Piccolo Spoleto brings short operas in English to Charleston
A few Lowcountry organizations are making opera more accessible than ever.
Among them are the Charleston Opera Theater and the Summerville Orchestra, which have teamed up to stage a short, sweet, and unlike most of the genre Piccolo Spoleto production, translated into English.
It is a double project of “Coffee Cantata” by Bach and “The Telephone” by Menotti. To match the theme, the show will take place at a local cafe, Mercantile and Mash at 701 East Bay St.
The fun and immersive performance that clocks in at about an hour for the combined showcase isn’t intended for an opera, said director Saundra DeAthos, who is also an opera director and assistant professor of voice at the College of Charleston. .
“The Charleston Opera Theater provides affordable community experiences,” DeAthos said.
Created just before the pandemic, the company quickly embraced outdoor neighborhood events, like a performance of “Carmen” at the Hanahan Amphitheater and a free showcase that included songs from “La Boheme” and “Rigoletto” at Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park.
The “Coffee Cantata” poses a relatable theme through the ages: a father-daughter relationship. This rendition features a chamber orchestra of seven musicians in addition to two singers, who argue over whether the girl should be allowed to drink coffee or not.
DeAthos translated the play from German into English.
“It was a bit more intellectual than would be relevant for the 21st century, so I took the literal translation and made it a lot more colloquial,” she said.
For example, coffee is idyllically compared in the original lyrics to a type of wine found in 17th-century Austria-Germany. DeAthos changed that to chai boba and Cheerwine tea.
The premise of “The Telephone” also translates easily to modern times. It’s about a woman who can’t hang up the phone long enough to pay attention to her boyfriend, who is trying to propose.
To adapt to the times, an old-fashioned corded telephone is replaced by a cell phone. Two pianos accompany a duo of singers for this one. One is soprano Amanda Castellone, who plays Lucy.
“It’s funny, because the premise is true to my life,” Castellone said with a laugh. “I’m on the phone all the time at the opera while my boyfriend tries to talk to me, and in real life my friends and family are yelling at me all the time to hang up.”
Castellone, who began singing in a choir in fourth grade and now teaches voice and opera at the College of Charleston, is a native of Charleston. She loves the chance to perform in her hometown and she hopes this accessible show will attract even more opera lovers.
“For those who have never seen an opera before, this is the perfect first opera to come and see,” Castellone said. “Can’t beat it: short, funny, in English and a lovely show.”
The joint show “Coffee Cantata” and “The Telephone” will be presented at 5 p.m. on June 2, at 6 p.m. on June 3 and at 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on June 4. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at piccolospoleto.com.
Plus, there will be more opera at your fingertips as part of Piccolo. Holy City Arts & Lyric Opera (HALO) was founded around the same time as the Charleston Opera Theater and has been touring neighborhoods during the pandemic for a variety of outdoor pop-up performances in which two singers were accompanied by a pianist in a van.
HALO also performed at RiverDogs Stadium, in addition to several indoor and outdoor local venues.
Co-founder Leah Edwards, accompanied by her husband Dimitri Pittas, will this year present a cabaret that represents the couple’s love story at Piccolo Spoleto.
“The community had asked to get to know us better, so this is our story, completely true, non-fiction type situation,” Edwards said. “It’s our love story in song and conversation as a blend of musical theater and opera.”
Last year, HALO performed as part of Piccolo’s Walk in Hampton Park, and even more is in store to ensure the opera is accessible to the wider community and its story is shared.
There is now an organized Charleston Opera History Walking Tour, finalized after consultation with local writer and historian Harlan Greene, which will begin May 28 and take place every Wednesday and Saturday during Piccolo Spoleto. It will also continue afterwards, depending on demand.
“There’s a very rich history of opera here,” Edwards said. “It first landed here in 1735, and although New Orleans likes to claim they had the first opera, they did the first French opera, while we did the first English opera.”
The HALO Wunderbar Cabaret will be presented at the Cannon Street Arts Center at 8:30 p.m. on June 5. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at piccolospoleto.com.