NJ Lyric Opera’s ambitious season will continue with ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Tosca’

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New Jersey Lyric Opera founder and artistic director John Calkins.

New Jersey Lyric Opera’s year of debuts is shaping up to be monumental. With three new opera productions already under their belt, they will plunge headfirst into the busy fall season with three more. For founder and artistic director John Calkins, the midpoint marks an adventurous new phase in the company’s development that focuses on expansion.

This month, he will direct and stage company premieres of two popular Italian melodramas: Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Nov. 12 at the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing; and Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” Nov. 19 at the Ogden Auditorium in Chatham. Both are passionate tales of love, jealousy, deception and betrayal that tragically end in self-sacrifice and murder.

“Puccini and Verdi are powerful storytellers that resonate with all types of audiences and we’re excited to bring them to life onstage,” Calkins says.

“Rigoletto” (1851) revolves around the court jester Rigoletto, who tries to protect his daughter Gilda from the licentious Duke of Mantua. Despite his efforts, she is seduced by the Duke, leading to a series of tragic events. The story culminates in Gilda’s sacrifice to save the Duke and Rigoletto’s quest for revenge ultimately backfires, resulting in her death.

“Thematically, the opera deals with hedonism as a vice,” Calkins says. “Though I think the greatest message is the cautionary tale of wrath and revenge with Rigoletto trying to assassinate the Duke.”

The fully staged production includes costumes, scenery, props and set pieces, and will follow the Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave set in 16th century Mantua.

“I’ve seen updated stagings of ‘Rigoletto’ that have really worked, but I think this opera resonates with audiences in the traditional sense, especially because the roles of power play within the story are transferrable to different time periods,” Calkins says.

Calkins, a lyric tenor with experience in spinto and leggiero fachs, will portray the Duke, a complex character who uses his charm and manipulation to get what he wants. Opera directors have depicted him as everything from a slick gambler to a debauched frat boy to a finance bro. He sings the most popular songs from the opera, including the “La donna è mobile” aria and the “Bella figlia dell’amore” quartet.

“The Duke definitely has an interesting journey,” Calkins says. “He has famous melodies and seems jovial. In the first act, he’s like a king, and in the second act he poses as a student in love. In the third, he shows some humanity and vulnerability when he thinks Gilda has been stolen away.”

Baritone David W. Duke will sing the title role, a tragic father figure who swings from love and protectiveness to bitter vengeance against those who have wronged him.

Alexandra Gilliam will play Gilda in New Jersey Lyric Opera’s upcoming production of “Rigoletto.”

Soprano Alexandra Gilliam will sing Gilda (she and Calkins sang the opera together recently with the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia). Gilda is usually portrayed as virtuous and pure, which contrasts with the immorality, corruption and deceit of the characters around her.

“Gilda is a bit of a heroine,” Calkins says. “She always forgives the Duke even though she’s been wronged more than once by him in both love and infidelity. She’s really quite an angel in that she saves him, even unbeknownst to him, from walking into his own death. Even on her deathbed, she begs her father to forgive him, even though he’s unable.”

Chris Fistonich will sing Monterone, the count who wishes a curse on Rigoletto. “Chris has this robust baritone voice and a great presence,” Calkins says.

The hitman Sparafucile will be sung by Timothy Kjer, a Baltimore-based bass whom Calkins has known for more than a decade. “He most recently sang Don Basilio in our ‘Barber’ and was marvelous,” he says.

Sparafucile’s daughter, Maddalena, will be sung by Jacqueline Ledesma, a mezzo-soprano who began her career in dance. Mezzo-soprano Christina Esser will sing Countess Ceprano and tenor Joseph Rippert will sing Borsa, both in company debuts.

The opera will use licensed professional orchestral tracks to accompany the singers. “Part of our innovation has been supporting instrumentalists and music technologists in imaginative ways while supporting artists,” Calkins says. “This type of arrangement allows NJLO to continually perform these wonderful works while popularizing opera to the full extent, and the mobility to bring them to new and underserved communities, with hopes of collaboration in the future.”

The venue, a historic landmark building from 1867, plays up the work’s Italianate charm. “There’s a lot of architectural details in the space that lends itself to being a theater, so it almost looks like a theatrical set,” Calkins says.

The chorus is a mix of emerging artists who have sung larger roles as part of their academic setting and volunteers, some of whom are opera veterans.

There is a robust cover system. “We’ve created a very amicable and supportive environment for singers where understudies often go on to star in the roles they’re covering in future performances,” Calkins says. “For instance, our cover for the Duke is Diego Valdez and he’s going to be taking the helm by hopefully singing future Dukes and Alfredos in ‘La Traviata.’ And likewise for Floria Tosca: We have two wonderful sopranos who will be alternating the role in future productions.”

Traditional staging and scenography will also be used for “Tosca,” Puccini’s opera from 1900 with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

The story, set in Rome during the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, follows the love affair between the opera singer Floria Tosca and the artist Mario Cavaradossi. The ruthless chief of police, Scarpia, becomes obsessed with Tosca and imprisons Cavaradossi. Tosca is forced to make a heart-wrenching decision between betraying Cavaradossi or saving him, ultimately leading to the deaths of all three protagonists.

“In ‘Tosca,’ perseverance in the face of certain death is one of the big themes, and we want to transfer those themes and sentiments to the audience,” Calkins says.

Holly Gash will play Floria Tosca in New Jersey Lyric Opera’s “Tosca.”

Soprano Holly Gash will sing the title role of Tosca, a passionate and courageous prima donna who takes big risks to achieve her goals. Her devotion to Catholicism and faith plays a significant part of the story, as does her protectiveness of Cavaradossi, who will be sung by tenor Chris Lorge. Both have sung lead roles with the company — Violetta in “La Traviata” and Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly,” respectively.

“In essence, Tosca’s greatest acting moment is when she concedes to Scarpia to be his lover to save her own lover’s life,” Calkins says. “She sings this really amazing aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ that tests her faith because of all these horrible things happening to these people being upended by the government. The aria is about how she lived for art, and she wonders why she was so faithful about going to church, which sends a powerful message that there’s things in life, whether you’re a person of faith or not, that are going to test your faith in humanity or a higher being.”

Baritone Chaka Allen will sing Scarpia in a role debut. He sang with the company in past productions of “La Traviata” (as Germont) and “The Barber of Seville” (as the title character).

Calkins’ artistic vision aims at inspiring audiences. “We’re trying to create an illusion onstage that says, ‘This is real, this is really happening.’ In essence, we want to tell the story. We want to resonate with new opera audiences as well as the tried-and-true opera fans. That’s always my biggest goal.”

His directing style is collaborative and adaptive, allowing singers a say in their roles. “Every person works differently onstage,” he says. “We all come in different sizes, shapes and attributes. There are some key moments in each work that obviously need to happen, but we like to put our own spin on things and take some risks. I want the performers to enjoy performing it, but also that they feel like they’re contributing to some of the process of it.”

New Jersey Lyric Opera launched at the end of 2019 with an abridged version of Puccini’s “La bohème.” They mounted four performances and then the pandemic hit. “We did all that work and we were so excited for the future of the company, and then everything closed down,” Calkins says.


In 2021, he became director of music at Ogden Memorial Presbyterian Church in Chatham, and noticed that the historic church had a workable stage. “At first glance it didn’t seem like much,” he says, “but you turn off the house lights and turn on the stage lights, which are floor lamps, so you get this kind of vaudeville, turn-of-the-century feel, which is really quite novel. I saw that and thought, ‘Oh! We have got to produce some operas!’ ”

With a drill bit in hand, he set about renovations, which included a stage curtain and other significant refurbishments. He also corrected an acoustic flaw in the auditorium that made the residual sound ride a bit sharp. “We had to deaden the room a little bit, and now the space has this really wonderful acoustic,” he says. “It’s still reverberant, and acoustically it’s one of the best places we perform in.”

Ogden has become a home base of sorts. “Rigoletto” will be the first opera since the 2019 “La bohème” to be staged beyond its walls, as part of a strategy to boost accessibility in the Mercer and Morris County communities.

Calkins says the company is at a turning point that “involves scouting new venues, recruiting new artists, expanding repertoire and gaining new sponsorships through donors to support the back-end costs of shows. We’re starting to acquire contracts with local organizations where we can afford to pay artists as well as have a rainy day fund if certain things don’t pan out as expected. As we grow, hopefully we can add on different responsibilities to make this company fiscally successful.

“Our main mission is to provide more performing opportunities to singers as a stepping stone for them in the future, either to learn a new role or gain additional professional experience. A lot of behind the scenes for these shows is recruitment in terms of gathering artists that are very talented, as well as those who are right for the company and great to work with, which means they’re humble, honest, supportive and easy-going.

“I don’t know if it’s common knowledge to the general public, but opera singers are often exploited in this business. This is one of the few businesses where one has to pay to either apply for a job or for utility purposes. It’s a really tough and difficult situation for singers. In essence, whether they’re singing in a chorus or as part of a lead role, one of the biggest things is that we want to compensate them.”

A recent fundraising gala concert at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor featured popular arias, duets and choruses performed against cinematic imagery.

The season will continue in 2024 with a pair of diverse works from the 1830s by Gaetano Donizetti: the opera buffa “L’elisir d’amore” (to thematically tie into Valentine’s Day) and the tragic drama “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

They have also been invited back for the 2024 edition of the Kelsey Theatre Summer Opera Series. Last summer they inaugurated the new program, the first in the Kelsey’s history, with Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” while Operallora closed it out with a Puccini double bill.

Calkins makes regular appearances with regional opera companies across the country. Later this month, he will sing Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La bohème” at the Surflight Theatre on Long Beach Island.

John Calkins as Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly.”

His earliest memories of opera are through his mother, who would listen to recordings. He was introduced to the performing arts through high school show choir and continued his studies at Ohio State University, delving into musical theater.

His professional stage career began with comprimario roles at Opera Columbus. His breakout role was Don Ramiro in “La Cenerentola” as a Rossini tenor. “I was in a young artist program, and I think I sang about 40 performances of Don Ramiro, which meant singing that high-C aria at 10 or 11 in the morning!” he jokes.

In 2008, he understudied the role with the now-defunct Opera New Jersey, followed by a summer program that gave him the opportunity to explore New Jersey’s diverse landscapes and vibrant communities. “I realized I really enjoyed being here, so I made the move,” he says. “The unique thing about New Jersey is you have all these little pockets — the barrens, the beach, the cities and the countryside. There’s so much about New Jersey and the people that’s so great.”

Whatever lies ahead for the company, Calkins’ philosophy encourages mutual respect among artists and music that inspires local communities.

“It’s such a reward to be in the room when singers are doing a great job and supporting each other and the arts, and seeing the audiences moved and being well received, and that we’re touching the community in terms of their emotions,” he says. “I think it’s so important to be a beacon of light in celebrating other artists’ successes when they occur, and to spread positive energy out in the community and beyond.”

New Jersey Lyric Opera performs “Rigoletto” at the 1687 Sanctuary in Ewing, Nov. 12 at 3 p.m.; and “Tosca,” Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. at the Ogden Auditorium in Chatham. Visit njopera.ticketleap.com/rigoletto or ompc.ticketleap.com/tosca. For more on the company, visit facebook.com/njlyricopera.


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