Opera in the Rock to focus 2022-23 season on Black performers, composers

Only U.S. opera company to focus entire season on 'building the Black experience,' CEO says

Mikayla Hartfield performs "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess" during an Opera in the Rock “Let’s Talk Opera” discussion at The Hall in Little Rock on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Hartfield was part of the discussion with Marcia Sells, chief diversity officer for the Metropolitan Opera, and Victoria Ramirez, executive director of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Opera in the Rock, Little Rock’s reconstituted professional opera company, will be “the only opera company in the United States dedicating its entire season to build the Black experience," said Fred Owens, the company's president and chief executive officer, during Wednesday's announcement of the 2022-23 season.

The season will offer one fully staged opera; one concert version of a full opera; a “Masked Gala” with internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as its headliner; a recital by soprano Takesha Meshe Kizart-Thomas honoring Black opera stars and jazz luminaries; and a “Divas in the Rock” fundraiser paying tribute to the late singer Whitney Houston.

Everything this season will feature either a Black composer, a Black cast or a Black featured act, or all of the above.

Owens and new artistic director Ella Marchment revealed the schedule at The Hall on Little Rock's West Ninth Street, which was the center of Little Rock’s Black business district in the first half of the 20th century. All of the performances will take place there.

The company has rebuilt itself after the departure of its executive artistic director, Kate Sain, in October, as well as the February cancellation of the remainder of the 2021-22 season by her replacement, who cited “a change in artistic vision.”

“Fred and I decided to dedicate a season to Black artists because all of our senior management team are technically ‘racial’ outsiders,” Marchment explains in the company’s season brochure. “I myself, am of mixed-race Asian, South American heritage and my family is more predisposed to listen to reggae music than opera.”

Marchment directed the opera company’s production of the one-act opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” in August 2021 and was scheduled to direct the canceled production of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “Anna Bolena” in May.

Opera in the Rock's 2022-23 schedule:

• Sept. 9: “Masked Gala.” Red carpet and cocktail reception, 6 p.m.; dinner (a “wonderfully prepared culinary experience, curated by a local chef”) and awards ceremony, 7 p.m.; performance by Denyce Graves, 8 p.m.; after-party, 9:30 p.m.

Graves, known primarily for singing title roles “Carmen” and “Samson et Dalila,” has performed in major opera houses and in concert halls throughout the world, including, in March 2006, a recital at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

• Nov. 19-20: “Porgy and Bess” (music by George Gershwin, libretto by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward), in a concert version by Andrew Litton, featuring the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

• Feb. 11-12: “Divas in the Rock: A Whitney Houston Tribute.”

• March 4: Soprano Takesha Meshe Kizart-Thomas, performing opera, art song, jazz “and more,” honoring “the dramatic heroines of the opera stage portrayed by … Shirley Verre, Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman; jazz standards popularized by the ‘First Lady of Song’ Ella Fitzgerald; art songs by contemporary Black women composers; and new pieces commissioned and created by Kizart-Thomas,” according to the brochure.

• June 3-4, 2023: “Highway One” by Arkansas native William Grant Still, the fully staged opera, set in the home of a couple who run a filling station on U.S. 1, which runs from Key West, Fla., to Maine.

Wednesday's event also included a “Let’s Talk Opera” panel discussion featuring Marcia Sells, chief diversity officer for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and Victoria Ramirez, executive director of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. With Owens moderating, the discussion covered ways to build sustainable community-centered arts organizations; women and leadership in the arts; and the importance of diversity, inclusion and equality in the arts.

Sells stressed the importance of "making sure organizations and the people who manage them are thinking about the communities where they are sited; that conversations are not just surveys, but real, actual conversations" with people in the community.

Ramirez said being community centered is "caring as much about the community and the people who walk through your doors" as about what's being presented.

Wednesday's program featured soprano Mikayla Lynn Hatfield, originally from Van Buren, who Owens hinted would be appearing later in the season. Hatfield sang a spiritual ("Guide My Feet"); an art song ("Out of the South Blow a Wind" by F.C. Woods) and "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess." Nicky Parrish, who will be the music director for "Divas in the Rock," sang the Dolly Parton song that was a smash hit for Houston: "I Will Always Love You."

More information on Opera in the Rock's season is available at oitr.org.