For first time ever, Michigan Opera Theatre, DSO team up for Saturday performance

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
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Looking for just the right venue to stage an opera set in the Italian countryside, Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Director Yuval Sharon in February visited Rochester Hills' Meadow Brook Amphitheatre.

The wintry trek was worth it. Even with 6 inches of snow and ice, Sharon, known for pushing opera's boundaries, could envision a "magical" outdoor setting. It would be just the right fit for the opera theatre's first live show of its new season and first collaboration with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

"There was so much ice but it was magical," said Sharon, recalling his February visit. "I just knew that when the trees were blooming there'd be this feeling of a kind of rustic environment."

Michigan Opera Theatre's Artistic Director Yuval Sharon, left, and Associate Artistic Director Christine Goerke strike a pose and share a laugh on stage at Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, before media interviews about the DSO and MOT conducting a combined performance this Saturday.

That show, a concert performance of Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria rustiana," begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at Meadow Brook (see box for ticket details). And for the first time ever, the performance will team up the MOT and the DSO's Music Director Jader Bignamini, who will conduct the opera theatre's orchestra and chorus.

"This is the beginning," said Bignamini during a media preview day Tuesday. "This is the first, but not the last (collaboration)...We have a lot of different musical realities (in Detroit) and I think we have to put them all together. This is an opportunity."

The performance, which will have some COVID-19 protocols in place, including limited seating and a built-out stage to spread out musicians, is the first outdoor show at one of Metro Detroit's major amphitheaters since the pandemic started. And leaders from both the MOT and DSO say they can't wait to experience a performance with an in-person audience again.

Michigan Opera Theatre's Associate Artistic Director Christine Goerke, left, and Artistic Director Yuval Sharon, right, talk with DSO Maestro Jader Bignamini, center, on stage at Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, before media interviews about their organizations combined performance here this Saturday.

"I'm so excited," said Christine Goerke, an acclaimed soprano and the MOT's new associate artistic director, who will be making her role debut in "Cavalleria" as Santuzza. "This is the first time I've really been with a full orchestra since February (2020). It's a huge deal. This is also a role debut for me. I've wanted to do this my entire life. And I'm just so excited to be doing it in a situation like this."

Howard Handler, president of 313 Presents, called Meadow Brook Amphitheatre the "perfect" venue for Saturday's performance. And it's really a return to live performances, he said. Roughly 40 more shows are planned through October at 313's venues, Meadow Brook, Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre at Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights and DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston.

"It's welcoming people back and giving people that opportunity to feel that connection and be with everybody else that loves the opera and the DSO," said Handler of Saturday's performance. "It's really an emotional moment for people. We've all had to live without the magic of live (shows) for 16 months."

Mutual support

Sharon said the MOT initiated the collaboration with the DSO because he knew how important opera is to Bignamini. And given how new both Sharon and Bignamini are to their organizations, "it just felt like let's start our tenures in a cooperative fashion. We're starting in such strange circumstances. This is such a great celebratory moment for us to say 'We're back. Live music is back. Opera is back.'"

DSO Maestro Jader Bignamini during a media interview at Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, about their organizations combined performance here this Saturday.

If anything, Sharon admits it's surprising the MOT and DSO haven't collaborated earlier. He hopes it's the start of "many."

"It's one of those things that people go, 'Really? That's never happened before?'" said Sharon. "At the very least, we're beginning from a place of absolute mutual support. We both want each organization to thrive. When both organizations thrive, Detroit benefits. That's really the goal."

Community-based opera

Saturday's one-act concert performance -- which was originally scheduled for mid-May but pushed back a month due to COVID and weather concerns -- will be one of many the MOT plans to stage outside the Detroit Opera House during its 2021-2022 season as part of its goal to make opera more accessible and bring it into the community. Other venues will include the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre and the same Detroit parking structure where it staged last summer's highly regarded "Twilight: Gods."

"I want opera to be close to every day life," said Sharon. "I want people to not think about it as the castle on the hill that is forbidding, unapproachable, inaccessible, distant. All of that stuff."

Sharon said there should be no barriers to enjoying opera, which is one reason why he loves outdoor amphitheaters.

With no boxed seating, "it's the ultimate democratic space," said Sharon. "An amphitheater is designed so everyone is absolutely equal. And I love that. And it's perfect for a piece like 'Cavalleria.'"

COVID-19 protocols

Some COVID-19 protocols will be in place. Masks aren't required, though guests can wear them if that's what they feel most comfortable with. Pod seating will be marked out on the lawn for ticket-holders.

And while the state's capacity limits have since been lifted, patrons will still be socially distanced under the pavilion. Tickets were still available as of Tuesday.

Safety is their No. 1 priority, said Handler and Sharon.

Real-life opera

"Cavalliera," which premiered in the 1890s, was unusual in that it wasn't about kings or royalty but about peasants and everyday life. Sharon said it kicked off a whole new genre of opera called verismo, or closer to real-life.

"That was part of was so innovative about this opera," said Sharon. "For me, for that reason, it is so wonderful that we are starting with a piece that is about proximity and every day life. That will continue for us. That is, in many ways, a theme of the whole season."

'Cavalleria rustiana'

7 p.m. Saturday at Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, 160 Festival Drive, Rochester Hills.

Tickets start at $49. Go to

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