July 21, 2013

Bob Keyes: Opera strikes a chord in young artists

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

Michelle Johnson as Mimi and Jeffrey Gwaltney as Rodolfo rehearse a scene from “La Boheme.” The PORTopera production opens Wednesday at Merrill Auditorium.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer



WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, and 2 p.m. July 28

WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland

HOW MUCH: $41 to $105 through PortTix, the Merrill box office; 842-0800 or porttix.com

INFO: portopera.org

The story of "La Boheme" is richly layered and detailed, and one to which any young artist working in Portland today could relate.

The Giacomo Puccini opera, on stage this week at Merrill Auditorium courtesy of PORTopera, brings audiences into the daily lives of young artists struggling in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

As only opera can do, it tells the story of romance and heartbreak, and the struggle to balance one's passion with an everyday need to survive.

It opens with two young men, a poet and a painter, who feed the pages of a failed drama into the stove for feeble heat. Their roommates -- a musician and a philosopher -- arrive with food, fuel and funds.

When their landlord shows up to collect rent, they ply him with wine instead, and then head out on the town for a night of carousing.

Sung in Italian, the story unfolds into romance, jealousy and desperate tragedy.

"I love this opera because the characters are so real," said Dona D. Vaughn, the company's artistic director extraordinaire. "The characters are all people we can relate to, whether here in Portland or New York or Paris and or another city where artists dwell. These are people with egos, people who have problems, people who have courage. These are people with ups and downs in relationships."

"La Boheme" remains one of the most produced and popular operas on the circuit. That is why PORTopera is doing three performances: On Wednesday and Friday nights and a matinee on July 28.

Aside from the cast, noteworthy on the production team are two men: The music director Israel Gursky, who is back with PORTopera for the third time; and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, who lives in Portland and works on Broadway. He is a Tony Award-winning lighting designer who does not often get the chance to work in his hometown.

And now, the cast.

The leads are played by Michelle Johnson as Mimi, Jeffrey Gwaltney as Rodolfo, Alyson Cambridge as Musetta and Edward Parks as Marcello.

All are successful in their careers in opera, and all have sung on many of the most coveted stages in the United States and elsewhere. And all feel an affinity with the characters they portray.

There but for the grace of God, they might tell themselves in a quiet moment.

"I think I can speak for all us about the struggling artist sort of thing," Cambridge told me during a break in rehearsals last week. "We all obviously hope to be successful in our careers, and we've all achieved some level of success. But I think we can all relate to these Bohemians we portray. They are artists, painters and singers trying to find their way. We've all been there."

Cambridge grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., and gravitated toward music and singing early on. She began voice lessons at age 12, but almost hid her interest in music from her peers. She wasn't sure if she would be accepted, and it took prodding by a particularly supportive music teacher, who told her she had "powerful pipes," to convince her to sing at a school assembly. When she finished "the entire audience went nuts," she recalled. "I was like, 'Really? Really? Really?' "

When she arrived in science class after her vocal debut, her friends held up a glass beaker and challenged her to break the glass with her voice.

College followed, and then she focused on developing her voice in a professional manner. By all accounts, she has made it in the opera world. She appeared in the PORTopera production of "Don Giovanni," and has sung with the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Lyric Opera. This season, she sings with the Washington National Opera, the San Diego Opera and at Royal Albert Hall in London, among others.

(Continued on page 2)

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