The Rapidian

Toi, Toi, Toi! Love at the Opera for You!

Manon Lescaut, sung by Jill Gardner, meets Chevalier Des Grieux, her main love interest played by Marco Panuccio.

Manon Lescaut, sung by Jill Gardner, meets Chevalier Des Grieux, her main love interest played by Marco Panuccio. /Kristina Jeluso

Underwriting support from:


Kristen Burghart (center, by the well) plays the part of a Madrigal Singer.

Kristen Burghart (center, by the well) plays the part of a Madrigal Singer. /Kristina Jeluso

Props are staged behind the scenes, ready for the dress rehearsal opening.

Props are staged behind the scenes, ready for the dress rehearsal opening. /Kristina Jeluso

The classic head-over-heels love story transcends centuries. A man falls in love with a beautiful woman. The woman is passionate about the man. Yet the seduction of material luxuries and trickery by another man who can provide those extravagances lead her astray. Will true love prevail? The heroine and the show are Puccini's Manon Lescaut, lushly staged by Opera Grand Rapids this Valentine's Day weekend.

The opera has existed in West Michigan since the late 1950's. It began with productions at the St. Cecilia Music Society. In 1966 Opera Grand Rapids was formed, bringing a professional company to the area. In 2010, The Betty Van Andel Opera Center became the permanent home to the company. Located on East Fulton, the facility houses rehearsal, costume, office and meeting spaces.

Opera Grand Rapids, led by artistic director Robert Lyall, brings in talent nationally and internationally for lead roles. They are accompanied by the Grand Rapids Symphony, also conducted by Lyall. The chorus and other smaller roles are filled by local and regional talent. Chorus singers are always a part of each production. For individual roles, chorus members try out and are selected for specific parts.

Kristen Burghart, a soprano from Alger Heights, talked about how she got involved with Opera Grand Rapids. "I was a voice major in college and have just always had the passion to sing great music. [I] kept studying after I graduated and auditioned and have been in the chorus for 14 years or so."

Sarah Mieras, marketing and public relations manager for Opera Grand Rapids, walked me through dress rehearsal done two days before opening night, as the singer's voices need to have a day in between to rest.

"Tonight's audience is comprised of students from throughout West Michigan, as far away as Benton Harbor and Battle Creek," Mieras said. "Any teacher teaching any subject can register up to 50 students and it is free for them to come tonight. We also have partnerships with eight area colleges and universities and they also get a certain number of tickets through the dean's office. We have 200 tickets that go to Grand Rapids Public Libraries, all eight branches, that people can check out. Then we have a number of differently-abled organizations—some group homes, some Dominican sisters, etcetera—who come to this evening's performance for free. For the singers it is their chance, and the orchestra, to work together and run through the opera in front of an audience from beginning to end for the first time."

Mieras gave us a tour of the backstage preparations the night of the dress rehearsal. Behind the scenes, countless hours go into staging, lighting, props, costumes, wigs, and make-up. Stage managers make sure each prop is in place. Wig and make-up people call each performer to get them ready in the order they appear on stage. A costume coordinator and assistants are still putting final touches on elaborate costumes that don't have to be worn until the last acts of the night.

The singers warm up, and the energy in the building is tangible. As a lover's attention is focused on "you," opera singers wish each other "toi, toi, toi" translated from French as "you, you, you" before a performance. The phrase is similar to "break a leg" in the theater.

The show, set in four acts, entices you to experience the world of Manon Lescaut, her suitors and friends. Subtitles above the performance translate the singing, helping the audience follow the story.

Burghart elaborated on what might draw someone who has never experienced an opera before to the performance. "Just come. Come and see it. It's a good story. Beautiful, beautiful music. This was Puccini's first hit... it was very well received. His other two operas weren't as well received. And so this is kind of the opera that made Puccini famous. I think everyone should come see it. Great costumes, beautiful voices. We've got fabulous leads. Our principals in the show are really, really wonderful. And I would just tell people to come. [It's a] good love story for Valentines Day."

Manon Lescaut is staged at 7:30 p.m. on February 11 & 12, 2011 at DeVos Performance Hall.

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