Calling all opera fans and wannabe opera fans. Opera! Pike! Park! is returning to Milford.
The free event will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday Aug. 29, at Ann Street Park. It’s part of the Music in the Park series presented by the Milford Borough’s Parks and Recreation Committee, led by Michael Zimmerman.
This concert represents the triumphant return of vocal talent from the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Their premiere Milford concert at the Ann Street Park in 2019 (last year was cancelled due to Covid-19) was incredibly successful. Javier Morales, the event’s founder and director, knew this very sophisticated music could be a success in our rural county.
Yet, there were many naysayers. “Opera is dead,” they said. “Nobody understands it, no one will come,” and so forth. They were expecting about 60 people, but soon people started streaming into the park — families with young children, lawn chairs, picnic baskets, blankets, and coolers. The energy was very high. More than 500 people showed up. It was a beautiful sight.
How did Morales know? Because he had lived it. He grew up in rural Puerto Rico where his father, Wigberto Morales, hosted a weekly opera program on the local radio station.
The senior Morales was a playwright and poet, and also a police officer. He would listen to opera to motivate him to write his plays and books. Little Javier, from about the age of three, would sit under his dad’s desk and listen to opera with him.
Opera was an important part of their family life and inculcated a lifelong love of opera for Javier. He attended operas throughout his worldly travels, his passion for opera blossoming into knowledge.
So, it was no coincidence that when Morales and Sean Strub were married in the rain forest in Puerto Rico three years ago, they wanted an opera singer at their wedding. Was it even possible to find an opera singer in rural Puerto Rico? Morales knew in his heart they could find someone. With a lot of help from friends, including Rose Schwartz, who worked at the Metropolitan Opera, they were blessed with Elizabeth Rodriguez, a beautiful and talented soprano right there in rural Puerto Rico. (Rodriguez is currently starring in a production of Don Giovanni at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico.)
Morales thought, why not bring her to rural Milford? She wasn’t able to come but impresario Morales would find an alternative. With a little help from his friend Dr. Doug Manion, Morales connected with Jose Meléndez at the Academy of Vocal Arts.
Meléndez is on the full-time faculty and serves as collaborative pianist and vocal coach for various Academy productions and events. He is known for his colorful and sensitive playing, as well as his innovate programing. Meléndez is in demand as a vocal coach, conductor, and collaborative artist and has been working with burgeoning young opera singers for more than 20 years. Morales was totally impressed when they met in Philadelphia. “Javier knew everything and anything about opera,” said Meléndez. Morales told him, “I would like to have opera in Milford. How do we do this?”
The Academy of Vocal Arts is the world’s premier opera training academy, training the next generation of great international soloists. They have become so successful that the Metropolitan Opera presents the Beverly Sills Award to an Academy graduate every year.
The program in the Ann Street Park will include five Academy performers: music director/pianist José Melendez, soprano Aubry Ballaró, mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Stanley, tenor Sahel Salam, and baritone Titus Muzi, They all have many opera credits to their names and will be very appealing to a family audience. They will explain the stories of the pieces they will sing to help make the music accessible.
This is an exciting opportunity to see opera up close and personal. While admission is free, reservations are required (make them at tinyurl.com/2m9m378r) to receive a program. There will also be a number of folding chairs available for a $10 fee if you don’t bring your own.
Morales and the committee are very excited about the forthcoming concert. So, as they say in the opera, andiamo! (Hurry, let’s go!)
● Aubry Ballarò, soprano. From Bryan, Ohio. She earned B.M. in Voice Performance at Oberlin Conservatory. Role highlights include Lisette in La Rondine, Adele in Die Fledermaus, Despina in Così fan tutte. At AVA, Aubry has sung Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, and Juliette in Roméo et Juliette.
● Anne-Marie Stanley, mezzo-soprano. Attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton for her undergraduate studies and the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University for her B.M. She was a semi-finalist in the 2021 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and won first place in the Cooper-Bing Competition. At AVA, she sang the role of Leonora in La favorite.
● Sahel Salam, tenor. Salam is from Cypress, Texas. He earned a B.M. at the University of Texas at Austin and an MPerf at the Royal College of Music in London. His roles have included Tamino in Die Zauberflote, Vincent in Mireille, and Der Italian Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier. At AVA, he has sung Don Curzio in Le nozze di Figaro.
● Titus Muzi, baritone. Born in Milwaukee, Muzi attended Florida State University College of Music. and is a recipient of multiple awards at FSU. He has been engaged with various summer programs in the US including Houston Grand Opera’s Young Artist Vocal Academy and the Music Academy of the West. Some of his role highlights include Schaunard in Puccini’s La Bohème, Mr. Gobineau in Menotti’s The Medium, Melisso in Handel’s Alcina, and Marchese d’ Obigny in Verdi’s La Traviata.
● Jose Meléndez, pianist/director. Meléndez holds a B.M. in piano performance from the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico and a master of music degree in piano accompanying and coaching from Westminster Choir College of Rider University. He is a frequent guest artist at the University of Hawaii, where he has presented master classes on the art of collaboration.