Like many artists and arts organizations, Opera Quad Cities struggled mightily in the past two and a half years.
But the 21-year-old nonprofit is back with its first full, live musical production since 2019 with an “Opera Showcase Celebration” — Friday, June 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 19 at 2 p.m., at Bartlett Performing Arts Center, Moline High School, 3600 Avenue of the Cities. Tickets are $30 for the general public, $25 for seniors and free for students, available HERE.
Soprano Clare Kuttler, mezzo-soprano Kelly Hill and baritone Saul Nache will be joined by eight regional professional singers and a chorus accompanied by full orchestra. Led by maestro Nathan Windt, Opera Quad Cities will present a joyful celebration of the world’s finest arias, duets, and choruses by Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti, Bizet, Bernstein, Strauss and others.
All three of the primary soloists are Quad-City natives — Kuttler is a Davenport West High alum; Hill is from Bettendorf, and Nache from United Township.
“When the company existed prior to the 2008 recession, the primary goal was to feature local singers,” conductor Windt (a St. Ambrose music professor) said this week. “So for us to be able to incorporate home-grown, exceptionally talented singers is pretty cool. On top of that, our chorus has a lot of local celebrities — people that are no stranger to the opera stage or to Music Guild stage.”
A goal of this concert is to welcome everyone back to Opera Quad Cities, and offer musical selections for everyone.
“I think this kind of collage concert of greatest hits is really going to appeal to a lot of people,” Windt said. “There’s so many things about it that people are going to enjoy.”
“It’s a professional paid chorus and they sound terrific,” he said, noting there are over 30 singers in the ensemble. “When I’ve done these in the past, people always remark on how much they enjoy hearing live orchestra. The orchestra sounds good, the singers always sound good. So I just think top to bottom, everything is going to be really terrific.”
The 30-plus orchestra players all have professional experience in regional orchestras, Windt said. “They’re pretty awesome. They’re great to work with; they are gracious with me,” he said.
A “Butterfly” on the back burner
The last fully-staged Opera QC production was in June 2019, with the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “Pirates of Penzance” at St. Ambrose University, Davenport. They planned to stage the Puccini classic “Madame Butterfly” in June 2020 at Bartlett, which was cancelled due to COVID.
“There were so many hurdles to get it accomplished — finding the proper singer to play Butterfly is always a challenge for any other company,” Opera QC president Ron May said recently. “The person we had was finishing her graduate work at the University of Iowa, and she was from China. It was the most beautiful voice, but she had to return and she would be willing to bring her back if we would pay her airfare. Well, we simply can’t do that.”
Another challenge was that the costume company they were using went out of business, and the costume costs also would have been too high with another, he noted.
“We would have to recast everything. And there were still people being pretty cautious about coming out — just like a lot of people in other businesses are cautious about returning into the same environment,” May said. “So we decided make sure this is the best way to still keep that grand opera feeling, to do it without a production that we didn’t have costumes for, or scenery building.”
The upcoming Moline concert includes the famous “humming” chorus from “Madame Butterfly.” Other choral numbers include the equally beloved “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco and inspiring, uplifting “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s Candide.
“I have not been able to listen to ‘Butterfly’ since 2020,” Windt said. “I was studying it in depth and I’m still not at the point where I can listen to that fully, because it brings back some painful memories about all of the shutdown.
“So, to be able to showcase one of the great opera choruses – it just has this beautiful sound and to be able to bring that from what we would have done in 2020 into this performance, which also offers so many other new things, it’s a tiny bit bittersweet,” he said. “ut for the most part, it’s just great to be able to have a little bit of Butterfly and all of these other great songs.”
It is better they’re not doing that tragic opera now anyway, after a million American lives lost due to COVID, Windt said. In the 1904 opera, the title character (Cio-Cio-san, which is Japanese for “butterfly”) kills herself at the story’s end.
“ ‘Butterfly’ is an amazing opera, but it is unbelievably tragic,” Windt said. “So we thought, if we’re going to celebrate the return of Opera Quad Cities, we want to be able to do it in a really exuberant, joyful way, and of course, in opera there is tragedy. There is some heartbreak, but there’s also a joy and life and celebrations. So we, that wasn’t the right thing for us now.”
The benefits of opera variety
The June 17/19 variety opera showcase format was much easier to put together than a full opera, and still be an accessible way to highlight local singers, May said.
“We’re going to just make it a true celebration, where the audience will have program notes with translations and just set the scene of what every song represents from each of the different operas,” he said. “We’ve lost all of our momentum, as many people have – but at least we didn’t go under.”
“What’s important to grasp about opera is that the music is so full of emotion,” May said. “Even though you may be singing in a different language, you still feel the emotion. And that’s sets opera apart from classical music, in general, instrumental music — when you’re listening to a symphony, what I enjoy doing is I listen to the structure and the melodies and the key changes and how the wizardry of the composer manages to work things around in a beautiful way. It’s a tapestry of sound.
“Opera is much more distinctive than that. It deals with the emotions because the singers are presenting a text that’s passionate and it’s almost always something everyone can relate to in one way or another.”
Opera is true storytelling.
“When you’re listening to a symphony, it can be storytelling, but sometimes it’s just beautiful tapestry of sound, but opera is storytelling that touches the heart,” May said. The tag line of Opera QC is “Everyday emotions, extraordinary music.”
The company also aims to nurture the future of opera, so it’s vital that students are admitted free for the concerts, Windt said.
“All students are free with student ID, but more in terms of building the future of opera, enthusiasm, and carrying on the style,” he said. “If you have any kind of an inkling for music, so we want our young people to be at the concert, and we think all of these musical ideas — they’re totally relevant, all the things that we deal with, loss and love and heartbreak, and excitement. “
“I think lots of people could and should come because it’s going to be a great event, but I really for me, would love to see a strong student attendance at these events,” Windt added.
Stellar cast of soloists
The primary soloists for the showcase are:
- Clare Kuttler, soprano, is a versatile singing actress, performing operatic and concert repertoire throughout the United States, including at the Metropolitan Opera. Recent performances include her Carnegie Hall debut as soprano soloist in Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem with Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY), company and role debuts as Bea in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers with Opera Birmingham, the title role in The Merry Widow for New Rochelle Opera and Long Island Opera, and the role of Alexis in Offenbach’s The Island of Tulipatan with Light Opera of New York.
- Kelly Hill, mezzo-soprano, is currently completing her doctoral degree in vocal studies at the University of Iowa. Most recently, she portrayed matriarch Madeline Mitchell in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers with the University of Iowa Opera Theater. At Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, she sang Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, nearly a decade after covering the same role as a Young Artist with the company. Hill debuted with her hometown symphony, Quad City Symphony Orchestra, in one of the main roles in the world premiere of Jacob Bancks’ opera Karkinos in February 2022.
- Saul Nache, baritone, enjoys performing regionally in various opera, concert, and cabaret venues. Some of his favorite roles include Schaunard in La Boheme, Guglielmo in Cos fan tutte, Yamadori in Madama Butterfly, Bobby in Weill’s Mahagonny, and Papageno in Die Zauberflte. Nache sang the title character in Opera QC’s 2018 production of The Marriage of Figaro. Favorite concert repertoire includes the solos for Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, Faure’s Requiem and Mozart’s Requiem.
Other soloists in the QC showcase are Shelley Cooper, Jonathan Schrader and his wife Rochelle, Eric Ashcraft, Katherine Gallaert, Taylor Mayne, Karmi de Jesus Rivera, and Miriam Anderson.
Bartlett background and opera plans
The $12-million Bartlett Performing Arts Center at Moline High School, which opened in March 2019, was decades in the making and inspired by one family’s love for the arts.
Insurance executive Robert E. Bartlett (1927-1998), whose father was a founder of Quad-City Music Guild, loved Moline and financially supported the regional arts scene during his life.
The Robert E. Bartlett Foundation funded two-thirds of the center, for which Ron May (a longtime MHS choir director) was a strong proponent. The project involved completely rebuilding the 60-year-old auditorium and adding a 14,000-square-foot expansion.
Next June (2023), Opera QC plans to do a fully staged opera, the title to be announced at the conclusion of the June 19 concert. They will continue the monthly programs (“Opera 101”) at the Moline Public Library, which began this winter, and plan to expand in other outreach programs this fall.
The nonprofit recently received a grant from the Regional Development Authority, to do something similar on the Iowa side of the river. “They’ve given us money to purchase a digital piano, where we can travel places that don’t have a piano,” May said.
“It’s great for us, musically, but it’s also a great service for our community to be able to bring this art form, right to them wherever they are,” Windt said, noting that may include schools.
In the Moline Public Library monthly program (on the second Tuesday), “Opera 101,” they featured four or five singers each evening with a theme, accompanied by piano.
“It’s kind of an informal learn about opera and rebuilding our audience,” May said. “It’s not stuffy and it’s not elite. It’s really wonderful music.”