Since its inception in 2016 with 11 students and two faculty, the Stafford Opera Troupe has attracted aspiring talent and offered performances of classic and original operas. (Submitted photo)

Stafford troupe enables local opera aficionados to find their voice

by | Jul 6, 2024 | ALLFFP, Arts and Entertainment, Stafford

There’s a popular meme that says, “Everything I know about opera I learned from Bugs Bunny.”

That may be true for many people, but the Stafford Opera Troupe is making opera more accessible and fun for the general public and students wishing to learn the art form. The organization was formed in 2016 by two graduates of Mountain View High School, Corinn Fulton and Bree Nichols.

Both were avid opera fans and bemoaned the lack of any performance opportunities in the Fredericksburg area. They discussed the dearth with Fulton’s mother, Bonita Keene, one evening.

“They were like, ‘You can go to DC or New York or Richmond but there’s nowhere local’ and they loved opera,” Keene recalled. “They were just brainstorming at the house one day and said, ‘Why don’t we start our own opera troupe?’ And I’m like, ‘Why not?’ So that’s how it got started.”

Keene, a Liberty University grad, was a chorus teacher at Mountain View, and as such had connections with both the Stafford music education system and a space to hold rehearsals and performances.

The first year, they started with eleven Mountain View students. Fulton was the theatrical director and Nichols served as the music and voice director. They recruited friends who were fellow college students studying opera as coaches and teachers.

Rather than tackle putting on a full opera, they rehearsed and performed scenes from different operas. The response from student participants and audience members was very positive.

For the troupe’s second season, they decided to perform a small cast opera, “Dido and Aeneas” by Henry Purcell. The following year they performed an English version of Pauline Viardot’s “Cendrillon”. For these sessions, the coaches and teachers sang lead roles, and the high school students sang the minor roles. This has been the model for subsequent seasons. The lead singers/coaches are paid a small stipend and provided room and board.

“For our leads, we want college students who are finishing their BA or Masters or doctorate,” Keene said. “True professionals are probably not going to come to our little program, but the people who are working towards that who are still in school. It’s a great experience for them because it builds their resume, gives them exposure.”

High school students pay just $150 to attend the program, a rate kept low to allow most students the opportunity to participate. The mentors are housed in volunteers’ homes for the week. While most students are local, some come from out of town and must make arrangements for their food and board.

“Everything else is donation or whatever because we want these guys to get exposed to opera in a safe environment,” Keene said. “They’re really too young to be singing opera but to be in an ensemble supporting these older cast members; we call it a summer opera program.”

Keene’s son Evan Keene is a coach for The Stafford Opera Troupe. He also composed an original opera, based on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, which they performed for their third season in 2019. Evan Keene is involved with the Aspire musical theater in the area, where he has been able to recruit opera-curious high school students for the program.

“They didn’t really know anything about opera, but then they got into a room with opera singers and they heard it and also just felt and experienced it,” he said. “It was an eye-opening thing. A lot of the parents were telling me their kids came home raving. That’s the whole idea of what we’re doing here because you can listen to a recording of an opera but it’s not the same thing as being in a room with it. It opens up a whole new world of what you can do with your voice.”

Caden Files, who met Keene through Aspire, is a first-time participant in the program.

“I was like I’m not doing anything this summer so I might as well try it,” Files said. “They did a sing-through thing with one of the big songs and my mind couldn’t comprehend the sound. It was unbelievable. I’m kind of a music nerd. I’m still new to this so hearing the sound that was coming out of their voices was just absolutely divine.

“I had never been exposed to opera. I may have listened to a song and thought it was stupid then I’d go back to my country music. I like country, pop, musical theater, blues, jazz, I love all of it. Now I’m being exposed to a whole new world of music and it’s unbelievable.”

This year, the troupe is producing “Die Fledermaus” by Johann Strauss II. The opera was originally in German, but they will perform an English translation. It is a light comedy with lots of spoken dialogue so it translates well to a general audience. The venue for the performance will be the University Of Mary Washington’s Seacobeck Hall theater, a smaller space than the Mountain View Auditorium — but one that offers better acoustics and a more intimate setting.

Besides bass-baritone singer and composer Evan Keene and his sister Corinn Fulton, this year’s program faculty includes music director Dr. Jordan Davidson, an adjunct professor at James Madison University and chorus teacher at Spotswood High School near Harrisonburg; soprano Mollie Nesaw who teaches at Mosley Music in Hanover, gives private voice lessons, and has a music degree from Virginia Tech; UMW music graduate and soprano Katherine Preseren who performs in the all women rock band Ladia; and collaborative pianist Bethany James who also accompanies the Chamber Chorale of Fredericksburg.

Sam Fulton, an experienced local actor, is the technical director and provides set design and support with sound and lighting. Lauren Terrill graduated from Mountain View High School where she now teaches Spanish, is a singer, and is the troupe photographer.

Since co-founding the Stafford Opera Troupe, Bree Nichols graduate the University of Georgia and earned a doctorate degree from the University Of North Texas and is currently singing opera in Prague. She is still involved with the troupe and is teaching a virtual class with this year’s students.

Bonita Keene hopes the word will spread to other area students interested in opera.

“We have a teacher from Spotsylvania High School who is singing and she brought one of her students,” Keene said. “I hope as the local high school teachers see what we do and how it benefits the students who are in it, to be exposed to those voices and think, ‘That could be my future.’ I think when they see how that benefits their students and their program, it will grow.”

If you go

“Die Fledermaus” performed by The Stafford Opera Troupe, July 12 and 13, 7 p.m. Seacobeck Hall Theater, University Of Mary Washington, 1701 College Ave, Fredericksburg. Admission is free.

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