Musical theater is having a moment. With the popularity of shows like “Hamilton,” “The Book of Mormon,” “Wicked” and many others, hundreds of thousands of people have been exposed to this emotionally charged theatrical style. However, all these productions, as well as their off- and off-off-Broadway siblings, owe their current popularity to a much more ancient art form: Opera.
The county’s own Loudoun Lyric Opera, presently celebrating its 10th anniversary, does its part to keep the age-old entertainment modality alive with several performances a year, as well as a warm, welcoming atmosphere for aspiring operatic stars.
Success a Decade in the Making
LLO has a home base at Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville, where it generally offers two larger shows each year. But LLO has also made its mark by performing at non-traditional venues like Leesburg’s Tally Ho Theatre and several Loudoun wineries.
“We want to continue moving forward offering opera in intimate spaces and bringing opera to everyone,” said LLO Co-Founder and President Pamela Butler. “We really want to break the myth. We want to make opera accessible for all income levels, all backgrounds.”
Butler, a trained opera singer with a business degree, moved to Leesburg from upstate New York in 2002. Like many fellow classical singers in Loudoun, she found herself going into DC and the closer-in suburbs to perform. In 2007, she decided Loudoun was ready for an opera company of its own. Butler, along with colleagues Cuong Hung Van (who remains the company’s music director) and Christine Campbell, launched LLO with a debut performance at Hillsboro’s Old Stone School.
“Loudoun was growing and I really saw a market here,” Butler said.
Over the years, LLO lured new and returning opera fans with favorites like Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s “Don Giovanni,” but, for Butler, one of the company’s proudest achievements to date is its original opera, “Norton: A Civil War Opera,” which premiered in 2014.
“Norton,” created by area composer David Chavez and local author Meredith Bean McMath, tells the story of unsung Civil War hero Oliver Wilcox Norton, a Union bugler who was present for many of many key moments, including the Defense of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.
“This guy was the Forrest Gump of the Civil War.Hhe literally shows up at all the important times and nobody knows about him,” Butler said.
Courting the Next Generation
Maria Maldonado, now 20 years old and a vocal performance major at Shenandoah Conservatory, quickly fell in love with opera after discovering LLO while still a student at Heritage High School. Maldonado had cultivated a passionate love for musical theater, but didn’t feel comfortable singing in the big, belting style popularized by contemporary productions.
“Loudoun Lyric Opera inspired me, who couldn’t do rock musicals, to find my true calling, which is opera,” she said.
LLO has developed a robust promotional program for its open auditions and draws seasoned musicians from the DC area and beyond, along with young up-and-comers—including many locals who are hungry for a chance to perform.
Baritone Benjamin Curtis hails from a well-known musical family in western Loudoun (sister Maddy Curtis made a splash as a contestant on American Idol and is now a DC-based mezzo-soprano). Benjamin Curtis went to college and graduate school in New York before returning to Virginia with his young family.
Curtis has performed professionally with companies across the country but one of his key roles was the barber Figaro in LLO’s 2015 production of Rossini’s comic masterpiece, “The Barber of Seville.” The opera’s “Figaro” aria is one of the best known in classical music and was an exciting challenge for Curtis.
“Loudoun Lyric was a wonderful place to first get your feet wet with some of these roles…I did my first ‘Figaro’ with Loudoun Lyric and it was a really great experience,” Curtis said. “Everyone was very supportive—you didn’t have the people in the wings with their noses up criticizing my sound or my style.”
Looking to the Future
As it celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend, plans are now being made for LLO’s fall project, which Butler describes as a “jewel box version” of Puccini’s classic Madame Butterfly, which debuts at Franklin Park in November. The adapted “Tragedy of Madame Butterfly” features the famous opera’s five lead roles and beloved arias.
In the meantime, Maldonado—who cut her teeth with roles in “Norton” and “Pirates,” and who now serves as the youngest member of LLO’s Board of Directors—is spearheading development of the company’s brand new Opera Teens program.
“It’s really a place for teens to form a community of classical music lovers,” she said.
The plan is for the group to put on a show of its own each year, to attend performances at venues around the DC area and to tackle music-related service projects, Maldonado said.
Maldonado’s career goal is to achieve a balance between performance and arts administration, much like Butler, her mentor.
Butler occasionally auditions for an LLO production (her last role was Alberta in the 2015 production of “Barber”), but most of her energy is devoted to her administrative role and keeping opera accessible and enjoyable for Loudouners.
For Butler, opera as an art form really has it all—and there’s a lot of appeal for fans and potential fans young and old.
“You’re singing, you’re acting, you’re a character in costume, you’re learning a foreign language…You have beautiful set pieces that are designed and painted by artists and beautiful costumes,” she said. “When people say it’s a dying art form I don’t believe that.”
Loudoun Lyric Opera celebrates its 10th anniversary gala Saturday, April 22. Tickets can be purchased here.