The Opera Returns to Cincinnati

After two years in limbo, Cincinnati Opera returns, celebrating its past and shaping its future.

After a two-season pandemic hiatus, Cincinnati Opera returns to its homes at Music Hall and the School for Creative and Performing Arts this month. The company presents two world premieres, Fierce and Castor and Patience, that were postponed from what would have been its 100th anniversary season in 2020. The other productions this season are familiar titles from the opera canon, kicking off with La Bohème June 18 and including Aida and The Pirates of Penzance. 

Illustration by Gabrielle Cracolici

Artistic Director Evans Mirageas says the excitement of returning to whatever normal looks like is “feverish” after the company pivoted to digital performances in 2020 and produced outdoor shows at Summit Park in Blue Ash last summer. “The anticipation level is about as high as it could be. We have so missed putting our feet on those stages and having our great Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit and fully staged productions with, as we say in the business, tights and lights.” 

The world premieres might provide a gateway for opera newcomers, but they’ll also draw longtime fans who trust the taste of Mirageas, now in his 17th year. Castor and Patience is a collaboration between composer Gregory Spears (Fellow Travelers, a previous Cincinnati Opera commission) and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. 

Fierce is the story of four teenage girls—two Black, two white— who meet in a workshop on how to write an effective college essay. The gathering prompts each to share stories that help begin a journey toward self-assurance. 

William Menefield, who grew up playing jazz piano around town before graduating from UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, wrote the music for Fierce. Author Sheila Williams, who lives in Newport, wrote the libretto. Ensemble Theatre Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers will direct, her first time helming an opera. 

Williams crafted the story after meeting with 10 girls from WordPlay Cincy and The Music Resource Center, local nonprofit programs that offer resources, support, and tools to help young people express themselves as they navigate the turbulence of adolescence. “I made a decision to do more listening than talking,” she says. “The girls were very wise and very gracious in allowing me to listen. They came with a lot of things on their minds. Those were also things on my mind back in the Jurassic age [laughs] when I was 13 and 14 and 15. It allowed me to time travel, and I was able to open some drawers I hadn’t opened in a while and take a look.” 

Menefield, like Williams, had never written an opera before, but his doctorate from the University of Texas is in composition. “Marcus Küchle [the Opera’s former director of artistic operations] contacted me about the project,” says Menefield. “The original working title was Girls 2020, with the idea that 2020 was Cincinnati Opera’s anniversary as well as the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. I was open to writing some good music to help make everything come together. On the surface, it sounds like the girls are just kids, but every woman was a young girl once. So there are all kinds of ways for people, even guys, to connect with it.” 

The lure of opera is its ability to offer each audience member a different reason to attend, says Mirageas, whether it’s the beauty of the singers’ voices, music composed by masters from different generations, the costumes, the scenery, or simply sharing an event in the same space with like-minded people. That is the task he faces each year, and it’s one he relishes. 

“To put together a season, you almost always need to have one of those name recognition operas like La Bohème or Aida,” he says. “And we try to do one that’s a little less than Top 10 but is relatively familiar for the diehard operagoer. Then we like to push the boat out a little to do world premieres, commissions, co-commissions, and first-time-in-Cincinnati productions. It’s kind of like a Rubik’s cube. You keep twisting it and twisting it, and finally all those colors line up and you say, Yep, that season works.” 

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