Mark Richter wants you to forget everything you know about opera. More accurately, he wants you to forget everything you think you know about opera.
Opera is often associated with stereotypes such as being too expensive, difficult to understand, or flat-out boring. Richter, who is the founder and director of Alamo City Opera (ACO), is trying to change these misconceptions by returning opera to the masses and democratizing opera programming in an innovative, accessible, and affordable way. His goal is to shift the public’s perception of the art form from a hard-to-understand and inaccessible privilege of the elite few to an enjoyable experience available to the masses.
“We’ve been breaking all of those stereotypes down by presenting our operas in English, by keeping our ticket prices to where everyone can afford (them) – $15 to $50 at the top tier price – and our staging and storylines are done in a way that are for contemporary subjects,” Richter said about Alamo City Opera’s mission.
Formerly known as Opera Piccola of San Antonio, Alamo City Opera changed its name to signify its transformation while remaining true to the company’s goals and mission. The company is opening its fifth season with the show Broadway vs. Opera at the Pearl Stable on Sept. 23 at 8:00 p.m. and Sept. 25 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here.
Broadway vs. Opera is based on an idea that Richter had a couple of years ago: The program showcases a mix of major hits from Broadway musicals and selections from famous classical operas.
“The program is a tour de force of Broadway standards from old Broadway to Hamilton,” Richter explained. “Now, the opera that is involved in the standards (are) La Bohème and the great Puccini works and Verdi works. It’s an evening that’s going to have your ears humming at the end of the night.”
The programming bounces back and forth between Broadway and opera. The two styles aren’t pitted against each other, but rather woven together by thematic similarities. After all, many Broadway musicals originated in opera, which Richter was quick to point out – Rent, for instance, was inspired by La Bohème.
Alamo City Opera closed its previous season with a Broadway vs. Opera event with different programming that was wildly popular. The working theory behind the program is that the wide variety of musical theater fans in San Antonio will be drawn to the show by the Broadway hits, but will be wowed by, or perhaps introduced to for the first time, the power of opera while they are there as well.
The pieces will be performed by a range of local and national talent including the professional 10-man chorus IlluMen, members of the Kenyan sister group Moipei Quartet, local musical theater veterans Rebecca Seres Trinidad and Mary Marrow, and San Antonian-turned-New Yorker Jillian Cox.
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All artists were selected during Alamo City Opera’s annual auditions, which were held both in San Antonio and New York. Vocal coach and liaison to the local musical theater community Darrin Newhardt, and Musical Director and composer Kristin Roach, will accompany the vocalists on piano during the show while Staging Director Josh Miller will set the scene and coordinate the show.
Jillian Cox said she is excited to perform in her hometown for the first time in five years.
“San Antonio really allowed me to get on stage and experiment in different genres,” Cox said about her time performing in the Alamo City. “I moved to New York with the intent to pursue musical theater … but a little voice inside me was nudging me toward an operatic career.”
While at a singing competition in Boston, Cox was approached by Roach, who invited her to join the show. The two had worked together previously while Cox completed her vocal training at UTSA. Roach had also coached Cox while she was playing the title role in a production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica.
Like Richter, Cox said she also feels that opera is misunderstood. “Opera has this huge stigma around it,” she said, “… But it’s storytelling at the end of the day, just like anything else.”
Richter likened the experience to a movie. “… Think about a movie,” he said. You go in with hopes that your emotions will be aroused, that the music in the movies will add to the momentum and climax, and that you see a story that you can tell your friends about the next day and say, “‘This is incredible’ or ‘What a great comedy,’ or something (like that), you know? Well that’s what opera is.”
Richter has been producing opera in San Antonio for over twenty years and still lights up when he talks about his plans for Alamo City Opera. ACO is only in its fifth year, but has already produced 20 operas, which Richter attributes to his tremendous artistic team.
As the founder of what was then Opera Piccola, Richter spent 17 years producing traditional, large-scale classical opera. Though he enjoys opera in all its forms, he’s found it rewarding to produce opera in an innovative way and in more intimate settings.
Upcoming productions include Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) at the Carver Community Cultural Center in February and Daniel Catán’s La Hija de Rappaccini in May at Thiry Auditorium at Our Lady of the Lake University, which will mark the first time an opera in San Antonio is produced entirely in Spanish.
The Alamo City Opera team’s passion for the art of the opera is evident. What’s been paying off and keeping opera from becoming obsolete is the team’s flexibility in interpreting old classics and adding new twists. Perceptions are slow to change, especially on a small, nonprofit budget, but by remaining innovative, accessible, and affordable, ACO has drawn a larger, younger, and more diverse crowd year after year.
Though Alamo City Opera considers the Empire Theatre its home, Broadway vs. Opera will take place at the Pearl Stable this year in order to switch it up and draw a new crowd. The Pearl Stable, erected in 1894, is a fitting venue for this show as it both preserves the best of the past, and remains fresh and forward thinking, much like Alamo City Opera’s programming.
“Our audiences are young, they’re Hispanic, they’re professional, a lot of times there are young kids coming with their parents,” Richter said. “Of course, we have our wonderful opera aficionados that come just to see the new things, but on the other hand, the new opera goers are young and chic.”
Correction: This article previously stated that Alamo City Opera’s orchestra includes members of the San Antonio Symphony. While this is generally the case, Broadway vs. Opera will solely be accompanied by Newhardt and Roach on piano.
Top image: The cast of last season’s Broadway vs. Opera. Photo courtesy of Opera San Antonio.