Classical: Mercury rising 

Last spring, after taking their final bows for Mercury Opera's L'Elisird'Amore, cast members slipped out of their costumes and drove to chorus members Bob and Lindsay Holmes' house in Brighton. One by one, they walked in the front door, turned right, and headed into the kitchen, bringing with them lasagnas, stuffed mushrooms, and chocolate desserts. Somebody carried in one of those rye bread bowls filled with dip.

Eventually, the kitchen counters were full and the dining room table was covered with glasses and bottles. But there were no cute little wine tags. If glasses and germs got switched, nobody cared.

It was time to celebrate: Mercury Opera had ended its first season in the black.

"Madama Butterfly put us over the top," says executive director Kristen Kessler, who says she had hoped that Eastman Theatre would be half-full with roughly 3,000 opera fans for two performances. Instead, Mercury sold 5,000 tickets. Before the last performance, the lobby was packed. "We had to hold the curtain for 25 minutes," Kessler says. "We were thrilled."

After the last opera of the season, the cast party at the Holmes' kicked into full swing. Company members knew after the end of Butterfly they'd done well. The success of L'Elisird'Amorewas icing on the cake. The crowd in the kitchen spilled into the living room.

At the end of the night, Kessler says, a few sleepy diehards lounged around and started to talk about the new season. "We talked about the big questions," Kessler says. "Where do we fit in the community? Why are we here?"

Those same questions fueled the 2005 merger of three area opera groups, Rochester Opera Factory, Opera Rochester, and the Opera Theatre Guild into Mercury Opera. Under the leadership of former EastmanSchool dean James Undercofler, Mercury formed to present high-quality opera productions using both local and national talent. On the night of the party, the new company's 2006-07 season had finally taken shape.

The final line-up is more racially diverse and culturally widespread than the first season, which featured only Italian romances. First, Mercury is hoping to ride on the wave of enthusiasm for Mozart's music during the 250th anniversary year of his birth: the company's first production, Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, will be staged October 6 and 8 at RobertsWesleyanCollege.

This is the opera commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph II, who, after hearing it, complained to Mozart, "There are too many notes."

Mozart replied, "There are just as many notes as there should be."

Stephen Carr will direct Amy Cochrane in the role of Konstanze and tenor Virgil Hartinger as her betrothed, Belmonte. The opera, to be sung in German, is set in the Middle East.

"People's ideas of the Middle East are a lot different now," Kessler says, "We're trying to bring it alive with that in mind."

The second opera, Norma, spotlights a love triangle circa 50 BC in Gaul during the Roman occupation. Bellini's Norma is considered one of the best examples of the bel canto tradition, which is characterized by evenness throughout the singers' voices, a light touch, and tremendous flexibility. In other words, this is the perfect opera for those scared off by large women bearing spears.

Norma is a druid priestess in love with a Roman official, Pollione. She breaks her vow of chastity, bears him two sons, and suffers the dreadful realization that he's developing a Clintonesque interest in a pretty young virgin. Audience members will hear Norma sung in Italian with English supertitles. The wonderful Benton Hess will conduct soprano Stella Zambalis and one of Rochester's best-loved singers, Robert Swensen. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will accompany the singers in two performances at Eastman Theatre, January 26 and 28.

The final production in Mercury's 2006-07 season is layered with racial overtones. Show Boat, Jerome Kern's American musical drama is based on a 1926 book by Edna Ferber. The story spans 40 years and was the first racially integrated musical ever staged in the United States.

In Mercury's Show Boat, Derrick Smith will sing the role of Joe, the riverboat worker. Many will be interested to see his interpretation of a part made famous by basses such as Paul Robeson and the late William Warfield, another Rochester native. Smith has a rich, powerful baritone voice. The dynamic Gerard Floriano will conduct Show Boat June 1 and 2, in Eastman Theatre.

After the final curtain descends on Show Boat, Mercury Opera company members will no doubt head over to the Holmes' kitchen again. Executive director Kristen Kessler says she'll be ecstatic if the company ends another season in the black. But more than that, she says she hopes to see more newcomers in the audience.

"We added 1,000 new names to our mailing list last year," she says happily. "It's wonderful."

Brenda Tremblay hosts radio concerts by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on WXXI-FM, Classical 91.5.

For more information on Mercury Opera, visit or call 473-6567. Performance tickets available through the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra box office, 108 East Avenue, by phone at 454-2100, online at, and at all area Wegmans video locations.

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  • Theater: Remembering August Wilson

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  • Fall calendar: literature & lectures

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  • Fall calendar: classical

    Classical Chamber Music Rochester (586-5690, ) Oct 8: "Our 30th Year: The Grand Opening," Hochstein Music School, 50 N Plymouth Ave, 8 p.m. | Nov 19: "Shostakovich: His Life and Times," MemorialArtGallery, 500 University Ave, 8 p.m.

  • Hiking: Happy trails

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  • Fall calendar: wine

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  • Fall calendar: special events

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  • Fall calendar: dance

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  • Biking: Beware the four-wheeled monsters

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  • Music: The fall line-up

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