Early in the last century, a peddler rolls into a small northwestern town by a lake, selling potions that are nothing more than cleverly disguised cheap wine. A young man, something of a bumpkin, is madly in love with the most popular girl in town, but she only has eyes for the handsome soldier who happens to be garrisoned nearby. The young bumpkin buys a potion from the peddler, becomes pleasantly tipsy, makes some rash decisions (all in the name of love), and comedy ensues.
This is the scenario this weekend in Coeur d'Alene for the newest Opera Plus! production, Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, or The Elixir of Love. Lest you wonder about Donizetti and his curious knowledge of the Inland Northwest, the Italian composer originally set his 1832 story in the Basque region of Spain, but executive producer Mark Faulkner decided that turn-of-the-century Coeur d'Alene would be a properly rustic alternative. And even though the cast will sing in the original Italian, English translations - courtesy of artistic director Anne Manzo - will be projected overhead.
In keeping with the local setting, nearly everyone in the cast and crew of this production has a connection to the local area or the Northwest region, from the new Opera Plus! chorus to the set designers. Bass-baritone William Rhodes (the peddler, Dulcamara), a native of Coeur d'Alene, appeared as Old Deuteronomy in the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre's production of Cats, and he sang the lead role in last year's Gianni Schicchi for Opera Plus!. Baritone Steve Mortier (the soldier, Belcore) is on the voice faculty at Eastern Washington University; he has sung locally with the Spokane Symphony and the Spokane Opera, and with orchestras and opera companies across the country. Those with sharp eyes will spot him often in locally produced television commercials as well.
Even the visiting performers have ties to the Northwest. Tenor Michael Sommese (Nemorino, the young bumpkin) graduated from the University of Idaho and has since gone on to prestigious roles with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the Metropolitan Opera. Soprano Christina Kowalski (the witty and popular Adina), a native of Germany, now lives in Portland, where she has performed with the Young Artist Program of Portland Opera and the Summer Festival. Last year, she sang the role of Lauretta here in the Opera Plus! production of Gianni Schicchi.
This production marks the debut of the newly formed Opera Plus! chorus, a group of 22 men and women from across the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene area under the direction of Max Mendez, music director at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane. Mendez is a native of California who has made his home in Spokane for several years. He has sung locally with the Northwest Bach Festival, the Westminster Chamber Orchestra and Spokane Opera, as well as with opera companies in California.
Spokane native Kresha Frankhauser sings the role of Gianetta, Adina's friend and confidante who is also something of a gossip. Despite her musical pedigree - her dad is bass-baritone John Frankhauser, another local opera favorite - she was headed for a career in social justice work and ministry until music wooed her back to the stage.
"At home, our Saturday housecleaning was always accompanied by the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on KPBX," she recalls. "Growing up, I always loved singing but I hated the work that went with it, partially because I saw [my father] work so hard. He was always working on his voice as an instrument and also working at getting enough jobs to pay. I decided early that I didn't want to do that. I had dreams of other things. But something about the music grabs you, something that pertains to the spirit as well as to the fun and the work."
After graduating from Whitworth, Frankhauser worked for a time at Second Harvest Food Bank and then moved to Mendocino, Calif., for a position in youth ministry. But before long, music drew her back to her roots.
"I decided that if I'm ever going to sing, I need to do it now," she says. "I needed those years away. It does take a lot of dedication and a lot of work, but there's an inner drive there now and I know I will regret it if I leave. I needed that time to grow up as a person."
Frankhauser spent two years just studying voice, with no performances, working with her father here and with his teacher in New York. Since then, roles have come her way with Opera Fresca in Mendocino and with Spokane Opera and Opera Plus!. Even as her opera career begins to take off, Frankhauser remains grounded in her family, her relationships, and her continued work for social justice. Each year, she travels to El Salvador to work with the children from several small villages.
"That trip to El Salvador keeps my feet on the ground when I'm in a career that keeps asking me what I want," she says. "It keeps me balanced as a person. I believe there are responsibilities as a human being, regardless of what career you're in."