Upcoming production of “Dorian Gray” has Opera Fayetteville dreaming of brighter days ahead

Opera Fayetteville is (left to right) Michael Colman, Cristopher Frisco, Katharine Gunnink, Meaghan Sands, Tamara Ryan, Peter Johnson, Tom Carle, and Ted Federle.

Photo: Danielle Robins

Heading into year five of Opera Fayetteville, company artistic director Tamara Ryan is convinced there’s a bigger, louder and bolder company just around the corner. This for an art form that prides itself on being big and bold and loud.

“It’s heightened, extreme drama. It’s love, rage, drama,” said Ryan, a Fayetteville native. “There’s no better way to explore them than to scream your guts out.”

And so it will be with “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which will be presented Thursday (Jan. 14) and again Jan. 16 at the Stella Boyle Smith concert hall on the University of Arkansas campus. The fifth show from the upstart troupe follows the format of its previous offerings by bringing up-and-coming opera talent to Fayetteville for a January show.

What: Opera Fayetteville’s performance of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14 and Jan. 16
Where: Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall, University of Arkansas campus
Admission: $18
Tickets: http://www.operafayetteville.org/Tickets.html

Opera Fayetteville started in part as a way for the now Boston-based Ryan, an operatic soprano who has appeared in productions around the country, as a way to visit family in Arkansas during down time in her production schedule.

Nine hours of rehearsals seven days per week quickly stole away the notion of family time. And the idea is to continue growing Opera Fayetteville in the future even as it experiences growth right now. Among the new offerings is a dedicated youth outreach program, which visited several schools in Fayetteville in the weeks leading up to the performance of “Dorian Gray.” Current cast members revisited scenes from last year’s Opera Fayetteville production of “Little Prince” for the elementary school tour. It stemmed from a one-off performance in front of a school-aged audience last year.

“We were just blown away with how well it went. The kids asked a million questions, and that was very gratifying,” Ryan said.

They went back to “Little Prince” for the school tour because the mainstage production for 2016 isn’t exactly elementary school appropriate. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is based on the Oscar Wilde novel of the same name. Wilde’s work drew condemnation upon its release for its salacious content.

Ryan said the opera, sung in English yet also presented with supertitles so the audience can follow along, is more of a series of vignettes from the source material. The operatic version of the story, written by Lowell Liebermann, debuted as an opera in 1996. Like other works presented by Opera Fayetteville, it’s a contemporary American work sung in English. That makes Opera Fayetteville unique, Ryan said.

Jon Jurgens, an Ohio-born tenor who has spent the last three years honing his craft in Boston, arrived in Fayetteville on New Year’s Eve to start preparing for his leading role as Gray. He and other cast members had their first music rehearsal on January 1, and they’ve continued with a frenetic pace since that time. The newness of the opera made it all the more challenging.

“There aren’t any recordings of the work, so it was very hard to learn the role. These are tough, challenging parts,” Jurgens said.

“Dorian Gray” is a familiar story, Jurgens said, even for those who haven’t read Oscar Wilde’s source material. Fractured into vignettes, Jurgens said audience members will recognize many moments, perhaps in the way his character interacts with Lord Henry, who Jurgens describes as the devil on Gray’s shoulder.

“There are some very, very beautiful moments that everyone can relate to,” Jurgens said.

Plus, “the singing is fantastic, and the acting is fantastic,” he said.

Ryan thinks opera as a genre is uniquely well suited for Fayetteville. She’s watched her hometown fall for handmade, locally crafted goods. They might pay more for that privilege, but the money goes right back into the pockets of the artisans who made it. Thanks to the gift of performance space on campus and other donations, Ryan said those seeing “The Picture of Dorian Gray” have the same opportunity to support the arts directly.

“People are willing to spend more on local food. You’re really able to make an investment in the community. [For Opera Fayetteville], 100 percent goes to human beings making art,” Ryan said.

If support for the organization continues to grow, Ryan would like to see the company offer more than one program per year, and would like to pay visiting artists more than they are currently able to pay.