July 05--In the first few minutes of the first rehearsal of the new Tidewater Opera Initiative, Kathryn Kelly and Suzanne Oberdorfer exchanged sparkling glances.
They were part of a lineup last month of six principal vocalists, seated in chairs, singing through Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte," a comic opera scheduled for Norfolk performances in mid-August.
The organization, which will make its debut in August, is their baby, and they were excited.
So was Shelly Milam-Ratliff, who also is in the cast and who orchestrated the group's initial connection with the Governor's School for the Arts in Norfolk. That relationship has enabled TOI to hop off the score and onto a stage in just months, rather than years.
Kelly and Oberdorfer are local talents who haven't yet landed mainstage roles with prominent opera companies. They said performers need leading-role experience to get cast. In January, Oberdorfer's dad suggested she could gain that by starting her own presenting group.
To do that, she corralled Kelly, then Milam-Ratliff, who teaches voice at the Governor's School and has sung in Virginia Arts Festival programs.
The trio's late February meeting with Alan Fischer, who heads vocal music at the Governor's School, solidified their wild idea into a feasible plan.
Maybe it's the fortunate name that has gotten them so far so fast.
They named it Tidewater Opera Initiative partly to snag the initials TOI. "In the opera world, we don't say 'break a leg' like they do in theater," Kelly said. "We say 'toi, toi, toi!' "
It roughly translates as three quick spits, and Kelly said she doesn't know how that came to be, or which culture started it. She guessed Greek. Online sources suggest it might be German, or Yiddish.
"We decided, to have those initials would be good luck."
Kelly and Oberdorfer, in contemplating the company, noticed the large number of gifted singers available regionally. "For this area to have that much amazing talent we thought was really special and unique," Kelly said.
Kelly, 26, has a master's degree in vocal music from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. As part of her school's choir, she sang at Carnegie Hall in New York. She now lives in Chesapeake, teaches voice and sings in the chorus for Virginia Opera, where she sometimes covers roles.
Oberdorfer, 34, has an undergraduate vocal performance degree from Old Dominion University, also teaches and recently made her debut with Opera Roanoke in western Virginia. That company's general and artistic director, Scott Williamson, will conduct "Cosi."
TOI can't afford an orchestra, so a pianist will accompany.
Williamson primarily will be leading the singers, as he did in that first rehearsal on June 24.
"One of the things I love about this piece is the variety and the unity," Williamson told the principal singers. "I think this is his best score."
"So, let's go! Make the recit" -- or recitative, the spoken-sung parts of an opera's libretto -- "conversational. I want you to be actors. Make it seem as natural as possible."
Accessibility is a goal of this company. The opera will be set in late 1950s Norfolk, not late 1700s Naples, Italy. The look will be a "Mad Men" brush with the U.S. Navy. They will sing in English, not Italian.
The ticket price -- $15 -- is within easy reach, too.
The show will be performed on Aug. 16 and 17 in a small theater at Hurrah Players headquarters in downtown Norfolk.
TOI is offering one production this year, and hopes to continue with an opera next summer.
This year's budget is $5,500, and the group has raised nearly $5,000 of that -- much of it through the fundraising website www.kickstarter.com. That budget covers certain basic expenses, such as the director's fee, but does not pay performers.
"I'd like to raise $10,000," Oberdorfer said. "That would allow for stipends for all of the singers, and a small sum to set aside for next year's production."
Because of the relationship, the Governor's School is providing rehearsal space, set materials and some costumes, all at no cost.
Also, 10 of the 12 non-principal roles will be filled by Governor's School vocal music students.
Fischer said that works out well, since he has scheduled "Cosi Fan Tutte" for the vocal music students' spring 2014 production. "It's a chance for them to learn their roles while performing in the chorus."
Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485,email@example.com
if you go
What Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte," produced by Tidewater Opera Initiative
When 7 p.m. Aug. 16 and 17
Where Perry Family Theatre at Hurrah Players, 485 St. Paul's Blvd., Norfolk
Contact For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 757-913-1864
Fundraising recital Baritone/Norfolk native Wes Mason will perform arias, art songs and more at 7 p.m. July 20 at Christ and St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 560 W. Olney Road, Norfolk. $15.
Master class Mason will conduct a master class with area vocal students from 2 to 5 p.m. July 21 at Christ and St. Luke's. $5 suggested donation
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