Tamara Wilson stars in Aspen Music Fest’s ‘Aida’ | AspenTimes.com

Tamara Wilson stars in Aspen Music Fest’s ‘Aida’

Last fall, opera singer Tamara Wilson received a text message from her agent saying, "Your family is going to be spending Christmas in New York this year."

The cryptic note, Wilson knew, meant that the young soprano and Aspen Music Festival and School alum would be performing the iconic lead role in the New York Metropolitan Opera's production of "Aida," taking over for a pregnant singer. She had performed the role previously at the Sydney Opera House and in productions in Chile, Seville and elsewhere. She knew it backward and forward. But still, she recalled this week in a Music Fest panel discussion, pulling it off at the Met during the height of Christmas season was a daunting proposition.

"It was exhilarating and oh-so terrifying, all at the same time," Wilson said.

The performance earned adoring reviews and placed Wilson among today's elite Verdi sopranos.

Luckily for Aspen audiences, the Aspen Music Festival and School had already cast Wilson as Aida in this summer's semi-staged performance of the opera, which comes to the Benedict Music Tent tonight.

"We said (last summer), 'She is going to be a true Verdi soprano and a big star in the repertoire,'" Aspen Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher said this spring, when the production was announced. "We were smarter than we thought. … We're patting ourselves on the back for having called this one."

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Directed by Edward Berkeley and conducted by Robert Spano, this "Aida" will include professionals singing alongside students from the Aspen Opera Theater Center, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

The epic Verdi opera, which premiered in 1877 in Cairo, is about a the Ethiopian princess Aida, who falls in love with the Egyptian general while she is held captive in Egypt. Wilson put the plot in more contemporary terms: "She meets this guy and he's dreamy and it's totally a 'West Side Story' thing, where I'm a Jet and he's a Shark and he's very persuasive that out love can transcend anything."

A fellow Aspen alum, baritone Brian Mulligan, plays Aidia's father, Amonasro, king of Ethopoa. Mulligan, similar to Wilson, has ascended to the top ranks of opera since his time as a student here — this fall he will take on the title role in "Sweeney Todd" at the San Francisco Opera. Performing alongside today's Aspen students is a unique experience, allowing him to look back on his roots and, hopefully, inspire the opera performers of tomorrow.

"It's this wonderful meeting of the school and the festival," Mulligan said. "Tammy and I were both students here … It's worth celebrating right now that these two students were hand picked by (Berkeley) to be able to sing here."

The cast has been assembled in Aspen rehearsing since late July; the Denver-based chorus joined for final rehearsals this week.

"Coming here early and doing it at altitude with the lack of oxygen, you have to be very comfortable technically so that you can overcome these things," said Morris Robinson, a bass and frequent guest performer here, who plays the high priest Ramfis.

A semi-staged production removes some of the usual spectacle of "Aida." There will be no elephants on stage and no elaborate royal costumes, though some special set pieces — such as a suspended Egyptian pyramid and a conceptual recreation of the Nile River — will be on hand. The form also provides some unique joys for those on stage and behind the scenes.

Berkeley said that the love triangle and the personal drama is the heart of the opera for him. He hopes to translate that into the soaring Benedict Tent.

"Because the tent itself is a spectacle, I felt the personal story is the challenge," he said.

For the actors, performing in concert dress, in a production such as this, rather than in costume can make it easier to form a bond with the audience.

"When you do a semi-staged concert opera, you get more of the soul of the performers," Wilson said. "When we're in a production normally we're in costume, we're away from you guys a little bit. Here we're right there with you. It's a more inviting artist-audience vibe that I really enjoy. I love doing concert operas."

For Spano, the conductor, leading an orchestra in a semi-staged production, where his musicians are situated onstage rather than in a pit, allows the music a larger role, commanding more attention from the audience than in a fully staged opera.

"There's a different attention to the detail of the music," he said.

Friday's performance is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., 90 minutes later than the customary Friday symphonies.

atravers@aspentimes.com

If You Go…

What: ‘Aida,’ presented by the Aspen Music Festival and School

Where: Benedict Music Tent

When: Friday, Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $85-$100

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenmusicfestival.com