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Expanding the Stage

A Look Back at Summer’s Open-Air Opera

June 11, 2021

DSO Music Director Jader Bignamini stands on the Meadow Brook Music Theatre stage laughing with Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Director Yuval Sharon. It is almost dress rehearsal call time for the MOT production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana: In Concert. Their mood suggests relief that the night has nearly arrived: the opera is about to make history as the first MOT production conducted by a Detroit Symphony Orchestra music director. 

What made this moment the right one for the project? The vision of two fearless newcomers in town who are no strangers to hard work. Neither creative leader has even marked their one-year anniversary helming the musical institutions that anchor Detroit’s cultural center— and they’ve succeeded despite the ongoing pandemic.

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Cavalleria rusticana, first premiered in 1890, was written in the just-emerging verismo style, also known as realism. A post-romantic genre, verismo focuses on the everyday lives of real people, their loves, loses, and triumphs. “I have seen the opera performed in village squares that are smaller than Orchestra Hall’s stage,” says Jader, “with noisy chatter and the people very close together. It’s easy to listen to because the melody is very immediate. It’s easy to understand, even if you don’t know Italian, because the emotions are communicated in the singing: anger, jealousy, worry. There are no gods or mythology, so you don’t need the background to follow what’s happening.”

With both institutions focused on community, accessibility, and reaching new audiences, presenting Cavalleria rusticana outdoors at Meadow Brook Music Theatre was a fitting project. “This performance lays out the idea that opera is close to life using the democratic principle of amphitheater,” says Yuval. “You sit shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbor [within the restraints of social distancing], reflecting on your society and what it means to be a citizen, like in a Greek theater.” 

Yuval describes Jader as a thought partner throughout the Cavalleria rusticana production process: “Jader is so fun to work with; he has a spirit of adventure and bravery. He instinctively looked to expand the stage and explore placing singers all around the Meadow Brook campus—clearly a theatrical mind! I look forward to future opportunities for us to work together." Yuval also utilized the opposite lawn for the chorus, who sat on the lawn with picnic blankets and summer outfits—the audience literally surrounded by music on three sides.


When I met Christine Goerke [Cavalleria’s Santuzza], I saw that she was a very smart, passionate person with strong character. Opera requires singers to be intellectual and passionate so they can successfully communicate through their performance. ”

-Jader Bignamini
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Detroiters are welcoming but can be leery of creatives relocating to the city, which sometimes gets more press over its resurgence than the fact that culture never left Detroit and has thrived through every obstacle. Inauthenticity isn’t well received, and neither take this lightly.

Amplifying the voices of those already in Detroit and its surrounding neighborhoods is central for Yuval, beginning with his first MOT production, last fall’s drive-through opera, Twilight: Gods. This was apparent to attendees of the site-specific opera through its narration by Marsha Music, inclusion of dancers from Wayne State University, an articulate cameo from a Lynch and Sons hearse, and a grand finale, wherein a Ford Mustang acted as the chariot for the heroine to take her leave in.

Jader, a jazz aficionado, made Cliff Bells one of the first places he visited after the announcement of his tenure with the DSO. A foodie, Jader is eating his way through the city, jovially chatting with food truck and restaurant owners. His passion for music education is apparent in how he spends his time, whether joining pre-professional music students via Zoom at last summer’s DSO Music Institute or stopping in to provide insight at masterclasses for Civic Youth Ensembles students. Perhaps most telling is the respect he shows in conversation, from orchestra members to the administrative staff and stage crew: he will remember your name. A non-native English speaker, he will humbly ask your opinion on which adjective is most appropriate to communicate his thoughts effectively.

“Detroit is remarkably open to collaboration; as soon as I arrived, people were approaching me to ask ‘What can we do together?’” says Yuval. “There is a spirit that we’re in this together.” Jader was excited to work with the opera house. “Here at the DSO we have a lot of different programs, we have an incredible orchestra, we have educational programs for young people with our Civic Youth Ensembles, we have so much variety in programs. I think in our future we must do big collaborations with all the artistic and musical institutions in the city; it’s very meaningful for the community.” The Italian opera led by the Italian music director marks the beginning of Jader’s quest to ensure the world never forgets how much great music is happening here. 

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What drew me to opera was collaboration. Collaboration makes you better; navigating collaboration requires you to be in a constant state of humility without losing what makes you individual. Whoever you’re working with takes you to another level. It expands your artistry. Collaboration is the essence of opera. ”

-Yuval Sharon

If you missed the Cavalleria rusticana experience, keep an eye out for the upcoming WDET television event, dates forthcoming.