IC alums bring professional opera back to Ithaca

by Amanda Hutchinson and Lauren Mazzo

This article is also published on Ithaca Week and Ithaca Voice.

Fourteen years after the folding of Ithaca Opera Company, professional opera has returned to Ithaca, and Zachary James says it feels like home.

James, who graduated from Ithaca College’s musical theatre program in 2005, co-founded Opera Ithaca this spring after moving from his eight-year home of New York City. The last five years of his life had been dedicated to singing and producing opera with the New York City-based production company he founded, Metropolis Opera Project. However, Metropolis hadn’t had any collaborators, and a proposed move back to Ithaca sparked the idea of a professional opera company in the city.

“I was scared, coming back,” James said. “I thought, oh no, what if I miss New York City? What if this feels too small or like a step back in my career or something?”

At the same time, Lynn Craver, a 1996 graduate in music performance, had wanted to start another opera company to give current students the same experience she had with Ithaca Opera Company as an undergraduate student. This spring, Brian DeMaris, Director of Opera and Musical Theater at Ithaca College, contacted Craver and said, “‘Listen, I know that you’re thinking of doing this, I know another man, this wonderful man, Zachary James, who’s thinking of relocating to Ithaca, and he wants to do the same thing,’” Craver said. “So we connected on email and the rest is history, really.”

Opera Ithaca performed Bluebeard’s Castle, starring James and soprano Megan Nielson, at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse and the Community School for Music and Arts in Ithaca. James attended graduate school at the University of Tennessee with Nielson, and the two had collaborated on projects in New York City before deciding to pursue this two-person show.

“As [James] got involved with Opera Ithaca, it seemed like a good platform for us to perform it, and also it was a good platform for Opera Ithaca to have something that was easy to put up,” Nielson said. “It seemed like a good fit.”

Despite the glitches that Craver said come with any new project–including both James and Nielson being sick the week of the show–Opera Ithaca’s inaugural show was a success. Dr. Sara Haefeli, who teaches an opera history course at Ithaca College, said opera can be an expensive endeavor, especially in a city the size of Ithaca, but the company attracted over 150 people to their shows.

Craver said that while the production can be inaccessible to new opera-goers, the company received an email from a woman who was new to opera, but raved about the performance.

“That was the most fulfilling thing for me, to know that somebody who isn’t well-versed in the art can come and still be changed and moved by it,” Craver said.

The final performance of Bluebeard’s Castle was planned for this weekend at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. However, a last minute call from James’ manager sent him to Opera Roanoke in Virginia as a substitute in their production of Mozart’s Abduction on November 22. The church hopes to reschedule the performance for next year, J. David Williams, organist and director of music, said.

Opera Ithaca’s next production, Kristin Hevner Wyatt’s Il Sogno, will open on March 28.

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