Zahavi-Ely is the force behind Opera in Williamsburg, which has presented three fully staged opera productions since its start two years ago. The fourth endeavor, Il Trovatore, will open tonight at the Kimball Theatre.
A recently retired William & Mary professor, Zahavi-Ely has a long history as an audience member for opera. While she had always been curious about the art form, it was recent musical experience that inspired her to take action in the Historic Triangle.
Zahavi-Ely was at a branch of the International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv. The program is held in Israel (Zahavi-Ely’s birth country), led by conductors from the Metropolitan Opera, and trains up-and-coming opera students from all over the world.
“I heard firsthand how amazing such performance can be,” said Zahavi-Ely, who now resides in Israel but travels to Williamsburg to oversee Opera in Williamsburg.
She wished her friends back in Williamsburg could also experience it, and then thought: Why not? While Zahavi-Ely does not have the ability to provide the same musical education as IVAI does, she felt she could bring opera of that caliber back to her town.
Williamsburg residents could travel to Newport News or Richmond to see fully staged, professional productions, but no operas came right to their doorsteps. The arts community was established, though, and Zahavi-Ely felt there was enough potential for interest.
“If it comes here, maybe they’ll take a look,” she surmised.
Opera is a huge undertaking, she said, because it requires the materials and preparations of both a full theatrical production and a full classical music concert.
Zahavi-Ely began the quest that became Opera in Williamsburg, researching directors and the payscale for performers. That payment has fallen largely on Zahavi-Ely thus far.
Eventually, she hopes the program will be funded half from ticket sales and the other half donations, like a traditional opera company. Zahavi-Ely currently sees the project as an investment, and one she said is proving high-quality opera is possible here.
She also has taken the reins in picking a date, production and a cast. Opera in Williamsburg presented Verdi’s La Traviata in April. Shows are currently twice a year, but Zahavi-Ely said she could see expanding to three times in the future.
There are many factors to consider when choosing both the repertoire and its players. Singers are chosen from IVAI, where Zahavi-Ely has seen many of the performers in the roles they will now play here.
They may not be well-known, but Zahavi-Ely said it’s “as good a cast as you’ll find anywhere.”
While some productions aim to cast one star to headline for their performances, Zahavi-Ely takes a more democratic approach. Il Trovatore has multiple important roles that require strong performers who will work well together.
Zahavi-Ely does consult with professionals before she makes the casting decisions, but does believe she has a “knack” for picking wisely.
The singers are the major expense for Opera in Williamsburg, because they need wages, transportation and hotel costs. The cast learns the role in advance, then travels to New York to work with Music Director Jorge Parodi for a week before heading down to Williamsburg to rehearse in the performance space.
The Kimball Theatre is the perfect size for this opera, Zahavi-Ely said. Unlike more boisterous works, Il Trovatore lends itself to a simple arrangement with a pianist and three instruments in the intimate venue.
Because other expenses are so high, sets, props and costumes for the production are limited. Zahavi-Ely said the program hones in on the essentials of the drama, leaving room for the characters to shine.
This season’s opera does bring with it one increase in production value: an animated background.
Zahavi-Ely credits director Mathieu Guertin as the eye that drives these creative choices.
“If you have the right person guiding you, you can achieve amazing things with very little resources,” she said.
It’s a quote that can very easily apply to Zahavi-Ely herself.
Her official title is producer and visual designer, which entails deciding on a budget, creating the opera’s supertitles and managing the public relations. Zahavi-Ely also sits in on rehearsals and loves watching Il Trovatore take shape.
“I’m still pinching myself that I can put it on,” she said.
Zahavi-Ely stressed one does not need to know anything about opera to enjoy the production and encouraged any and all come try it out. The plot of Il Trovatore includes mistaken identity, vengeance and a love triangle, and is set to well-known arias as well as ensemble pieces.
The chance to experience live performing arts is special, Zahavi-Ely said. People can choose when to watch a movie or read a book, but the opportunity to see an opera is fleeting.
“It happens when it happens, and then it’s gone,” she said
Opera in Williamsburg’s Il Trovatore opens 8 p.m. today. It will also run 8 p.m. Friday.
Tickets cost $45 general admission; $40 for seniors, teachers/faculty and military; and $15 for students. They can be purchased online on Opera in Williamsburg’s website, on the Kimball Theatre’s website or by calling 800-HISTORY.