Farmville Garden Opera Opens Eighth Season with Faust

Farmville’s Summer Garden Opera was born in true theatrical fashion with a mid-winter’s night dream and a sketch on the back of a napkin. “It was a Sunday night, 2010, and it was snowing,” Harlan Horton recalled. “Chris Swanson just lives down the street, so I invited him over for pizza.”

Over pizza and several glasses of wine, the conversation naturally turned to music. Swanson is a professor of music, specifically voice, at Longwood University. “Chris often goes to Italy in the summer, and he was talking about singing opera at someone’s house,” Horton said. “I asked — why couldn’t we do that in Farmville?”

Before the night ended the two friends had sketched out a plan on a napkin. “We needed some money to get started, so I called Kerry Mossler at Centra Southside and asked if the hospital would be interested in helping,” Horton said. “She called back a few hours later and said, ‘I’ve got $5,000 for you.’”

The Summer Garden Opera was in business. That summer they presented Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti. The stage was Horton’s backyard. “It was 99 degrees at 9 p.m. that night, but everyone seemed to like it,” Horton recalled. “We had about 100 attending.”

Attendance has grown for the opera — 250 opera-goers filled Horton’s backyard last year. This year’s production, set for June 17, will be Gounod’s Faust with principal singers Ben LeClair, Katy Lindhart, Kevin Wetzel, Kim Christie, Jason Buckwalter, Catrin Davies and Chris Swanson.

Farmville residents are looking forward to another evening featuring good music, food and an open bar. “The way it’s evolved, sponsorships pay for the musicians, and ticket sales pay for the food and bar — the party aspect,” Horton explained.

Over the years many local individuals and businesses have sponsored the annual event.

“The structure of the house and backyard provides a natural acoustic,” Swanson continued. “We’ve never had to use microphones.”

To manage the available space, an invitation list is kept from year to year. “Anyone can call and ask to be put on the list,” Horton noted. “Much like LCVA’s Gala, we send out invitations.” Tickets are $50 per person. “Every year we try something a little different,” Horton added.

While Horton takes care of logistics, Swanson, as artistic director, is in charge of the opera production. “The opera choice really begins with the musicians,” Swanson said. “I put together a list of musicians and then find an opera that works.”

Musicians include pianist Lisa Kinzer, chair of the Longwood Music Department, and for the past three years, an orchestra. “We started with a string quartet and added other instruments,” Swanson said. “This year we’ll have an orchestra of nine. We don’t have a conductor, so there’s an expectation that the orchestra and the singers must be very aware of each other.”

Pam McDermott, Longwood’s director of choral activities, is chorus master. The singers who volunteer for the chorus are primarily from the local area. “As a musician, opera feeds my soul,” McDermott observed of her continuing role in the event. “In opera all the senses are engaged; the sound is mixed in your brain instead of amplified at your ears. Your eyes are watching, reading translations and taking in the singers as they bring the story to life. You laugh at the jokes, cheer for the hero — and because it’s opera — you are reminded about life, love and beauty. It makes me very grateful for those who work so hard to make it happen.”

For the past five years local physician David Pruitt has volunteered as lighting director.

“David sets everything up for us,” Swanson noted. “About a week before the performance, we go over the opera and mark lighting changes.”

“I look forward to this every year,” Pruitt said. “I’ve always liked opera, and this brings the community together — it’s important because it’s art.”

Subtitles available on Wi-Fi are another recent innovation. “People can bring their phones or tablets and follow the subtitles without disturbing anyone around them,” Swanson said.

Opera week is when the real work begins. Out-of-town singers arrive on Sunday and meet their volunteer host families for the week. On Monday morning rehearsals begin. “It’s a week that feels like a month,” Swanson said. “The artists love it because it’s so intense. When there is down time, we go to a party or have dinner together. It’s a great week.”

There’s little doubt that presenting an opera requires a considerable amount of time and effort — but Horton and Swanson wouldn’t have it any other way.  “We started with just an idea and made something of it,” Horton said. “When I listen to the music, I realize how important it is for us to bring opera to our community.”

“Standing on the stage that night I see my town — all the people I see in the grocery store, at church, when I’m jogging,” Swanson concluded. “Looking out from the stage, what I see is a tightly-knit community. There’s something really special about that.”

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