Verismo Opera will perform Verdi’s masterpiece, perennial favorite La Traviata, this Sunday afternoon at the Berkeley Hillside Club as part of a 14-performance tour of the Bay Area that will continue in Mill Valley (Feb. 27-28), Vacaville (March 7) and Vallejo (March 27-28).
Violetta will be sung for the Berkeley show by soprano Eliza O’Malley, Alfredo by tenor Darron Flagg. The cast includes Peter Mendiara as Gastone, Robert McGiver as the Messenger, Lawrance Phillips as the Baron and the Doctor, John Rhoads Jr. as the Marquis, Larry Severino as Giuseppe, MaryAnne Stanislaw as Flora, Chris Wells as Germont and Ellen Yeung as Annina. Corey Wilkins will conduct the accompaniment by piano and chamber orchestra, with stage direction by Verismo founder Frederick Winthrop.
“When a coach at Aspen 10 years ago recommended I look at the role of Violetta, I never dreamed I would actually get the chance to take on this fascinating character!” O’Malley said. “Working on something that’s done over and over can seem funny, but you quickly realize why it’s been done a million times. It’s always said Violetta’s role is written for three types of sopranos, lyric, coloratura and dramatic. It has a lot of flexibility to play different sides of the character. The thing I love about it is that all you have to do is what the composer has written. The pacing is really good; it has the right amount of everything. And it’s heartwrenching.”
O’Malley spoke of tenor Darron Flagg, who will sing Alfredo at the Hillside Club. “He was a music major in college; I think his mother’s a church musician. He became a lawyer, but five years ago came back to singing, playing Elijah Muhammed in Anthony Davis’ Malcolm X opera at Oakland Operatheater. He sang Don Jose last summer for Pocket Opera.”
This is the third year in a row O’Malley has sung at the Hillside Club, each time with a different opera company. “Robert Ashens produced Pagliacci; Goat Hall did Marriage of Figaro last year. They were looking for Berkeley venues, so I suggested the Hillside Club. I love singing there because the acoustics are so good and Berkeley audiences are enthusiastic. I got to know it through meetings there of the Etude Club of Berkeley. And Erma Wheatley and John Feld, the caretakers there—such nice people!—have promised good food at the concessions, and they have a machine for cappuccino.”
O’Malley also spoke of Verismo Opera and its founder. “Larry Severino got me involved in Pagliacci several years ago. Later, when I was doing Marriage of Figaro, we were desperate to get someone to run the supertitles. A singer friend of mine did it; I asked if I could return the favor. It was for Verismo’s Carmen. Larry recognized me. Fred [Winthrop], the director, is a tenor himself and has run a bunch of different opera companies. This company offers opera at a reasonable price, without a super-elaborate production, and produces Verdi in particular and all the Verismo type of operas.”
(The website, verismoopera.org, states, “Performances are in a classical chamber music setting that provides an intimate dramatic feeling with a distinctive personal touch. Instead of using an expensive opera house, we are portable and travel to various theater venues with singers, costumes, a small set and a chamber orchestra ... Some of our favorite opera composers include: Mozart, Puccini and Verdi.”)
Larry Severino, who has sung in many operas and serves as supernumerary with San Francisco Opera, recalled with humor times he worked on two operas at once with Winthrop, dissasembling elaborate sets that had to be removed after every performance with only a screwdriver, pliers and an adjustable wrench (“Along with scraped knuckles and into the wee hours of the morning, we did get it done!”)—and a fast run from Sanchez Theatre in Pacifica, where they’d just finished Tosca, up the coast to the Palace of Legion of Honor, for Ariadne Auf Naxos, curtain rising a half hour after the curtain dropped in Pacifica, with Winthrop behind the wheel. “Fred must’ve been a Grand Prix driver in a past life,” Severino averred. “I was backstage right in the wings at the Legion three minutes prior to my entrance.”
Feats like that were in the days when Winthrop was one of three original partners that founded San Francisco Lyric Opera, “back in ’96,” according to Severino. “It ran for a couple of years, then the Palmers took it over for four or five more. Fred’s been the general director of many little opera companies at the moment they needed one, running them for awhile until they ran out of money! He directed City Opera, Golden West ... so many I’ve forgotten them! California Opera in Fresno ... Fred does so much more than most general directors: prompts for rehearsals and performances, since he knows many works by memory; not only determines the set, but the grunt work of setting up and striking; and filling in for singers out ill at the last minute, even when he was conductor of an 18-piece orchestra when we did Fidelio!
“Now Verismo’s a going thing. Fred was a member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus for many, many years. He’s now retired totally, living in Cordelia, near Fairfield, devoting all his energy the past two and a half years or so to Verismo. I’ve been in most all of Fred’s productions and I must say it’s been most rewarding—and so much fun!”
Presented by Verismo Opera at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St. $15-$20. (707) 864-5508. verismoopera.org.