Cincinnati Opera: trends and programs

by Laura Hobson

Cincinnati Opera Premieres” Castor and Patience”

A world premiere opera “Castor and Patience”, produced by Cincinnati Opera July 21 – 30 in Corbett Theater of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, drew rave reviews from critics and attendees alike.

Commissioned by Cincinnati Opera for its 100th anniversary in 2020. COVID pushed back the performance to 2022. It was an excellent production with outstanding performances by the singers and a simple, but well-designed set.

Two nationally known artists, Tracy K. Smith, librettist, and Gregory Spears, composer, collaborated on the production directed by Kevin Newburg.  

Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr., played the role of Castor, and soprano Talise Trevigne appeared as Patience in the opera. 

Racial justice themes were evident in the production. “Castor and Patience” probes historical and continuing obstacles to Black land ownership in the U.S. According to the opera libretto, a long overdue family reunion finds two African American cousins at odds over the fate of a historic parcel of land they have inherited in the American South. Castor is eager to sell the land to pay off his crushing debt, but Patience is determined to fight off overzealous investors and preserve her family’s legacy. 

Spears and Tracy Smith were interested in the changing of the landscape in the coastal South. There were Black communities in places like Hilton Head before it was transferred into resorts. Smith said these were places where Blacks pooled their money to buy land after emancipation. 

“We had a lot of conversation about this change,” Tracy Smith said. They explored the relationship between words and music. Early stages of the production began in 2016. By 2019, the play was ready for a Cincinnati workshop in Opera Fusion. New scenes emerged after the workshop production. As a result, collaborators saw their vision and revisions come to life. 

There were two acts with one intermission. Set design was by Vita Tzykun. Jessica John did the costumes. “It is a robust, visual production,” Tracy Smith said. “It is a new work that explores the way Black life and stories can be depicted through opera. In an aria, we all live with mythic stages in our life,” She hoped the Black community would be overjoyed by the power and beauty of the opera. 

living room scene designed by Vita Tzykun

Spears had a good experience with a Cincinnati Opera commission of “Fellow Travelers” in 2016. Evans Mirageas and Harry T. Wilks, artistic director of the opera, said that production was well received. “We wanted the next opera,” he said. He said that the response to “Castor and Patience” on opening night was tumultuous. As a result, he planned to have lunch with Spears to discuss a future production of his next opera.

Spears teaches composition and orchestration at Purchase College Conservatory, part of State University of New York. He has also served as artist-in-residence at various places as well as composer and mentor for American Opera’s Project’s Composers and Voice Program. He has a B. A. in music from the Eastman School of Music, a M. A. in music from Yale School of Music and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. He dreamed of composing professionally. He also was a Fulbright scholar at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. Since then, he has received commissions for professional ensembles.

“The world changes,” said Spears. “There is more commissioning for opera,” now, he said. With his doctorate, he said he enjoyed teaching. Now, he balances teaching and writing, but his first love is writing. 

He has known Tracy Smith for a while and enjoys collaborating with her. There were years of conversations about land and sound as “Castor and Patience” developed slowly. He enjoyed working with a writer and a good friend.  

As a kid, Spears remembers playing the piano with his friends and an orchestra. He fell in love with opera. He took this practice as an abstract collaboration with writers. He put his art form with words. “It was a journey to opera. Opera is about singers,” Spears said. “There are incredible artists. Their feedback was helpful, although the pandemic interrupted the process.”

Spears and Smith were consulted about casting various roles. Spears is grateful for the attention given to this world premiere. “Opera is meant to be seen,” he said. “There are so many steps with the opera. There is a layering effect that is all consuming.” He taps into the energy. “The company has to be there and ready, making shifts as necessary. You can make the music feel good for the singer,” Spears said. 

A native of Atlanta, baritone Reginald Smith has an impressive resume having won five Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He is a graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and appeared as Jake in “Porgy and Bess” when Cincinnati Opera performed it. 

“This opera was the brainchild of Spears and Smith and in the works for a long time,” said singer Smith. “Originally, Cincinnati Opera had someone else in mind. Given the pandemic, it didn’t work out. They came to me afterwards,” he said. He knew Greg Spears’ work and had worked with director Newburg previously.

 “The opera appeals to me. It’s a story about Black people,” said Smith, although he thinks the opera will resonate with all people. 

Reginald Smith, credit Uyang-Cheng

What’s challenging for Smith is that there is a lot of text with depth in the story and nuances that he wants to convey. There are people who have fallen on hard times and the relationship of the cousins.

Smith said, “It is a matter of seeing Black people in important roles, not dealing with trauma.” 

“We’re putting this together as we go,” he said. “I’m on stage in so many scenes that I can’t roll my eyes back to see all the set. There’s a certain nervousness in performing, but I focus on my job. To deliver the show is most important. I get nervous about doing a good job.” 

Even as experienced a performer as he is, he still works with a vocal coach. “It’s not easy at times,” he said, so he gets an outside opinion. “Our voices grow as we get older,” Smith added.  

Tracy K. Smith received her B.A. from Harvard University in 1994, her M.F.A. from Columbia University and served a fellowship at Stanford University in creative writing. “I had a lot of encouragement to read and write,” Smith said. She became a poet and eventually a poet-laureate in 2017 and won the Pulitzer Prize for her work. That said, opera was not her focus originally.

She knew Spears from teaching creative writing at Princeton University. On tenure track there, she ended up tenured at Harvard University where she continues to teach creative writing and literature.

Smith and Spears are working on another piece for the Santa Fe opera in 2024. 

“Castor and Patience” is only one of several productions mounted this year by Cincinnati Opera. There was another world premiere ”Fierce,” “Pirates of Penzance,” “Morris and Friends,” “Aida” and “La Boheme.” 

In viewing the opera, one is struck by the expansive lyrical quality of the music. It is inspiring. Smith delivers a strong performance as Castor with heartfelt singing. The set reflects the opera with visual effects, such as a hanging clothesline, trees on a screen, waves of sea and panels which drop. 

Tracy L. Wilson, director of community engagement and education, works to connect the community with opera. For “Castor and Patience,” she said, “The buzz is out. The story is compelling and engages the community.”

One community event she mentioned was Opera in the Park on June 12 preceded by Opera for All. The doors of Music Hall were open to everyone that afternoon to see and dress in costumes, view ballet and fight scenes, wig and makeup demonstrations. Even “The Magic Flute” by Mozart was on a screen so that visitors could see that opera uses other art forms to express itself. 

In Washington Park, singers performed selections from various operas as well as tunes from Broadway. In addition, there were food trucks, ice cream from Graeter’s, animals from the Cincinnati Zoo and strolling entertainers. Wilson said about 3,000 to 4,000 people attended. Last summer, there was opera performed at Summit Park in Blue Ash. 

Wilson said Cincinnati Opera consciously deals with diversity and inclusion and strives to keep  doors open to all. The present season was already planned before the George Floyd killing. Morris (Robinson) and Friends started with a conversation about five years ago. Robinson asked his colleagues to participate in opera selections followed by a second act of a community choir and gospel. Opera singers also become musicians in the second set. 

Although the Cincinnati Opera had to cancel “Opera Goes to Church” during COVID, Wilson said it will return next year. In addition, the opera will present a video recording of “Fierce” at a number of schools. The opera tries to engage with the creative team and talk about what is going on with teens. “We’re listening to the community,” Wilson said. “What will help them get through it,” she said. “It’s one step at a time.” 

During COVID, the opera produced virtual content and a Share the Love Truck Tour which performed in 30 neighborhoods in Ohio and Northern Kentucky. Cincinnati Opera continues to produce world premieres along with the classics of the repertoire.