“I wonder if we can do opera differently.”
That, says soprano Brittany Duncan, was the guiding ethos behind Operahub, a company she cofounded with three friends in 2007. In June of that year, Duncan, along with conductor Jordan Rodu, stage director J. Jacob Krause, and mezzo-soprano Cabiria Jacobsen, assembled some colleagues and put on two performances of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in a room in the Community Church of Boston, a storefront church in Copley Square.
Some of the familiar operatic trappings were absent. Instead of a full orchestra, they used an arrangement of the score for string quartet and piano. There was no stage, so they performed between rows of chairs along the sides of the rectangular room. It was in many ways a fresh, inventive production of a familiar piece. Tickets were free — and “free” is a word rarely encountered in the opera world.
Operahub’s fifth anniversary is at hand, and the company is marking it with a production of composer Michael Ching’s recent setting of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which opens Thursday. For a group that has subsisted almost entirely on donations, five years is an eternity.
“It was envisioned as a one-show deal at the very beginning,” says Duncan during a recent interview. “But then it was sort of a transportive experience. We got excited and started thinking about all the other things we could do. And I really felt there was a response, in terms of the ‘making opera accessible’ part of what we do. People really responded to that and it made us feel like that was something we could do for Boston.”
For Duncan and her cofounders – she and Rodu are the only ones of the original four still with the group – “doing opera differently” meant being accessible, especially financially: With the exception of two collaborations and one fund-raiser, all of its productions have been free. It also meant artistic accessibility, “really focusing on the drama and the theater aspects of opera.”
Innovation was key as well, and that has meant doing works often skipped by more conventional houses – such as Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg,” which they did in 2010 – or doing familiar repertoire in a new way, such as a 2009 production of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” with an arrangement of the score for synthesizer. And they’ve assembled their own cabarets and revues, such as the “Choose Your Own Opera” show that let the audience choose among various plot outcomes.
A lot of this innovation is, of course, the product of necessity: When you’re trying to produce operas on a shoestring budget, you make do with what you have. Or, as Duncan puts it, “We want to do the things that we can do effectively that a lot of other companies can’t, because they don’t have the challenges we do, and it wouldn’t occur to them to put on a show in a 150-seat theater.” (Let alone a 49-seat venue like the South End’s Factory Theatre, where they staged “Spanish Sirens,” a mixture of Ravel’s “L’Heure Espagnole” and scenes from Bizet’s “Carmen.”)
An additional ingredient is a focus on collaboration, critical for a company with only a handful of principals. Duncan and Rodu brought together a collective of 14 people to stage last year’s production of Tom Johnson’s “The Four-Note Opera,” a satirical, postmodern take on opera that has no conventional story line. Instead of having a single stage director making decisions on how to create the production, everyone had an equal hand in the show’s direction. That production remains one of Duncan’s favorites.
Ching’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was premiered in Memphis last year, is quite different from what Operahub has done previously. The opera, which tells a shortened version of Shakespeare’s play, uses no instruments; all the music is played by a “voicestra” of 15 singers, and there are echoes of collegiate a capella groups. (Operahub’s press release referred to it as “ ‘Glee’ meets La Scala.”)
To Duncan, this is just another facet of making opera approachable. “The advantage of this piece over several others that we’ve done is that this is a different aspect of accessibility. We talk about dramatic accessibility and financial accessibility – this is musical accessibility. And I think there’s something in it for everybody. There are the traditional operatic vocal styles, there’s the musical theater, there’s the a little bit of pop inflection. And it’s all underscored with this a cappella vocal style. I think it’s interesting and good for opera to branch out and see how it interacts with these other styles.”
Asked what she thinks the future of Operahub holds, Duncan admits that “right now it’s really hard to think past the next two weeks.” She mentions broadening its collaborative process and returning to some repertory classics. “No grand schemes, yet. But we always want to be doing something interesting.”
David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@