Sarah Tucker, third from right, performs along with the chorus during a rehearsal of Opera Maine’s production of “Elixir of Love.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After losing a year to the pandemic, Opera Maine returns to the live-performance arena this month with two operas, including the chamber opera “As One” opening this week in Westbrook about a transgender woman who learns to love herself as she discovers her gender identity.

At the end of the month, Opera Maine will become the first organization to host an event at Merrill Auditorium in Portland when it presents its mainstage production, the comedic Italian opera “The Elixir of Love” by Gaetano Donizetti – a different kind of love story about a young man who feels unworthy of the attention of his heart’s desire, but wins her over when his elixir works.

Both performances will seat up to full capacity, but audience members will be required to wear masks.

“We’re excited to be back,” said Caroline Koelker, Opera Maine’s executive director. “It’s starting to feel like a wonderful return to normal.”

“As One” is Opera Maine’s Studio Artist Production, and will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Sunday at Westbrook Performing Arts Center. It’s a 75-minute chamber piece that tells the story of Hannah in two voices – before her gender discovery and after, sung by baritone Jack Canfield and mezzo-soprano Heather Jones.

It will be sung in English and will include supertitles in English, as well. Palaver String Quartet will accompany the singers, conducted by Jackson McKinnon. Opera Maine’s Studio Artist Director Richard Gammon directs the opera, which was developed in 2014 and has become the most-produced new American opera of recent years. Laura Kaminsky composed the piece, with libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed.

Heather Jones sings in the Opera Maine production of “As One.” Courtesy of Opera Maine

Opera Maine will host post-performance community conversations after each show, and Kaminsky will attend on Friday. Other participants will be Gia Drew, program director of Equality Maine; Brandy Brown, Gender Clinic coordinator at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital; and members of the transgender community. Opera Maine dramaturge Calien Lewis will moderate the discussion. Jones, who performs in the opera as Hannah “after” and identifies as non-binary, also will participate.

Dona D. Vaughn, Opera Maine’s artistic director, said the opera company is “bringing our audience along with us” in its journey of discovery, enlightenment and acceptance. “That is our aim, and we are excited about it,” she said. “It’s important work, and in this day and time, it becomes ever more important.”

The Merrill production of “The Elixir of Love,” at 7:30 p.m. on July 28 and 30, will be presented without intermission, reduced from two acts to about 90 minutes – “but with the thunderous applause, who knows how long the show will be,” quipped Vaughn, who directs the piece. “It will be fun and entertaining Donizetti, and people will leave with a smile on their faces. Entertainment is back.”

Vaughn’s prediction of thunderous applause isn’t blind optimism. At an Opera Maine fundraising gala earlier this summer, she sensed tangible excitement among opera lovers and a desire to re-engage with live performance.

“The enthusiasm and energy under the tent was palpable,” she said. “It was just a resurgence. When I say you feel reborn, you really do. It feels like a rebirth. It feels like a fresh start, and it feels so full of energy and excitement. It is like being a kid in a candy shop.”

Joshua Wheeker performs during a rehearsal of Opera Maine’s production of “Elixir of Love.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“The Elixir of Love” is Vaughn’s 26th production with Opera Maine. She lives in New York, where she has been artistic director of opera at the Manhattan School of Music and stage director and acting coach of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Israel Gursky, an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, will conduct a cast of five, a chorus of a dozen and an orchestra of 16.

The cast includes soprano Sarah Tucker, who sings the part of Adina, the cafe owner whose heart must be won over; tenor Joshua Wheeker, her courter, Nemorino; baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, as the mercenary soldier; Gary Simpson as the con artist and Shaina Martinez as the florist. It will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

Portland resident and Tony Award-winning lighting designer Christopher Akerlind designed the lights and sets for both productions. Nicolás Alberto Dosman is chorus master for “Elixir,” with costumes by Millie Hiibel.

As it has in the recent past, Opera Maine is continuing its Opera for All! program in which anyone 25 and younger can attend “The Elixir of Love” for free. “We want to build our audience for tomorrow, and this is a wonderful way to do it,” Koelker said, praising the opera company’s trustees and advisory board members for paying for the program.


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