SANFORD, N.C. -- Performers from the North Carolina Opera never fully explained the title of their presentation. "Opera Out of the Box" could mean any number of things. Outside the cubic Raleigh Memorial Auditorium where the group usually performs. Perhaps outside of people's cultural expectations for opera. Or maybe it was only how vocalists pulled their few props from a black storage crate perched on a stool center stage.
No matter what might have been behind the title, all three of those were definitely in play during an hour-long presentation on Nov. 13 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic & Conference Center Auditorium, a public event that was a joint project of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series and Arts Career Community.
Members of the North Carolina Opera company perform "Opera Out of the Box" around the state and the description on their website describes precisely what unfolded in Sanford. "This interactive presentation introduces students to 'opera's greatest hits,'" it begins. "Four singers, representing the main operatic voice types, perform arias, duets and ensembles from 'Carmen,' 'The Magic Flute,' 'Rigoletto' and other well-known operas."
Arias began with soprano Jodi Lewis, who stepped forward and, in a casual, but powerful voice, explained that performers would not be using microphones because opera is not amplified. Even in the largest halls -- the Metropolitan Opera House in New York seats about 3,800 in a space more than 10 stories high -- opera is performed without mics.
She explained that sopranos sing the highest notes and generally perform leading roles like "sweet girls" and the story's love interest. Then, she reached into the box, grabbed a black boa, flung it around her neck and explained what was happening to her character, Lauretta, in Puccini's comic opera, "Gianni Schicchi."
At that moment in the plot, the teenager is begging her father to let her get married. And if her father refuses, she'll throw herself off a bridge. "She doesn't really want to die; she just wants to convince her dad that she wants what she wants," Lewis said. "Which I think we all can relate to in some ways."
Then, the soprano looked over to keyboardist Andrea Turner and they began, filling the auditorium with "O mio bambino caro," an aria sung in Italian -- though, as performers pointed out, English translations are projected above the stage or provided on seats in front of the audience when operas are performed in other languages.
After enthusiastic applause, other vocalists repeated the pattern for the three remaining main operatic voices, with mezzo-soprano Rachel Stenbuck, tenor John Cashwell and baritone Adam Dengler having their solo moments center stage.
In the second portion of the program, the company demonstrated other kinds of opera numbers, even asking the audience to give them different words they built into an English conversation, Mad Libs-style, that Stenbuck and Dengler then sang to show the audience how opera recitative moves the plot along like dialogue in musical theater. Before taking questions, the formal presentation concluded with the keyboardist playing a few short excerpts from familiar classical pieces in a quiz titled, "Is It Opera?"
At its core, "Opera Out of the Box" is designed to appeal to younger audiences, from kindergarten through high school, and it can get some surprising reactions. Stenbuck, who coordinates educational outreach for the North Carolina Opera, recalls bringing the presentation to her own elementary school when she was a music teacher -- and one little girl who wanted no part of it. "She really resisted," Stenbuck said. "We got her to come, in the end, and afterwards, she was asking me, 'When are they coming back?'"
The company adjusts every performance for the audience and, when she gave her introduction, Stenbuck promised to "bring it up a little bit" for this particularly wide-ranging audience that included everyone from elementary school students through retirees. And that's exactly what they did, sprinkling in more advanced insight and references from film, history and popular culture.
While "Opera Out of the Box" welcomed anyone who wanted to attend, programs in this annual ACES series are created to provide free opportunities for CCCC students to explore their culture with notable experts from many different perspectives. A few recent events featured Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jose Galvez on his work capturing Latino life, a 9/11 Commemoration reflecting on the 2001 terrorist attacks and North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green reading some of her work.
CCCC music instructor Lauren Winkens said "Opera Out of the Box" gave students who might never have given opera a thought the chance to hear a short, engaging explanation of this historically significant art form and then see it in action. Many have heard familiar passages in cartoons, movies and video games, but those encounters don't convey the energy and emotion of a live performance.
"This is a very powerful medium, even though it seems like it could be challenging to understand." Winkens said. "I want them to feel and understand the power of the music. Even if you don't know what they're singing about -- if you don't understand the language or if it's a genre you don't normally listen to -- that you have felt a strong emotive connection."
Cast of 'Opera Outside the Box' were, from left: mezzo-soprano Rachel Stenbuck, tenor John Cashwell, soprano Jodi Lewis and baritone Adam Dengler. Not pictured: keyboardist Andrea Turner.
Baritone Adam Dengler performs Nov. 13 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic & Conference Center Auditorium.
Mezzo-soprano Rachel Stenbuck performs Nov. 13 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic & Conference Center Auditorium.
Soprano Jodi Lewis Nov. 13 performs at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic & Conference Center Auditorium.
Tenor John Cashwell performs Nov. 13 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic & Conference Center Auditorium.