Opera comes to Brattleboro

New company hopes to entertain while growing an audience for their art

BRATTLEBORO — Panopera, a new opera company for the community in and around Southern Vermont, is providing a fresh look at an old form of musical theater.

For instance, conductor and piano accompanist Hugh Keelan recently interrupted one of the company's recitals at Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro to challenge the audience.

After one of the company, Jenna Rae, sang in the original Italian, Senza Mamma from Pietro Mascagni's, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Keelan turned to the audience and asked, “What was [Rae] singing about? What kind of character was she impersonating? And what do you think this story of the opera might be about?"

“She seemed like someone in love,” someone said.

Someone else suggested that she may have lost something.

A third audience member opined that she was asking for something.

These were good answers, Keelan said. Then he asked, “What do you think would happen if you instructed a singer to perform an aria with more sadness, more intensity, slower, faster?”

An uneasy silence followed.

The concept that an audience could have any role in deciding what happens on stage probably struck most everyone as strange.

But audience involvement is what Panopera ( is all about.

Supporting local talent

Panopera is a founded on the principles of community building as it strives to improve the artistic environment of the areas in and around southern Vermont. Taking pride in supporting local talent, Panopera is dedicated to producing the highest quality in performance and production.

“We will have fine singers doing great music, all in the original language,” says Keelan. “I'm even uncertain about using subtitles projected on stage to translate what's being sung. I want understanding all to come from the music and the singing.”

Founded this year by Windham Orchestra Conductor Hugh Keelan, singers Alan Schneider and Jenna Rae, freelance designer Adrian Eames, and Heather Bell, who brings a strong business background, Panopera seeks to create a more interactive theater experience.

Panopera aims to develop new ways of experiencing opera through interactive gaming technology, through which the audience can affect what happens on stage.

According to Eames, the company is developing smartphone apps to make this happen. But even now, he says, most of the needed technology is available online.

“We need only to utilize it. Much of what we will be doing is already being done in video games,” he told The Commons.

Audiences will be encouraged to bring their mobile devices to participate in interactive performances. They'll respond to questions posed during the opera about how they're feeling in the moment, grab photos and videos during the event to share live, and project their own sets and scenes onto their screen behind the performers, he said.

Audiences also will be invited to tweet their responses to an aria being sung, then discuss their responses with the singer – and have the singer sing the aria again, taking into account what came of the dialogue.

“The sky's the limit,” Eames said.

Building an audience

Panopera will produce opera for, and often by, members of the local community, both experienced and novice opera-goers, and anyone who might want to check it out for the first time.

“Our mission is to bring the 'grand' back to grand opera,” Keelan says.

“Our prospective audience will no longer be passive,” Keelan says, “but rather will be treated more like audiences in Florence in the 1600s, where opera began, or [wider] Italy in the 19th century where opera became the great popular entertainment for all classes of people, or for that matter anywhere opera really flourished.”

Panopera performed its first public concerts, a series of four, in May in Brattleboro and Northampton, Mass. Accompanied by Keelan on piano, singers including James Anderson, Margery McCrum, Jenna Rae, Kate Saik, and Alan Schneider sang arias, solos, duets, and choruses from the worlds of opera, light opera, and musical theater, from composers such as Wagner, Verdi, and Gershwin.

And those concerts proved that Panopera could call on community involvement, Keelan said. When Panopera put out a call on its Facebook page for a silver rose as a prop for Richard Strauss's comic “Der Rosenkavalier,” Brattleboro jewelry designer Seth Bordonaro came to the rescue with a beautifully crafted silver rose for the recital.

Panopera has plans for another round of introductory concerts in the summer, when the company will perform an act from three operas. This is all leading up to a full-scale staged production of Verdi's “Aida” in December. Venues include the Latchis Theatre and the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass., with dates to be announced.

“These are theaters that can be both intimate and thrilling for an opera performance. For opera, they're relatively small spaces. Our singers have big voices, even without electronic amplification. They make an insane amount of sound that can be viscerally exciting. Believe me,” Keelan says, “the walls will rattle."

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