CSO, Opera Young Artists collaborate for night of favor

Kate Farrar performs during Chautauqua Opera’s annual Opera Highlights concert in 2014.

Life is unpredictable, but that hasn’t stopped guest conductor James Meena from planning to die at the helm of the orchestra.

“Here’s my scenario: The last performance of Verdi’s Otello, I walk off the podium, take my bow, curtain drops — I’m dead,” Meena said. “That’s it.”

Rather than Otello, Meena leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Chautauqua Opera Young Artists in a concert of favorites at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.

Divided into two halves, the “Vodka and Vino” concert consists of favorites from Russian and Italian composers, respectively. This choice was influenced by this season’s two operas, Eugene Onegin by Russian-born Tchaikovsky and Macbeth by Italian-born Giuseppe Verdi. With librettos spanning English, French, Italian and Russian, the program features the opera’s youngest members. While Meena said the audience might not be familiar with every aria, there is sure to be something for everyone.

“These kind of potpourri concerts are like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet,” he said.

The Young Artist Program consists of Apprentice and Studio Artists, who will collaborate with the orchestral music to deliver an array of arias.

Carol Rausch, music administrator of the Chautauqua Opera Company, said apprentices are, in some cases, slightly older or slightly more experienced.

“The talent in both groups is equal, and it is important to have everyone out there and showcase a full company event,” she said. “Apprentice Artists are singing the solos and the Studio Artists serve as the chorus to back up the leads.”

Although the lead singing roles are reserved for the Apprentice Artists, on occasion studio artists may sing lead.

“In one case, Laura [Soto-Bayomi], in the ‘Vino’ half, is doing a little cameo role in the second piece — she is a studio artist,” Rausch said. “The two Apprentice sopranos weren’t quite right for this piece, so it is kind of nice to have Studio Artists out there as a solo artist.”

Apprentice Jared A. Guest, baritone, will sing “Ves tabor spit” (“The whole camp is sleeping”) from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko during the Vodka portion of the concert. A featured piece from Eugene Onegin, “How far away you seem now,” is performed by apprentice tenor Brett Sprague.

During the “Vino” section, “Un di se ben rammentomi,” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, will feature the apprentice quartet tenor John Riesen, soprano Alison King, mezzo-soprano Rachel Arky and baritone Joseph Flaxman.

Rausch said the final performance of the concert, “Libiamo” (Let’s Drink), which supports the theme, consists of the entire Young Artists roster to deliver a big sound to close the evening.

“This program is quickly put together, and I feel very comfortable having a maestro of [Meena’s] caliber doing that, so we are happy to welcome him back,” she said.

Meena brings with him three decades of experience and almost 10 visits to Chautauqua Institution, where he has both conducted Young Artists and the Opera Company’s main stage performances.

His full-time gig is with Opera Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina, although he has made numerous guest appearances across the United States, Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

Meena said opera conducting was something he more fell into than pursued. After he was offered an opera position at Carnegie Mellon, the role stuck.

The challenge of his work, he said, comes from the coordination of the orchestra with the performers onstage. It doesn’t matter how spectacular the orchestra sounds if it’s not lockstep in tempo, style and interpretation with the singer.

“You’ve got to breathe with the singer,” Meena said. “If the singer is having a bad night, you’ve got to move things or slow things down — you have to give them more time, more space. It’s up to the conductor to really be listening and following as well as leading at the same time. That is not easy.”

Performing with the Young Artists adds an extra dimension, namely inexperience; most singers will be performing their piece for the very first time.

Meena said it’s his job is to guide Young Artists’ approach to each piece while allowing them the freedom to tackle it as individual artists. This process, he said, is tricky “like molding Jell-O,” but ultimately he can only help the Young Artists so much.

“There’s that happy medium where you have to give them suggestions, give them insight, and then they have to go on their own and become as familiar with the piece as possible,” he said. “Most of it is homework on their part.”

Staff writer Kara Taylor contributed to this story.