Annapolis Opera looks back at 50 years and it’s a sight to see

Marking the company's 50th anniversary, a gallery of costumes, photos, and other items celebrates their variety and talents over the years.

This year marks Annapolis Opera’s 50th anniversary, and as part of their celebration, they’ve created a gallery of costumes, photos, and items showcasing their history. Installed in the Chaney Gallery at the Opera’s home Maryland Hall, this retrospective is an entertaining way of showing their variety and talents over the years.

Exhibit view, with costumes. Photo courtesy Annapolis Opera.

Two colorful costumes from past productions, dressed on manikins, capture the attention in the main room’s center: a matador’s outfit, with sword, for Carmen, and the wedding kimono for Madama Butterfly. Similarly displayed outfits are in another smaller room: Scarpia’s black and silver suit and hat for Tosca and Musetta’s purple dress for La boheme.

Matador outfit from ‘Carmen.’ Photo courtesy Annapolis Opera.

Board member and longtime volunteer Tom DeKornfeld, who helped design the retrospective, led a small group in a tour of the gallery. He went through the timeline installed on the far wall, with photos and other materials adorning each decade. According to Annapolis Opera General Director Kathy Swekel, the anniversary committee took two and a half years to put together the exhibit, and they had so many items to choose from that winnowing down just a few pieces for each period to display on the timeline was challenging.

Costume design sketches. Photo courtesy Annapolis Opera.

DeKornfeld began with a lovely photo of Martha Wright, who founded the Opera in 1972, and their first production, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, performed in the Annapolis Hilton’s ballroom. Until they moved into Maryland Hall, the Opera performed in various locations around Annapolis, including St. John’s College. In fact, the Opera’s founding music director, John Cooper, was a visiting tutor (professor) at St. John’s.

The Opera’s has a longstanding relationship with Asbury United Methodist Church, a historically Black congregation, where they still have rehearsals. DeKornfeld pointed out the program from a concert at Asbury in the late ’70s, which thanks the minister and the congregation “for their many courtesies.” DeKornfeld said he was surprised to find the Opera had such a longtime connection to Annapolis’ African American community, as opera is usually seen “as a very white art form.”

Scarpia’s outfit from ‘Tosca.’ Photo courtesy Annapolis Opera.

Another highlight DeKornfeld noted was the Opera’s first singing competition in 1988, when 23 singers from Maryland competed for $1,000. It’s now called Annapolis Opera’s Annual Vocal Competition, and in 2022, 263 singers nationwide competed for $20,500.

Annapolis Opera President Dennis Williams’ gingerbread house on a pole, fundraising effort. Photos by Charles Green.

A photo from the early 1980s shows then-President Dennis Williams and the gingerbread house atop a pole he stayed in for six weeks at City Dock, promising to stay there until the Opera received $50,000 in donations. According to DeKornfeld, he didn’t raise nearly that much, but the attempt shows his “dedication and ingenuity.”

Kimono from ‘Madama Butterfly.’ Photo courtesy Annapolis Opera.

He showed another photo of volunteers lugging an 800-pound sand dune (for the set of South Pacific) up Maryland Hall’s front steps. Until a freight elevator was installed, movers would have to drag set pieces into the building and auditorium, then down onto the orchestra pit and onto the stage.

Musetta’s costume from ‘La boheme.’ Photo courtesy Annapolis Opera.

Other changes shown include 2006’s production of The Magic Flute, where the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra performed for the first time with the Opera. Before then, Principal Trumpet Carolyn Foulks had to recruit local musicians to provide the music for productions. The Symphony continues to perform with the Opera.

Another change came in 2020 when just-hired Artistic and Music Director Craig Kier had to respond to the shutdown from the COVID pandemic. The Opera created a filmed production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea. They also commissioned, with the University of Maryland Maryland Opera Studio, an opera for the first time, Sunder, composed by Nailah Nombeko with a libretto by Alicia Haymer. Performed as a staged reading at Maryland Hall in August 2021, the opera tells the story of a Black police officer caught up in the Black Lives Matter movement.

‘Aria Hungry?’ fundraising cookbook. Photo by Charles Green.

Opposite the timeline is a long glass case with various written materials. DeKornfeld talked about a few items, including Aria Hungry?, a cookbook written by Opera members as a fundraiser, and, one of DeKornfeld’s favorite pieces, a 1973 letter from the then President to a potential performer. They discuss the meager payment structure: $50 if attendance at two performances is at a certain percentage, $100 if it’s over, and nothing if it’s under. A performer’s note on a program says, “this is a dumb program…so boring.”

‘Dueling Divas’ production at Stan & Joe’s parking lot. Photo by Charles Green.

Above the case are photos from various productions, including one held in a downtown bar’s parking lot. 2016’s Dueling Divas was an outdoor event for the Annapolis First Sunday Festival in partnership with Towson University’s Opera in a Can program. A monitor in the other room shows this and other productions.

In preparing this retrospective, DeKornfeld was surprised at “how dire” the Opera’s financial situation was for so long. Indeed, the exhibit shows their desperate appeals, including the President, after a Thursday performance, asking the audience for 38 people to loan $300 each to pay for Saturday’s performance. He says it explains the Opera’s conservative “Depression mentality” that was there when he became involved.

In its early years, the Opera was an all-volunteer effort, with interested people serving as set and lighting designers, as well as fundraising efforts. More recently, the Opera has hired a professional staff and leadership, which has helped their situation tremendously. General Director Swekel also remarked that “it takes a dedicated, passionate Board and volunteers” to make the Opera such a success.

DeKornfeld hopes visitors will come away from the retrospective seeing how many “dimensions” opera can have — “Modern opera, children’s opera, concerts.” He also hopes visitors will appreciate how much time, energy, and people it takes to put on an opera; besides the singers and musicians, there are lighting and set designers, costumers, dance and fight choreographers. “Every production is a miracle,” he says. As the exhibit shows, though, every one of them is a labor of love.

The Annapolis Opera 50th Anniversary Retrospective Gallery runs through December 23, 2022, in the Chaney Gallery at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – 801 Chase Street, Annapolis, MD. Admission is free. For information on Annapolis Opera productions and events, visit their website. For information on other exhibits and events at Maryland Hall, visit their website.

COVID Safety: The Annapolis Opera is currently following the COVID-19 safety policy of Maryland Hall. Masks are encouraged for all performances but are optional inside the building and theaters. Seating is at full capacity and not socially distanced unless otherwise specified in the event description. This policy is subject to change at any time based on current federal, state, and local government mandates and public safety issues.

SEE ALSO: DC Theater Arts’ recent coverage of Annapolis Opera.

About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place. 

For more information on DC Theater Arts’ Wendi Winters Memorial Series, check out this article graciously published by our friends at District Fray Magazine


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