Portland Concert Opera preview: up close and personal

New company's performances in intimate spaces brings audiences deeper into the music

When Lance Inouye was studying music in St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 2000s, he really enjoyed going to the opera. Not just the big fully staged productions, but also concert operas: every sung note of a full opera, but performed without full stagings (like extensive props and full orchestras) in smaller theaters, including the legendary Mariinsky, churches, and concert halls throughout the city.

He wasn’t alone. “They were usually completely packed,” Inouye remembers. “Even after I stopped living there, I’d visit all the time and see a ton of those concert operas.”

Portland Concert Opera’s Lance Inouye.

After working as a conductor with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic and then opera companies in Florida, Israel, Cincinnati, and other companies (with many more guest conducting engagements around the world), in 2013, Inouye moved to Portland, where he serves as music director and conductor of the Lewis & Clark College orchestra. But he never forgot the intimate thrills he experienced at those Russian concert operas.

Now, Inouye is bringing concert opera to Portland. This Saturday, his Portland Concert Opera’s gala fundraiser concert at Portland’s acoustically enchanting Old Church Concert Hall showcases the formidable lineup of local musicians he’s assembled, and raises funds to support one of those full-opera concert readings that so enchanted him in Russia.

The concert is actually PCO’s second event, following a well-received one-off April 2016 production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Inouye was surprised to find that although places like Baltimore, Puget Sound and even Eugene (Willamette Concert Opera) boasted regular concert opera series, Portland didn’t.

He was also surprised at the high quality of the singers suggested to him for the ten roles by colleagues at Lewis & Clark, Portland Chamber Orchestra and other sources. “I got recommendations from several sources who didn’t know each other, but they all kept giving me the same names,” he recalls. The performances earned raves, not least from some of Inouye’s students who’d never experienced opera in such intimate form. “We made some new young opera fans,” he says.

The show’s success, coupled with Portland Opera’s decision to switch from a year-round production schedule to a summer-only season, convinced him that there was both room and a need for a regular series of operatic events during Portland’s rainy seasons.

Audiences aren’t the only ones grateful for PCO’s arrival. Inouye says singing in a concert version with PCO can also be a real asset to singers who might want to go on to perform a role in a fully staged opera.

Damien Geter as Lindorf in Pacific Northwest Opera’s fall 2017 production of ‘Tales of Hoffman.’ Photo: Michelle Doherty.

“Any opportunity to sing is wonderful, but it is hard finding opportunities for opera in the Pacific Northwest,” says bass Damien Geter, an experienced opera singer, spiritual singer, and actor who moved to Portland to teach at Catlin Gabel school in 2015. He’s since been lighting up Northwest stages including productions at Tacoma Opera, last summer’s Portland Opera David Lang double-bill and the company’s earlier La Boheme, TV appearances on Grimm, musicals including Stumptown Stages’ In the Heights, performances with Resonance Ensemble, and other major roles in everything from Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah to Jesus Christ Superstar. “When you have a company like Portland Concert Opera, with high quality music and singers right in your backyard, it’s a great avenue to practice your art.”

Intimacy and Accessibility

Geter says that for both performers and audience members, smaller venues offer advantages unattainable in fully staged productions. “In these more intimate settings like the Old Church with a great acoustic, powerful voices and chamber ensemble, you’re feeling that music wash over you,” he explains. “For singers, it’s lower pressure. You’re not worrying about costumes. You adjust to the acoustic, but you don’t change your technique. In some of the bigger halls, you have to work harder to get the music across. In the ones you don’t have to work as hard in, you can be more free flowing. Having that proximity allows you to engage the audience in a way where you can really feel that the audience is right there with you. It makes you do crazy things!”

Of course, the trade-off is the bedazzlement afforded by big full-scale productions with all the props, costumes, a cast of thousands including dancers, camels even (sometimes) pachyderms. But whether at New York’s cavernous Metropolitan Opera or Oregon’s capacious Keller Auditorium and Silva Hall, the tradeoff for spectacle is intimacy — and often, affordability. “When singers are doing arias or duets, there’s a lot of acting going on,” Inouye says. “They spend a lot of time on every phrase to convey what the piece is about. It’s really great to be up close, to see the expressions on their faces, to hear the subtle changes in colors in their voices.”

What Inouye wants to bring to students and other music lovers is the unparalleled thrill he gets to enjoy during rehearsals of fully staged operas. “When we do staging rehearsals or coaching sessions, we rehearse in small rooms, but the singers are singing with their full technique and voice,” he explains. “Being inside of that process is so exciting, and not many people get to do that. When these singers sing, the ground is shaking! You don’t always immediately feel that absolute presence in large opera houses. I’d like to bring that excitement to the audience.”

At Saturday’s concert, Portland audiences will get up close and personal with a mix of well-regarded Oregonians and out of towners. Accompanied by an octet with Inouye conducting from the piano, Geter, mezzo soprano Beth Madsen Bradford, soprano Kimberly Girdano, and baritones Todd Thomas and Michael Redding in classic opera solos, duos and trios by Verdi, Gounod, Leoncavallo, Offenbach, and Gershwin. Then they’ll get to meet them at a reception afterwards.

After this concert, Inouye hopes to stage productions each fall and spring, maybe more in the long run. “I want Portland Concert Opera to become part of the fabric of the city,” he says. And he wants to keep it intimate. “Concert opera is accessible and intimate in way you can only be when you’re 20-30 feet away from the singers. Even in the back row, you’re only 50 feet away. And with the ticket prices only $10 or $20, anyone can come and experience this.”

Portland Concert Opera’s Gala Fundraiser Concert, 8 pm Saturday, November 18, The Old Church Concert Hall, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave. Portland. Tickets online: $20 general admission, $10 student/senior.

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