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    Fresh takes on classics, diverse venues for Ballet, Opera Memphis seasons

    Jon W. Sparks

    Picture by ANDREA ZUCKER


    The 2014-2015 seasons for Ballet Memphis and Opera Memphis are bringing the grandest of classics as well as edgy performances.

    In February, the staging of “I Am” — premieres of four works by top choreographers that honor and celebrate the civil rights movement — promises a high emotional and meaningful impact, says Dorothy Gunther Pugh, Ballet Memphis’ artistic director. Reggie Wilson (creating the piece “I Am a Man”), Gabrielle Lamb (“I Am a Woman”), Julia Adam (I Am a Child) and Ballet Memphis’ Steven McMahon (“I Am”) are choreographing.
    “My suspicion is there will be national interest,” Pugh says, “and that will generate touring opportunities to represent Memphis beyond Memphis.”
    After an absence of 15 years, Ballet Memphis is reviving “Swan Lake” in April. “It’s a beautiful story to look at and it’s time for us to do it again,” says Pugh. “A new generation of people are interested in it and we will have live music for it.”
    The third and final production of “River Project” will be presented in October. The series, made possible by a grant from ArtsMemphis, celebrates the impact of the Mississippi River on culture. Pieces from the first installment are touring to good notices around the country.
    The works for this coming season will be by Milwaukee choreographer Petr Zahradnícek, and premieres by Philadelphia’s Matthew Neenan and McMahon. McMahon’s work is a collaboration with Erin Harmon, Rhodes College Art Chair, who is creating artwork.
    Mark Godden’s concept of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” will take place outdoors at the Memphis Botanic Garden in September. “There will be imaginative activities for children before the performance,” Pugh says. “People can bring dinner and watch the performance.” And the perennial “Nutcracker” will be back during the holidays.
    In addition to the new season, Ballet Memphis has promoted McMahon — who directed last season’s ambitious “Peter Pan” — to artistic associate. He remains a dancer and choreographer with the company. Also, dancer Alexis Hedge has been promoted to a full company member. Joining Ballet Memphis as dancers for the 2014-2015 season are Jared Brunson, John Deming, Sergio Masero-Olarte, Olivia Powell and Lauren Pschirrer.
    Opera Memphis continues its effort to broaden the appeal of the genre, continuing the direction set by Ned Canty, general director of Opera Memphis since 2011.
    “Mozart’s version of the Don Juan story, ‘Don Giovanni,’ is a bucket list opera,” says Canty. “If you’re going to see one, this is a classic.“
    The production, to be staged in October, stars Ryan Kuster in the title role. Ari Pelto, who led Opera Memphis productions of “Rigoletto” and “La Boheme” is back to conduct.
    “It’s a great opera, but it’s a bear,” says Canty, who will direct. “Doing it well is difficult and you need a cast that’s strong and balances each other out. ‘Don Giovanni’ stays with you. It makes you reflect for a long time.”
    In the month leading up to “Don Giovanni,” Opera Memphis will again scatter performances around town with its 30 Days of Opera. Every day in September, there will be opera somewhere, from pop-up recitals to master classes to opera for kids. “It’s the third year of 30 Days and it’s coming into its own, growing and adding collaborators,” Canty says.
    Operatic performances may show up at schools, farmers markets, street corners or stages. On the last Saturday in September, there will be a concert at the Levitt Shell.
    The upcoming season will also offer the third Midtown Opera Festival in April. The 11-day opera immersion will feature three works — “Glory Denied,” “Mamelles de Tirésias” and “Dido and Aeneas” — along with panel discussions, children’s events and late-night cabaret. “We’re using it as an opportunity to explore pieces we normally would not be able to,” Canty says. “They run a spectrum of styles of music, theater and storytelling.”
    Purcell’s Baroque-era “Dido and Aeneas” will be done with period instruments. Tom Cipullo’s “Glory Denied” is a powerful story about Col. Jim Thompson, the longest-held American prisoner of war in U.S. history. Poulenc’s “Mamelles de Tirésias” shows “the French gift for lush and lively vocal writing that is stylish and crisp,” Canty says.
    Last season’s family friendly and successful production of “The Mikado” was encouraging to Canty, who has scheduled Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy tale opera “Hansel and Gretel.” “It’s a way in for everybody,” Canty says, “and for someone who loves opera, it’s an opportunity to bring kids.”
    “Hansel and Gretel” also gives Opera Memphis an opportunity to collaborate with a local artist, something Canty would like to see happen frequently. Memphis artist Michelle Duckworth will create the scenery for the production.
    Ballet Memphis 2014-15 Season
    Season ticket packages start at $27 for three main stage shows. “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Nutcracker” are not included in season ticket packages. Individual tickets go on sale Aug. 1. For more information: 901-737-7322 and balletmemphis.org.
    Sept. 6: “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Memphis Botanic Garden
    Oct. 18-26: “River Project 3” at Playhouse on the Square
    Dec. 12-14: “Nutcracker” at the Orpheum
    Feb. 20-22, 2015: “I Am” at Playhouse on the Square
    April 17-19, 2015: “Swan Lake” at the Orpheum
    Opera Memphis 2014-15 Season
    Season subscriptions begin at $120. Tickets to “Don Giovanni,” “Hansel and Gretel” and the Midtown Opera Festival go on sale Sept. 1. All performances in 30 Days of Opera are free. For more information: 901-257-3100 and operamemphis.org.
    Oct. 9 and 11: “Don Giovanni”
    Jan. 15 and 17, 2015: “Hansel & Gretel”
    April 9-19, 2015: Midtown Opera Festival, including performances of “Glory Denied,” “Mamelles de Tirésias” and “Dido & Aeneas” at Playhouse on the Square
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