility, so they will be very intimate performances. One is going to be in another venue that we are still trying to nail down. They’ll be very unusual concerts and recitals.”
▪ Sept. 17-25: Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”
▪ Nov. 5-13: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”
▪ March 4-12, 2017: Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking”
▪ April 22-30: W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”
You can reach freelance classical music critic Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org.