By Chelsea Rose Moore
Photo by Randy Litzinger

The Shakespeare Opera Theatre presents the classic Romeo and Juliet at Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains this month.

Rehearsals are currently underway. Shakespeare Opera Theatre (SOT) Managing Director Lori Lind is excited about the upcoming production and about working with Casey Kaleba who is the stage combat choreographer for the Folger Shakespeare Library Theater. He is working with the local troupe for this production. Lind and Kaleba took some time to share their thoughts about the show.

To learn more about specific performance dates/times or to purchase tickets, visit www.shakespeareoperatheatre.com.

ML: How long have you worked with Shakespeare Opera Theatre? 

Lind: I founded the company in 2015 with Willem Krumich, and we produced Much Ado About Nothing with Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedict in English translation. I am an opera singer turned conductor and stage director, but my first love was Shakespeare, and he is a Shakespearean actor. We eventually parted ways to seek other projects, and now I run the company with the help of Lisa Bloy who is conducting for this show, and Maggie Ramsey, who does publicity, and Chris Mannix, our stage manager.

ML: Who was instrumental in connecting the company with Grace Episcopal Church? 

LL: I began working at Grace as the soprano soloist. [The rector and I] began a dialogue on how we could bring SOT to The Plains. He had a vision for so many exciting things, and I was becoming pretty convinced that moving to Grace was a good idea.

It still needed careful thought as to how we would attract audiences to The Plains, and what our shows would look like in such a unique space. We’ve always been something of a jewel box company, and adding the charm of Grace’s Gothic architecture and wonderful facilities to our presentation was an attractive proposition.

From the beginning, it’s been our mission to do this weird classical mashup where you see classical acting, singing, and orchestral instruments putting on this super exciting bunch of shows in the season. It was also important to us that our performances be accessible to everyone, and people from all walks of life seem to love it. We have cops sitting next to doctors, sitting next to opera aficionados and Shakespeare reviewers like Eric Minton, sitting next to a 10-year-olds and their parents.

ML: What sparked the decision to offer a free performance for those with mental and emotional challenges?

LL: I had always been interested in reaching out to all communities, and this year I was able to help form SOT’s “abilities committee” headed by Frank Lombardi, who is a former head of disability services in Loudoun County. He often performs at Baileywyck Antiques as an America Song Book singer, so he was already familiar with the charm of The Plains. He has a lot of great ideas, and together with the committee, we’ve been able to do a lot for our friends with all kinds of challenges.

For instance, in addition to offering a free show for those with mental and emotional challenges, we are able to offer braille programs by request, and we are working with the Kennedy Center on services for those with hearing difficulties. We also use the more modern education and office area of the church for the Box Office, so that those with mobility challenges have an easy time entering through wide hallways and have immediate access to restrooms with wide doors and other wheelchair friendly accommodations. We also check that all walkways are well lit, and that there are no obstacles in the way. It’s a team effort, and it’s very important to us that everyone feels welcome and included. 

ML: How did you decide to combine Shakespeare’s iconic love story, with Hector Berlioz’s work?  

LL: Berlioz was always breaking the restrictive musical mold of his time and creating undefined works. When he wrote his symphony based on Romeo and Juliet, it was something the public had never seen before. It wasn’t a symphony in the strictest sense of the word, it wasn’t an opera; no one knew what to think at first. He ended up winning the prestigious Prix de Rome for this work, and there is no question that he is one of the most adulated composers in French History. He was also a Shakespeare lover, so I can relate to him on a number of levels.

ML: You were able to procure the services of the Stage Combat Choreographer for the Folger Shakespeare Library Theater. How did you come to work with the Casey Kaleba?

LL: Casey heard we were doing Romeo and Juliet and emailed me via our website, asking if we had a fight choreographer yet. His fight choreography is stunning, and our performing artists are psyched to be working with such an experienced and creative stage combat professional. We are over the moon that he is willing to come to The Plains.

ML: Is there a twist on this classic love story?    

LL: In the 18th century there was an actor, David Garrick, who thought he could improve on Shakespeare by having Juliet wake up before Romeo’s death, so they can have one last moment of ecstasy before their inevitable deaths. A lot of opera composers really dug David Garrick’s version, because it gave them an opportunity to compose a final duet between the two leads. I understand how hard that would be to resist, and Berlioz was no different.
So, we are giving the audience a choice to choose David Garrick’s ending or Shakespeare’s ending, during intermission. We hope this will not only educate our audience members in a fun way, but spark some lively conversation and a little friendly competition as the audience makes an artistic decision of their own!

ML: How is this performance unique in your opinion? 

Casey Kaleba: By bringing together Berlioz’s and Shakespeare’s text, this production is making unique and hefty demands on the performers. A traditional production of the play asks the actors to act, and the opera versions of course emphasize vocal skills, so by bringing the two together we needed a rare group of performers who were strong enough as both actors and signers to tackle the work. And of course, as the fight director, I needed them to move well to be physically able to do complicated sword fights in the beautiful space of the church. You need a really special skillset as a performer to do this work – we were looking for singers who could fight, and fighters who could act, and actors who could sing.

ML: Is this troupe different from other groups you have worked with in the past?

CK: Because they’re creating different theatrical experiences, opera singers and actors approach storytelling using different tools, and they think through their performances in very different ways. Having a company that’s asked to do both has been a fascinating rehearsal process, and watching the actors switch modes between telling a story primarily through song, or through movement, or through spoken text is a very unique challenge. 

ML: Have you worked with a company that offers this unique interdisciplinary combination of classical music and classical theater prior to this rendition of Romeo and Juliet?

CK: I’ve staged the fights for 48 productions of Romeo and Juliet, from universities to Wolf Trap Opera to high schools to professional productions like the Folger, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work on a production that brings together the beautiful music and so much of Shakespeare’s text. No other company is approaching Shakespeare this way, and I think it’s an absolutely wonderful way for audiences to get the fullest experience of these artworks.  

Casey Kaleba has staged fights for over 500 professional and academic productions, working on performances in the Folger Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Ford’s Theatre, and many others. He is a two-time Helen Hayes Awards nominee in fight direction. 

Lori Lind runs a private voice studio in her hometown in Haymarket and offers master classes throughout the region. She has received numerous awards and career grants, including First Place in The Annapolis Opera, Violetta DuPont and Licia Albanese competitions and career grants from the Liederkranz, Gerda Lissner, Schuyler-Bender and Tucker Foundations.

Showtimes include February 14, 15 & 16 at 7:30 p.m., and the 17th at 5 p.m. at Grace the Plains, 6507 Main Street, The Plains, VA 20198. Find out more or buy your tickets here.

This article first appeared in the February 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.