Piccolo Spoleto Brings Short Operas In English To Charleston

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A few Lowcountry organizations are making opera more accessible than ever.

Among them are Charleston Opera Theater and Summerville Orchestra, which have partnered to stage a Piccolo Spoleto production that is short, sweet and unlike most of the genre, translated into English.

It’s a double bill of Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” and Menotti’s “The Telephone.” To fit the theme, the show will be held in a local coffee shop, at Mercantile and Mash at 701 East Bay St.

The amusing and immersive performance that rings in at just around an hour for the combined showcase isn’t one meant for an opera house, said stage director Saundra DeAthos, who is also the director of opera and an assistant professor for voice at the College of Charleston.

“Charleston Opera Theater is about affordable community experiences,” said DeAthos.

Established just before the pandemic, the company quickly embraced outdoor neighborhood events, like a performance of “Carmen” at the Hanahan Amphitheater and a free showcase that included songs from “La Boheme” and “Rigoletto” at the Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park.

The “Coffee Cantata” poses a theme relatable throughout the ages: a father-daughter relationship. This rendition features a seven-piece chamber orchestra in addition to two vocalists, who argue over whether the daughter should be allowed to drink coffee or not.

DeAthos translated the piece from German into English.

“It was a little more high-brow than what would be relatable for the 21st century, so I took the literal translation and made it much more colloquial,” she said.

For example, coffee is compared idyllically in the original lyrics to a type of wine you find in 17th-century Austria-Germany. DeAthos changed that to chai boba tea and Cheerwine.

The premise for “The Telephone” also translates easily to modern times. It’s about a woman who can’t get off the phone long enough to pay attention to her boyfriend, who is trying to propose.

To fit the times, an old-school cord telephone is replaced with a cellphone. Two pianos accompany a duo of singers for this one. One is soprano Amanda Castellone, who plays Lucy.

“It’s funny, because the premise is true to my life,” said Castellone with a laugh. “I’m on the phone the whole time in the opera while my boyfriend keeps trying to talk to me, and in real life my friends and family yell at me all the time to get off my phone.”

Castellone, who started singing in choir in fourth grade and now teaches voice and opera at the College of Charleston, is a Charleston native. She loves the chance to perform in her hometown and she hopes this approachable show will create some more opera fans.

“For those who have never seen an opera before, this is the perfect first opera to come see,” said Castellone. “You cannot beat it: short, funny, in English and a charming show.”

The “Coffee Cantata” and “The Telephone” joint show will be performed at 5 p.m. June 2, 6 p.m. June 3, and 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. June 4. Tickets are $20 can can be purchased at piccolospoleto.com.

In addition, there will be more on-hand opera as part of Piccolo. Holy City Arts & Lyric Opera (HALO) was founded around the same time as Charleston Opera Theater and traveled to neighborhoods during the pandemic for a variety of outdoor pop-up performances during which two vocalists were accompanied by a pianist in a pick-up truck.

HALO has also performed at the RiverDogs stadium, in addition to several indoor and outdoor local venues.

Co-founder Leah Edwards, accompanied by husband Dimitri Pittas, will perform a cabaret that represents the couple’s love story at Piccolo Spoleto this year.

“The community had been asking to get to know us better, so this is our story, all true, a nonfiction-type situation,” said Edwards. “It’s our love story in song and conversation as a blend of musical theater and opera.”

Last year HALO performed as part of Piccolo’s Hampton Park promenade, and even more is in store to make sure opera is accessible to the greater community and its history is shared.

There is now a curated walking tour of Charleston’s opera history, finalized after consulting with local writer and historian Harlan Greene, that will kick off May 28 and take place every Wednesday and Saturday during Piccolo Spoleto. It will continue on after, as well, based on demand.

“There’s a very rich history of opera here,” said Edwards. “It landed here first in 1735, and even though New Orleans likes to claim it had the first opera, they did the first French opera, while we did the first English opera.”

The HALO Wunderbar Cabaret will be performed at the Cannon Street Arts Center at 8:30 p.m. June 5. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at piccolospoleto.com.