There they were — two women, both from Richmond but strangers to each other, meeting to perform opera in Raleigh, N.C.
That chance meeting led to proverbial light bulbs going off and the realization that if they — Fran Ahern Coleman and Karine Marshall — both loved performing, and they happened to live in the same city, that maybe they weren’t alone. And maybe there was something more they could do about it.
In 2012, they took their idea to three more singers and friends here in town — Sarah Kate Walston, Jessica Wakelyn and Rebecca Hopkins — and together, the five women established Capitol Opera Richmond, a grass-roots opera company that performs throughout the year at venues across the city, from places such as Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, to churches, Richmond public libraries and more.
Capitol Opera Richmond is under the umbrella of Capitol Opera Cos., an organization that supports the establishment of opera companies in capital cities across the country, such as Sacramento, Calif.; Raleigh — where Coleman and Marshall met — Harrisburg, Pa.; Albany, N.Y.; and now, Richmond.
There’s one more chance to see Capitol Opera Richmond before it wraps up its 2016-17 season. On Saturday, April 29, it presents “A Journey Through Song of Love & Loss” at Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 8 N. Laurel St. The event is free to the public, and a greet-the-artists reception follows.
Four members of Capitol Opera Richmond — lyric sopranos Jenna Anderson and Sarah Kate Walston, dramatic mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Maes and Coleman, a coloratura soprano — will perform selections from “Faust,” “Madama Butterfly,” “La Boheme” and many more as they sing about love in all of its stages. They’ll be accompanied by pianist Daniel Stipe.
For many working musicians, their livelihood is only as good as the varied threads they weave together. They’re performers at heart, and work as often as they can, but they also teach at local colleges, give private lessons, direct church choirs, lend their expertise to musical theater productions — some even run their own voice studios.
And sometimes, they do all of those things simultaneously.
Coleman is one of those people.
“As a working musician you have to be willing to piece a life together through multiple avenues of income,” said Coleman, who practices what she preaches. She owns a voice studio, called Songbird’s Studio, where she offers private voice lessons. She also teaches at John Tyler Community College and Longwood University, directs her church choir, and recently joined a wedding band — the list goes on.
“Classical music can be conceived as a dying art because there’s so much music that’s being created and produced all the time,” Coleman said. “But there’s so much to classical music that I feel all generations can benefit from.”
The group plays in public spaces of all kinds because it wants audiences to look at opera as something that’s accessible to everyone.
“Opera can be perceived as pretentious or high-brow, (but) we try and make it comical and sexy and funny and contemporary,” Coleman said. “These are real-life stories — love, loss, death, sorrow, happiness — the story doesn’t change from generation to generation.”
Karine Marshall is Capitol Opera Richmond’s acting president. A former private voice and ballet teacher, she’s now a yoga instructor and mom to two young boys. In addition to the opera, Marshall sings in the choir and as a soprano soloist at Grace & Holy Trinity, and occasionally at other churches. She said people who are new to opera are often surprised by the emotional responses they have to some element of a performance.
“There are emotions that are universal,” she said. “Even if you don’t understand every word, the music and the voice will speak to you (and) stir up deep, powerful emotions.”
Richmond resident George Pugh is one of Capitol Opera Richmond’s biggest advocates. For a small volunteer-driven organization with a budget that’s next to nothing, he explained, Capitol Opera Richmond is doing great things within the community.
Being involved with other opera organizations over the years, including Lyric Opera as well as Virginia Opera, Pugh’s knowledge of the inner workings of arts groups means he’s keenly aware of the challenges Capitol Opera Richmond faces.
Despite its size and limited resources, Capitol Opera Richmond has a few things going for it, namely its willingness to extend opera into corners of the region where it wouldn’t normally go and to public places that are accessible to all, he explained.
Looking at their collective body of work, which they often put together around family obligations, full-time jobs and life in general, you can see that the members of Capitol Opera Richmond “have really been creative and inspired to do a lot of innovative things,” Pugh said. “I believe in their cause.”