Virginia Opera celebrates its 25th season with some of the most popular and best-loved operas. 

The Gift of Song

Virginia Opera
Carpenter Center
Oct. 13, 15 and 17

According to Maestro Peter Mark, Virginia Opera has been waiting 25 years to perform Verdi's dramatic opera "Otello." "It's really quite a monumental work and a company needs a certain level of maturity as well as development of assets in order to produce it," he explains. "… You really need to achieve a certain level of production as an opera company before you should schedule a work like 'Otello.'"

It's fitting, then, that Virginia Opera chose this work to open its 25th anniversary season. Not only is it a testament to how far the company has come in its 25 years, but Mark considers "Otello" and the season's other selections, to be a thank-you gift to the communities that have supported the opera and helped make it what it is today.

In addition to "Otello," Virginia Opera will feature four of the world's most popular and best-recognized operas: Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," Handel's "Rodelinda," Puccini's "Turandot" and the Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

This season marks the first time a fifth production, "Porgy and Bess" will be offered in Richmond. Says Mark, "Richmond is actually getting 25 percent more opera than it has ever gotten before." In addition, for the first time in 15 years the Richmond Symphony will accompany the Virginia Opera for all "Porgy and Bess" productions, marking a return of a relationship between the two organizations.

In 1974, Virginia Opera founder Edythe C. Harrison saw a substantial need for opera in Virginia and organized the company with $33,000 from private supporters. She tracked down Mark in England at the recommendation of a friend to ask if he was interested in running a brand new opera company. He jumped at the chance and 25 years later is still leading the company with same energy he devoted that first year when Virginia Opera performed two operas for audiences in Norfolk. This year, Virginia Opera will produce 51 performances of five operas on three stages in Virginia.

"I'm amazed that we've been able to accomplish as much as we have within our initial 25 years," he says. "We've grown from nothing to the 15th largest opera company in the whole country and have the largest touring education program in the field of opera. That just by itself is a staggering growth curve."

Mark says he never could have predicted the direction Virginia Opera would take. "You don't have expectations of that kind," he says, "you don't really think about that when you're building a company, you're so busy working. It is like picking up a live electric wire. You just go with it, and it finds its own level."

Mark attributes much, if not all, of Virginia Opera's success to the support it has received from Virginians. Virginia Opera is unique in that it is a statewide company, with offices and a strong presence in three communities: Norfolk, Richmond and Northern Virginia.

"We are the only opera company in the country to have built such strengths by combining and coordinating the forces of three major communities," Mark says. "What I conceived of this 25th anniversary season is really a thank-you to the communities which have come together to create this unique company."

As for the next 25 years, Mark is hopeful that Virginia Opera will be able to "stabilize and secure itself institutionally through an endowment." He would also like to integrate the company's musical services with the teaching programs at Virginia's colleges and involve audiences more in "all of the skills that the opera represents both musical and non musical."

For Mark believes that as technology assumes an even greater importance in our lives, the popularity of opera will only grow. "I think that opera as an art form is much more vocal about human issues and much more active and intense about putting those issues on the table," he says. " … It always focuses on a human situation that is immediately identifiable but it's told with the poetry of music which engages your emotions right away.

" … The arts and opera use that tremendous technical skill to say something about the human condition, about human aspirations and about human yearnings. It's a very potent experience."

Leesa Witty contributed to this story.

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