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A&E Source: Verismo soprano tackles dual productions

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Erina Newkirk is one of the featured performers in Rigoletto and Werther by the Verismo Opera Company.

By Richard Freedman, Vallejo Times-Herald

Those who think Fred Withrop doesn’t enjoy a challenge certainly don’t know Fred Withrop.

While some would consider producing a successful opera company in Vallejo difficult enough, Withrop’s taken it a step further — two productions. Overlapping.

First, there’s Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, opening Feb. 25 and running through March 24 at the Bay Area Stage Theater.

Then there’s Werther by Jules Massenet, running March 3 through March 26 at the same venue.

Fortunately, via the wonders of multiple casting, Withrop whips his wizardry, turning possible chaos into a couple of coordinated creations.

“Werther is an opera I hold dear,” Withrop said. “This particular opera works well with Rigoletto. Both deal with love and ‘final’ tragedy.”

It helps having talented performers come to the rescue, including soprano Erina Newkirk tackling the roles of Gilda in Rigoletto and Sophie in Werther.

It’s all good, said, Newkirk, an Italian Cultural Institute Scholarship, New York Opera Studio Scholarship, and Marin Symphony Scholarship recipient, among other honors.

“The challenge is just focusing on efficiency,” she said. “If I’m just performing one role at a time, that’s all I need to concentrate on. When I practice, I have to be all systems go. I can’t be tired.”

She learned early to trust Withrop, having first performed for Verismo Opera in 2014 with “La bohème.”

“To me, it’s his heart for singers,” Newkirk said. “It’s typical for each (Verismo) opera to have multiple casts with varying experience levels. Of course, with each additional person to a role, that involves more musical rehearsal, more staging rehearsal and a longer overall rehearsal schedule. I get a strong impression that Fred really just enjoys giving singers opportunities.”

Casting four Gildas “is nice for me,” Newkirk said. “I get to enjoy watching each and every one of them. I think we learn from each other and we grow because of that.”

Though Newkirk “still gets nervous” before a production, she’s matured immeasurably, thinking back 15 years when she was “very scared and tried to break through all that fear. When I started out, I was like a little deer. I got very nervous. I had a lot of anxiety. It took a long time to get over that.”

And now?

“It’s all good,” she said.

Newkirk has performed Gilda before. Great for experience. Not good for that first-time excitement.

“You have to accept that it’s not going to be the same every time,” she said. “I work with the experience, just apply it and not try and force anything.”

During a performance, it’s all about discipline, Newkirk said.

“There are so many distractions that can happen — a cough, a trumpet player playing the wrong note — you have to be very militant in your focus,” she said. “It takes a lot of energy when you have the responsibility.”

Newkirk’s portrayed Gilda before, though not near the “50 times, and that’s not an exaggeration” she played Musetta in La bohéme. Verismo Opera, however, gave Newkirk her first shot at the more-substantial La bohéme character, Mimi.

That role led to a repeat of Mimi a few months later with the Island City Opera in Alameda.

“I’m pretty certain that if it weren’t for singing with Verismo — having it on my résumé — they may have asked another singer,” Newkirk said.

Newkirk said she does appreciate Verismo because the songs are performed in their original language.

“That’s one of the reasons I love opera so much,” she said. “I love singing and learning about different cultures and singing in different languages.”

Succeeding is all about a strong desire “and unrelenting determination,” Newkirk said. “Even some of the most talented people ... if they don’t have the desire and they give up, it’s all for nothing. You have to love what you do. There has to be a situation where you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.”

Surely an appreciative audience helps, and words don’t even have to be uttered. Take a Newkirk performance about nine years ago when a woman approached the artist.

“She came up to me in tears with her heart on her chest. It wasn’t what she said, it was just the look on this women’s face I’ll never forget,” Newkirk said. “It meant so much to me that I moved her in that way. It was so humbling.”

Verismo Opera presents Rigoletto, Feb. 25-March 24, and Werther, March 3-March 26, at the Bay Area Stage Theater, 515 Broadway St., Vallejo, Tickets $20 general, $15 seniors/students. For more, visit verismoopera.org.

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Sims, M. (2017). A&E Source: Verismo soprano tackles dual productions. Retrieved from http://www.verismoopera.org/view/article/58d0b96d0cf2f1b5abcf4a50

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