Opera Naples used its pandemic hiatus productively, taking the opportunity to revamp the David and Cecile Wang Opera Center, reimagine the 2021 lineup and launch the city’s first opera festival at Baker Park. The opera company also inaugurated Arthrex’s new outdoor event space in February, when it hosted one of the first in-person events since the pandemic and raised $542,000.
The centerpiece of these recent efforts, though, may be the renovated opera center, which was energized by a $1 million pledge from longtime supporter Cecile Wang in June 2020. The space now sports a 300-seat theater (50 additional seats from before), as well as a new lobby, an improved control booth for better sound quality and a separate event room for preshow and intermission drinks. It’s good, too, considering the rate at which the company is growing.
When it started in 2005 as the first opera company in Naples, the goal was to reach a broader audience by hosting classic opera performances at affordable prices. Over the years, artistic director Ramón Tebar and executive director Sondra Quinn have expanded on that vision by adding outdoor shows that allow for larger, more casual audiences, and intimate dinner performances to connect directly with fans.
In 2015, Tebar also introduced the artists-in-residence program, which brings up-and-coming talent to perform throughout the season and teach Collier County students through the group’s music education programs. The residency had the largest number of applicants this season, resulting in a stellar cast, comprised of soulful mezzo-soprano Cara Collins; tenor Bradley Bickhardt, who holds an Encouragement Award from the Metropolitan Opera National Council; Juilliard-trained soprano Meredith Wohlgemuth; and baritone Darren Drone, who starred as Riff in this season’s West Side Story.
As developments forged on within the Wang Opera Center, the company got to work on staging the region’s first opera festival—a longtime vision for Tebar. Working from his native Spain, where he was held up throughout the pandemic, Tebar consolidated the full season into a four-day festival featuring La Traviata and West Side Story (done in operatic style, as composer Leonard Bernstein originally intended). The latter is another example of Opera Naples remixing the genre to delight existing fans and draw in new listeners.
Tebar had long planned to add to the slate of existing Wang Opera Center and Artis—Naples performances with an opera festival like those popular in Europe and some American cities. The pandemic and the creation of Baker Park, an ideal venue, accelerated those plans. The group collaborated with The Naples Players on the pro lighting and sound systems, and in March, Opera Naples performed four sold-out shows that included performances by tenor Joseph Calleja—a personal friend of Tebar’s who, as the artistic director says, only sings in two other U.S. cities outside of Naples: New York, at the Metropolitan Opera, and Chicago, at the Lyric Opera. “There’s this quote in English, ‘When life gives you lemons,’” Tebar says, adding that the pandemic forced arts groups to embrace outdoor venues—a format that proved valuable to artists and attendees. “I think this is something that should stay in Naples.”
Photography by Brian Tietz