The Inland Northwest Opera is recreating the opera scene in the Pacific Northwest.
The latest signs of the resurgent opera scene is next week’s performances of “Madame Butterfly”, which includes local singer Lars Mellander and a cast of some of the top opera performers in the country and co-owners with deep roots in opera.
With nearly 20 years deeply involved in opera, Dawn Wolski, general director of Inland Northwest Opera, serves the interests of a 10-person board of trustees who oversee the nonprofit organization, while her husband Mateusz Wolski is concert master for the Spokane Symphony.
Wolskis relocated to Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area when Mateusz joined the Spokane Symphony. Dawn participated with the opera and was asked in 2016 to become the general director of then-Opera Coeur d’Alene. The name, Opera Coeur d’Alene was changed to Inland Northwest Opera in 2018, to reflect a broader mission to serve the Inland Northwest.
Under her leadership, the group has gained considerable recognition and growing influence. Wolski sees this growth as largely due to the company’s goal to serve the entire Inland Empire as a home of quality opera.
“We fell in love with the refined sense of community the Coeur d’Alene area has,” she said. “This community is incredibly proud, not pretentious. It is a nurturing environment where nearly everyone who comes here to participate can do so with enthusiasm.
“Opera takes many years to master. Some of our lead singers come from places like New York and Chicago; but we want to nurture local talent if we can inspire participation. So we hire local artists as much as we can. Lars, for example, has had quite an opera career. He’s sung with the best of them,” Wolski said.
“Bringing in and developing highly qualified vocal talent is very important to the vitality of an opera house,” she said.
Support comes largely from the community where it resides. Successful opera is an expensive enterprise. Top-of-the-line talent in all areas of production, the costs of marketing, and rental of theaters is a big investment. Much of that cost is paid for by donations and support from the local communities positively influenced by a successful opera house.
“We have people from the greater Coeur d’Alene area who fly to Chicago and Seattle to attend operas. Now, because we are succeeding, we have people flying here to attend opera,” Wolski explained. “Think about what that does to benefit a community. “
One of the Panhandle’s finest local talents, is the Swedish-born Lars Mellander, according to Wolski. Mellander and his wife, Ann, reside with their four children in rural Bonner County, north of Sandpoint. “He has performed with some of the very best opera singers in the world and we are proud to have him contributing here.”
Between the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers in 2001 and the Great Recession of 2007-’08 where so many people lost everything, support of opera houses nationwide suffered incredibly, according to Lars Mellander. “… because they are largely dependent on donations.”
The Wolskis are all business and, therefore, successful, Mellander said.
“Operas survive largely on donations. You can sell out an opera seven nights in a row and you’re still going to have to pay for half of it. The rest comes from donations,” he said. “When donations stop, opera houses go down. You have talent to pay for, theaters to rent — it’s an expensive venture.”
“Probably the best runner of any opera was Ardis Kranic, in Chicago. “Kranic ran the best opera house there for years and years. She was so tough. For her it was a business. Opera companies have to be run by business people,” he said, “and they have to be surrounded by business people. Those operated by performers and artists generally run into problems especially when times are tough.”
Initially, Mellander was on course to spend his entire life running fishing boats and tugs out of Bremerton on Washington’s west coast; even earning his captain’s license by the age of 17. However, the youth wanted a degree so he enrolled in college and soon discovered a passion for music.
At one point, a renowned woman opera singer came by to hear another singer. While there, one of Mellander’s mentors insisted she hear Mellander sing. “Without question, you have what it takes to be an opera singer,” she said after hearing him. At that point, the young Mellander concluded being an opera singer would be a lot easier and more interesting than running boats. He changed his direction entirely.
He graduated from Western Washington University and went to Northwestern University in Chicago on a full-ride scholarship in opera. From there he attended the Boston Institute under Phyllis Curtain and that launched his early career in singing opera. He traveled with the elite, became a Fellow at Aspen, sang for the Cleveland Opera Summer Festival for a couple of summers; he was a young artist at Des Moines Opera in Iowa. From there, he became an artist in residence at San Diego Opera where he met his wife, Ann. Married, they travelled together and sang at the first opera production ever performed in Bangkok, Thailand.
In their fourth year, however, Ann became pregnant with the first of four children. That changed everything for the couple, Lars Mellander said. The amount of travel demanded by the opera circuit was no longer feasible and he took a job to raise his family.
Most operas are traditionally sung in a foreign language. Opera singers use voice coaches. They study and mimic the vocal sounds to portray their characters as accurately as they possibly can. Great opera performers are also great actors, Mellander notes. “So you can’t fake the language in which you are singing,” he said. “It has to be accurate.”
Mellander said his most adept language voices are sung in German and Italian, but no matter the language used, he still goes over the musical scores taking notes on what the words mean, translating for better understanding, so that he can then portray the true motivations of character behind the voice he portrays.
In “Madame Butterfly”, Mellander plays a pivotal role in Bonzo, a Buddhist monk whose position of authority comes into play when he is told that 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San, has married the American Pinkerton in a Christian ceremony and that she converted from Buddhism to Christianity in order to do so. The angry character of Bonzo, portrayed by Mellander, is brutal in acting out his authority to expel her from her community. This major turn in the young woman’s life sets up the ensuing tragedy that besets her.
As the opera is sung in Italian, understanding the dialogue is facilitated by projecting “super-titles” of what’s being sung on a screen for the audience to follow.
“Madame Butterfly” lives and dies by the quality of singers hired to play the lead roles of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. Wolski has brought in two of the most renowned talents in opera for the key roles. Chad Shelton, who plays the part of American Naval Officer Pinkerton, is recognized as one of the top 10 tenors in the world. Cio-Cio-San, as Madame Butterfly, is portrayed by another truly significant opera singer, Elizabeth Caballero.
The crescendo of “Madame Butterfly” happens with the denouncing of Cio-Cio-San by the monk, Bonzo, played by Mellander. She is expelled from her community and abandoned by all family and friends for marrying her seducer, Pinkerton, in a Christian ceremony. The volume and color of voice interactions between the singers at this point reaches its peak. It is acting is at its best. The drama is realistic — and is what makes a great opera performance.
This is also why the supporting orchestra is so vital to facilitating the dramatic play of the singer/actors. Opera is not a singular production of star players. Everyone involved plays a significant role in the success of production, including the set designers and costume makers, the Wolskis said.
What makes for great opera, Mellander said, is that these singer/actors are the full package.
“We work our whole lives to bring our voices up to the kind of projection necessary to adequately portray a dynamic story over an extended period of time,” he added. “The musical talents of these performers are highly developed to carry a live production like this on stage.”
The coming together of such major talents, backed up by a talented orchestra directed by Giacomo Puccini, creates an unforgettable opera experience. The unusual nature of the set design and perfection of costumes adds great depth to the dimensional understanding of the play.
It’s opera at its finest, said Mellanders, adding he is excited to play a pivotal role in the production. Bringing such a fine art production to the Inland Empire and the Panhandle of Idaho introduces our incredible environment to a significant number of people who come here to see it.
The performance of “Madame Butterfly” takes place on two calendar dates: Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. and again on Sept. 22, for a 2 p.m. matinee. Tickets can be acquired by calling 509-624-1200. For more information, go online to inlandnwoopera.com.
Feature correspondent Dwayne Parsons can be reached for comments or story suggestions by emailing him at DwayneDailyBee@gmail.com.