One of the smallest opera companies in the nation stages powerful productions with world-class talent.
The air inside Merrill Auditorium is thick with noise and anticipation as the audience settles into their seats for PortOpera’s 2015 production of Tosca. The twisted melodic cacophony of stringed instruments tuning up rises from below. The orchestra suddenly goes silent as maestro Stephen Lord takes the stage. In a moment, they will launch into the first act of Giacomo Puccini’s tragic crowd-pleaser for a stirring musical event that has drawn opera lovers from around New England to the packed Portland venue.
This presentation of Tosca marks the twenty-first season of PortOpera, a cultural institution that has risen to national acclaim thanks to the hard work of president Ann Elderkin, artistic director Dona D. Vaughn, and the many talented singers, musicians, and other crew members who have graced the gilded-and-ivory halls of Merrill Auditorium. “We are better known nationally than we are locally,” says Vaughn. “Every year, PortOpera’s productions are reviewed by Opera News, which is the primo opera magazine. Our singers come from the Metropolitan Opera, from Chicago Lyric, and other renowned institutions. They’ve sung all over the world. But the sad thing is, many people are simply not aware of PortOpera.”
As Maine’s only professional opera company, PortOpera occupies a significant cultural space in our state—and in the wider world of opera. “Dona uses the expression, ‘feisty little opera company,’ and other people in the opera world have begun to refer to us that way,” says Ann Elderkin. “While other companies have had to go out of business because it’s expensive to run an opera company, PortOpera is still going, decades later.” The success of PortOpera is due to many different factors, but as with any performance-based art form, the presence of an engaged audience is crucial. And PortOpera has a large, diverse audience who come from all along the East Coast. For local opera lovers, the annual show marks the must-see event of the season—particularly when it is a one-night-only affair like this year’s Tosca.
“Despite the fact that it’s semi-staged this year, we still have nearly sold out—the only seats left are obscured views,” says Vaughn when I meet with her just days before Tosca opens. “People come back year after year, no matter what opera we choose, because of the quality of the music.” This past year, PortOpera has experimented with semi-staged productions, which featured less intensive costumes and sets and thus required a smaller budget. For those who miss the tent pole performance, PortOpera offers other programming during the off-seasons, including the ongoing Young Artists presentations series, the Sunset Serenades, as well as lectures and special events.
PortOpera’s calendar may be lean, but its cultural footprint is large, a fact that is due in part to Vaughn herself. “When Dona walks through the hallway, people follow her as if she’s the magnet and they’re the iron filings,” says Elderkin. Like many of the performers, Vaughn travels to Maine every summer and lives most of the year in New York, where she works as the artistic director of opera at the Manhattan School of Music. No matter where she is, she’s always thinking of new ways to help this bold little company expand. She believes that opera as an art form is continuing to grow, drawing new, younger listeners every year. “I always say, if we can get them in once, we can get them in twice,” says Vaughn with a wry smile. “And then they’ll keep coming back.”
Opera aficionados often refer to Tosca as a “chestnut,” a staple in the opera canon and a perennial crowd-pleaser. The tale of jealousy and political intrigue is filled with the passion that makes opera such a particularly stirring art form. “Opera is for everyone who is in touch with their emotions, who is not afraid of feeling strongly,” Vaughn explains. “Opera is all about reaching heightened states. The characters in these treasured pieces are over-the-top.” But just ask any opera fan and they’ll tell you: that’s all part of the draw.