Elixir of Love: Opera Louisiane taking on its first grand opera

Production opens Friday, March 1, in the Baton Rouge River Center Theatre for the Performing Arts

Nemorino takes his problem to, no, not Madam Ruth but Dr. Dulcamara.

Dr. Dulcamara, whose love potion isn’t labeled No. 9, but is definitely an elixir of love, guaranteed to win Adina’s heart.

Now, we all know at first sight that the good doctor is a hawker selling a pseudo cure-all for whatever ails his customers. Cheap Bourdeaux wine has a way of doing that. At least temporarily.

It also gives Dulcamara a chance to escape to the next town while customers are tipsy.

This is why he tells Nemorino the potion requires 24 hours to take effect.

But there is another problem. Adina may be getting married before the potion can attract her to Nemorino. What will he do? What can he do?

Wait. Dr. Dulcamara is still in town, and surely has something more powerful in his arsenal of tonics and potions. That is, if Nemorino has the money to pay, which he doesn’t.

Is all hopeless? Will Dr. Dulcamara help Nemorino? Will Nemorino win Adina’s heart?

Ah, questions, questions. All have answers, and the only way to learn them is to attend Opera Louisiane’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera, L’elisir d’amour or The Elixir of Love at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 1, in the Baton Rouge River Center Theatre for the Performing Arts.

This will be Opera Louisiane’s first grand opera, which is a landmark in the company’s history.

“It really does raise the level for the company, and that’s exciting,” Michael Borowitz said.

He’s the company’s music director, as well as conductor for this show, meaning he’ll direct the orchestra, the players on stage and provide piano accompaniment in between.

That’s quite a job for one person, but it’s easier than commuting between Baton Rouge and Reno, Nev., which is what Borowitz did when arriving at LSU four years ago. In addition to being music director for the LSU Opera, Borowitz also was the Nevada Opera’s artistic director. He made his home in Baton Rouge but would fly to Reno several times a year to stage operas there.

“That was difficult,” Borowitz said.

True, but the experience also afforded lots of opportunity, from which Opera Louisiane is benefiting.

Because Borowitz worked with Ashraf Sewailam at the Nevada Opera. And now Sewailam will be working with Borowitz and the rest of the company in Opera Louisiane’s grand opera.

“I’m looking so forward to coming to Louisiana,” Sewailam said. “I’ve only been there once, and that was to visit New Orleans while singing at the Mobile Opera.”

Sewailam plays Dr. Dulcamara in this production, where he not only will be reunited with Borowitz but cast members Jane Redding and Dennis Jesse, as well.

Redding will play Adina. She earned her doctor of musical arts degree from LSU and now lives in Pensacola, Fla., where she recently has completed a run as Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Sewailam also was in that production. And he, Redding and Jesse have worked together at the Nevada Opera.

Jesse is an assistant voice professor at LSU. He will play Belcore in this production, the soldier who asks Adina to marry him.

And rounding out the cast will be Bray Wilkins. Opera Louisiane fans will remember the Monroe native as Fenton in the company’s fall production of Falstaff.

This time around, he will be Nemorino, searching for a way to make Adina fall in love with him.

This, of course, leads him to Dulcamara.

“This role is close to my heart,” Sewailam said. “I was a singer in the chorus of the Cairo Opera when I first sang this part. They needed someone quickly, and I didn’t know the part. I learned it in five days and had never rehearsed it when I performed it the first time. It was a hit.”

Sewailam speaks from his home in Boulder, Colo., but often returns to his native Cairo, Egypt, to perform.

The trips are more intense these days with the country’s political unrest.

“All of the arts there are run by the state, which presents its own set of problems,” he said. “But as dysfunctional as that situation is, the opera has put on some good productions.”

Sewailam’s next Cairo appearance will be as Julius Caesar in a concert version of the George Frideric Handel opera.

“Money from the opera budget has been diverted into the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports,” Sewailam said. “It’s rumored that this ministry is really a group the Muslim Brotherhood is funding to beat up the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. That’s why the full production of Julius Caesar is now a concert version.”

Tahrir Square is located in downtown Cairo. Demonstrators have filled it in the past year, protesting policies put in place by President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Sewailam has taken part in these demonstrations, most recently in January after performing a recital at the German Evangelical Church.

“There was a power outage that night,” Sewailam said. “That happens a lot in Cairo now. Everyone brought candles to the recital, everyone brought 10 to 20 candles each, and I performed the recital by candlelight. It was beautiful.”

And afterward?

“The church is only a block from the square, so I walked there and joined the demonstrations,” he said. “It’s danger. I always feel the danger, but it’s worth it. Freedom is worth it, and it’s something worth dying for.”

Sewailam’s family also is involved in the demonstrations. He has 16 first cousins, one of whom is always in the square. The cousins keep up with each other through social networking. “We always know where everyone is,” he said. “If one is going to the square, we all know. We all know where they are, if they’re OK and if they need help. It’s amazing how social networking has helped in these demonstrations.”

The demonstrations are only the latest chapter in Sewailam’s diverse biography. He was studying architecture when he discovered opera through a Cairo Opera’s production of Aida. The production was problem-filled, but Sewailam loved what he saw, especially what he heard.

“I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said.

He earned his degree in architecture and lasted only two weeks as an intern at a local firm. He knew he wanted to sing, and if he was to make a living at it, he needed to start while he was young.

His musical path eventually moved to Boulder, where he earned his doctorate from the University of Colorado. He’s been issued a level two green card for exceptional ability and is represented by an agency in New York.

And along the way, Sewailam provided the voices for Disney characters in Cairo. He was singing at the Cairo Opera at the time, while teaching at the American University at Cairo. Disney animated features and shorts were fairly new in Egypt, and voices were needed to provide the characters’ dialogue in Arabic. “We were more familiar with Warner Brothers’ characters,” Sewailam said. “We knew characters like Woody Woodpecker.”

But Mickey Mouse? He was something new. Sewailam was chosen to provide the voice for Mickey Mouse, as well as other Disney characters.

“I was working 18 hour days teaching, doing the voices and singing in the opera,” he said.

He loved what he was doing, but he knew he wanted more. So, he moved to Boulder, and now he’s coming to Louisiana.

“I love working with Ashraf,” Borowitz said. “I love this entire cast. We have a wonderful group for this opera.”

Borowitz said this on a Saturday preceding the performance. Members of the opera chorus had gathered in the University United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall to rehearse their parts.

The principals were scheduled to arrive the following week.

“Then we’ll put it all together,” Borowitz said. “This is an ensemble piece. There isn’t one main character. Each of the characters is equally important, and the chorus is a character in this show, as well. The chorus is engaged, and it has a part in telling the story.”

Some 25 singers make up the chorus, some of them college students, some local singers and some members of the New Orleans Opera Association chorus, which is in rehearsals for its upcoming production of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah.

“That opera is in French, and our opera is in Italian,” Leanne Clement said.

She’s Opera Louisiane’s executive director, as well as director of this production.

“So,” she continued, “the chorus members who are commuting between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are having to learn operas in both languages.”

Clement’s job on this day was blocking the scene where soldiers are coming into town. Young women in the chorus naturally are excited by the potential opportunity for finding a husband.

“And the women in the chorus who are obviously married are to be excited for the younger women and their prospects,” she instructed.

“All of the singers in this chorus give 110 percent,” Borowitz said as the rehearsal continued. “We want to present a quality production to Baton Rouge, and we couldn’t do it if they didn’t give it their all.”

Helping chorus members give their best is Chorus Master Jennifer Ellis, who not only taught the music but how to sing it in Italian.

This is important, because opera is more than singing. It’s acting and expression.

“And there’s a way to sing it,” Ellis said. “It’s important that they know how to sing it and what they’re singing.”

Ellis also was the chorus master for the company’s production of Falstaff. She is the the director of the Greater Baton Rouge Children’s Chorus and is a regular in Baton Rouge Little Theater’s musical productions.

Mary Pittman also has been a part of the little theater’s musical casts, as well as those at Ascension Community Theatre.

“This is my first time doing an opera,” Pittman said. “I know Jennifer, and she suggested I try out.”

Pittman was joined at this moment by fellow chorus members John Sallinger and Aaron Ambeau. Both also are veterans in community theater musicals, and Ambeau is one of the chorus members commuting between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“I’ve already done Samson and Delilah, so it won’t be difficult switching from Italian to French,” he said. “I was already set to do Samson and Delilah, and then I was called for Elixir.”

“It’s exciting to be a part of the company’s grand opera,” Sallinger added.

“And it’s important for the region to have this kind of company,” Ambeau said. “Opera Louisiane has gotten its footing here, and now the region has more than the New Orleans Opera Association. It’s exciting.”

But the most exciting thing for the company’s audience on March 1 will be learning if Nemorino will win Adina’s heart at the grand opera.

A grand opera with a chorus, a complete orchestra and sets.

It’s where Nemorino will drink from the elixir, through which the story’s magic will unfold.

  • CAST: Jane Redding, Adina; Bray Wilkins, Nemorino; Dennis Jesse, Belcore; Ashraf Sewailam, Dr. Culcamara; Megan Barrer, Giannetta.
  • ARTISTIC STAFF: Michael Borowitz, conductor; Leanne P. Clement, director; Jennifer Ellis, chorus master.