Founder and executive director of Charleston Opera Theater Harold Meers said working with local artists and venues is exciting and important | Photo by Ruta Smith

The silence of Charleston Opera Theater’s big voices and big characters will soon come to an end. Its long-awaited gala showcase of operatic delights is reintroducing the 2-year-old company struck with an impromptu 18-month hiatus soon after its launch in late 2019.

“Our original goal was we’re going to do our first full staged production in fall of 2020,” said Harold Meers, founder and executive artistic director of Charleston Opera Theater. “As we start working toward that goal … it was like, OK, this is not going to happen because of the pandemic. That’s when our focus sort of switched to, ‘We have to find a way just to get out into the community and perform — take our art form into the community.’”

Charleston Opera Theater moved to free, outdoor community events in the absence of a traditional season. Partnering with the town of Mount Pleasant, the first outdoor concert took place at sunset on the waterfront last October with singers and pianos under the Ravenel Bridge — a picturesque event for people starved for live music. In May at the Hanahan Amphitheater, Charleston Opera Theater produced The Tragedy of Carmen, an adaptation of the classic opera. 

But the acoustics of the outdoors are not ideal for opera, and Meers feels the community deserves to hear the sounds in their element. That feeling inspired the move to mount Serenata Italiana, the gala celebration that starts at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 18, at the Sottile Theatre.

Following the trend set by other spaces like the Gaillard Center and Charleston Music Hall and the College of Charleston’s own requirements for Sottile Theatre, COVID protocols will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the show. Attendees will be required to wear masks during the performance. There are also special seating tickets available for those who wish to be more distanced from other patrons.

Serenata Italiana is billed as “A Gala Celebration of Italian Opera,” and the lineup certainly makes good on that claim. The Charleston Opera Theater Orchestra will play, and the College of Charleston Opera will contribute a chorus. And impressive and accomplished soloists from around the world will be on hand to perform selections from some of the best Italian scores in history. Sopranos Keri Alkema and Jasmine Habersham, tenor Dominick Chenes and baritone Michael Chioldi are set to headline. 

Arias being presented include “Senza mamma” from Suor Angelica, “Si puo” from I Pagliacci and “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. “Bimba dagli’occhi” from Madama Butterfly and “Si, pel ciel” from Otello are on the program for duets. 

“One of my very favorite pieces of music … It’s not as well known unless you’re a real avid opera-goer, but there’s this really beautiful quartet from Puccini’s lesser-known opera La Rondine that is a really exceptional piece of music,” Meers said.

“We’ve really tried to make a nice balance of arias, duets, ensembles and then some longer chorus numbers,” he said. “In fact, we have one solo chorus number which is really exciting, ‘Va, pensiero’ from Nabucco, which is sort of the unofficial Italian national anthem. A lot of passionate music on the program.”

Working with international artists is incredible, but it’s also important to the organization to work with emerging artists, so the partnership with CofC’s opera program is an important aspect, Meers said. 

The training and mentoring of young singers ranks high among Meers’ priorities, and he speaks passionately about the company’s relationships with the college. The opportunity for students to cut their teeth in performance alongside working professionals is paramount for the company; so is making sure that local singers get that shine.

While Charleston Opera Theater does bring in established international performers for much of its heavy lifting, the company employs a great deal of local talent and makes it a priority to find Charleston artists capable of performing at the highest levels.

The company plans to follow its gala by returning to Firefly Distillery in North Charleston for another holiday event, which it debuted last December. Serenata Italiana will be back next year (fingers crossed), with a full-scale gala reception and artist meet-and-greets.