Opera performance in Wichita’s Orpheum a delight

By Gary Clift

The Wichita Grand Opera company has gotten some flattering attention recently—in February, in the Metropolitan Opera’s Opera News story about WGO’s “William Tell” production, for example.

So when last weekend’s Riverfest kept the company’s production out of their usual Century 2 auditorium, I jumped at the chance to see their “Barber of Seville” performed in the historic Orpheum Theater.

Restoration work on the 1,300-seat theater has a ways to go. It was built at First and Broadway downtown in 1922, and originally served as a stop on the top-class Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Later it was a movie theater and eventually an “adult” movie theater, and then during the 1980s it went dark for over a decade as a non-profit organization tried to plan fund raising and refurbishment.

The theater, helped now by some substantial private gifts, hosts dozens of live shows each year and some classic films. Loretta Lynn, Jackson Browne, Chris Isaacs, Starship, and the odd touring musical are on the schedule for the rest of the year. This is a comfortable place to see a show. My experience is that the crowds are knowledgeable but not particularly stiff necked.

It is an attractive place for WGO to do a comic opera this far away from the height of the season. Promoted with enthusiasm by Parvan Bakardiev, the company has for fourteen years worked to popularize opera. Guest stars have included Luciano Pavarotti, Plàcido Domingo, and Kansas native Sam Ramey, and Artistic Director Margaret Ann Pent has managed to recruit a roster of talent she can draw from with confidence and a dependable orchestra.

WGO’s version of Rossini’s “Barber” relied on Michael Nansel and Sharin Apostolou, both company veterans, as Figaro and Rosina. Like the other principals in the cast, Nansel and Apostolou needed to sing clearly and they needed to be able to act the story’s engaging characters. The days of overweight eminences rolling onto opera stages to belt out their big arias and, as an afterthought, to make a few gestures—those days are long, long gone.

In fact, this “Barber” was a very physical production. Mezo Kaitlyn Costello could sing and was very funny as the maid, Berta. But anyone who saw the show will always remember her first for her gyrations and comic dancing. Apostolou had gotten references to pole and lap dancing in before Costello got to dusting with her skirts and finishing her aria while doing splits.

Oh yeah. This was a production of bawdy references. But they were funny, never edgy. When her guardian (and potential husband) remonstrates with Rosina, she asks “You call that spanking?” But that line wasn’t allowed to interrupt the singing, which was always delightful and occasionally thrilling.

While the lighting (always a problem for one-night stands) distracted us a little, the costumes and sound were really quite good. The evening began with the famous overture, which Rossini had apparently already used for a couple of other operas. The story is a sort of prequel to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.”

Count Almaviva (Brenton Ryan) visits Seville and falls for the young heiress Rosina. Her guardian, Bartolo (Charles Turley, a resident member of the WGO company) wants to keep her money by marrying her himself.

So the wealthy Count hires the energetic barber Figaro to help him win the girl’s hand. Complicating the issue are the temporary local residence of a large party of soldiers, some of whom local homeowners are forced to host; the appearances of Rosina’s music teacher, old Basilio (William Powers); and occasional outbreaks of wild dancing by the maid.

So the story is funny, the music is delightful, and the performances were energetic, skilled, and sufficiently broad so as to amuse even opera audience novices. The theater is both historic and comfortable. And the ticket holders, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the performance, were unpretentious.

The evening, in consequence, was a delight. And then we had all those tunes to recall during the two-hour drive home. I hope this won’t be the last time I get a chance to see the WGO in Wichita’s Orpheum Theater.

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