It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost a decade since islanders first thrilled to the sound of their own resident opera company.
Now, Vashon Opera — with 19 full scale opera productions, three children’s operas, a long-running lecture series, 10 gala events and an operatic recital under its belt — is set to launch its 10th anniversary season in September, with Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the emotive masterwork that was also the company’s inaugural production in 2009. A production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” will be the company’s spring production.
As with many of Vashon Opera’s past productions, “La Bohème” will feature a chorus made up of local singers, mostly culled from the membership of Vashon Island Chorale. But also, as usual, these lucky islanders will share the stage with professional opera luminaries.
Anthony Kalil and Alexa Jarvis, both of whom have sung at the Metropolitan Opera and many other prestigious venues, will appear as Rodolfo, the love-struck poet of “La Bohème,” and Mimi, the opera’s doomed seamstress. Noted singers Damien Geter and Andy Papas will also make their Vashon Opera debuts in the production.
Other faces and voices will be more delightfully familiar to island audiences.
Vashon Opera founders, Jennifer and Andy Krikawa, will sing the roles of Musetta and Marcello. And James Brown, who has long served as the opera’s conductor, stage director, musical director and orchestra arranger, will once again wield the baton. Brown, over the years, has been responsible for recruiting nationally known musicians to play for Vashon Opera, alongside local heroes, including accomplished cellist Douglas Davis and violinist Karin Choo.
Tickets are on sale now at vashonopera.org, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, at Vashon Center for the Arts. Both performances are expected to sell out, like every other production mounted by the Opera in the last 10 years.
For Jennifer Krikawa, who is the opera’s artistic director, the island’s support of the company has meant the world to its founders and artists.
“The community has kept us pushing forward and saying yes, we’re going in the right direction, and this is worth it,” Jennifer said. “We have truly felt this is wanted, this is needed, this is loved.”
Jennifer, a slender, full-throated soprano, moved to Vashon in 2004 with her husband Andy, an accomplished baritone. At the time, the couple was intent on leaving their opera careers, which demanded constant travel, behind. Andy, they had decided, would work a regular job, and Jennifer would become a full-time mother to the couple’s two small children.
But both Krikawas had sung at many prestigious venues, including the New York City Opera, and it didn’t take long for word to get around on Vashon about their vocal prowess. The first to be clued in were parishioners of St. John Vianney Church, where the couple joined the choir and served as cantors. For some, the development might have seemed like a gift from God.
Islanders Jo Ann and Tom Bardeen were among those whose jaws dropped when they first heard the Krikawas sing at the church.
Almost immediately, Jennifer said, Jo Ann recruited her to join the Vashon Island Chorale.
“She said, ‘I’ll be picking you up on Tuesdays, and you’ll be going to the Chorale,” Jennifer recalled, with a musical laugh.
After Jennifer sang “The Magic Flute,” produced by islander Nancy Bachant and directed by Elizabeth Nye in 2006, and also performed a sold-out recital, the Bardeens led the drumbeat to persuade the Krikawas to found their own opera company.
“We were behind them 100 percent,” Jo Ann said, noting that she and her husband had been inspired by seeing an opera produced in an intimate setting in Venice. “We decided this could be done on Vashon.”
In 2008, the company was founded with assistance from approximately two dozen founding supporters — an influential group that included the Bardeens, Rick and Molly Reed, Beth and John de Groen, Conni and Doug Clarke, Ray and Edith Aspiri, and Karen Baer and Rick Wallace.
Wallace, who has remained a steadfast supporter and volunteer for the opera since its founding, believes Vashon Opera has been an important addition to the island’s cultural life. The company has raised the bar in terms of excellence for all performing groups on Vashon, he said.
“It has also brought a whole new group of people to opera,” he added. “They didn’t have to pay $100 a ticket and take a ferry; they could see it right here on Vashon.”
Wallace also cheered the way the opera has become an inclusive way to celebrate community on Vashon.
“Like Drama Dock, like other performance efforts on the island, it gives people a chance to participate,” he said. “Here, you hear your neighbors singing, and you’re sitting in the audience with people who constructed the amazing set and costumes.”
Another early enthusiast was the late local philanthropist and Vashon Island Chorale member Kay White, who donated every year to the opera’s gala.
At around the same time of the opera’s founding, White had pledged millions in support to build Vashon Center for the Arts — a place she hoped Vashon Opera would eventually call home, Krikawa said.
Early on, the opera performed in unexpected and even rustic locations. Its first production was presented at the old Vashon High School theater, a now demolished structure that had grown dilapidated with age. But the space had some advantages, according to Jennifer, including a month-long window for the company to construct its sets when school was closed for summer vacation.
The opera’s spring productions were presented at Bethel Church, another unlikely setting for grand opera, but one that was embraced by the community and church members.
Most notably, the church accommodated the company’s request to build a large wooden stage that filled the entire chancel of the church. Sets for such productions of “Madame Butterfly” and “Eugene Onegin” were then built atop the stage by a cadre of Vashon Opera volunteers. Audience members sat in the pews, and at intermission, wandered into the church’s social hall to sip lemonade and nibble on cookies provided by the ladies of the church.
Jennifer looks back on those years with pride, recalling how the company was able to create memorable experiences for the audience in non-traditional settings.
“It was always like this little miracle that we were able to pull things off in a very professional way,” she said. “People were always impressed by the production values and how we transformed those spaces.”
But in the spring of 2016, with the grand opening of Vashon Center for the Arts, the company finally found a well-appointed home with a more expansive stage, better acoustics, a green room and dressing rooms appropriate for guest artists. Importantly, VCA’s Katherine L White Hall also has an orchestra pit.
“Now that we have the pit, we have 23 orchestra members, and it really feels like we represent what opera sounds like,” Jennifer said, adding that at VCA, the opera has also been able to perfect its lighting and other production values.
The company’s reprise of “La Bohème,” she said, will be an opportunity to look back and reflect on all the company has accomplished over the years. A slideshow of past productions, put together by longtime supporter Stu Tribble, will play prior to the opening curtain.
For islander Gary Koch, a trained tenor who recently retired as a physician on Vashon, it will also be a chance to reprise the small role of Parpignol, a toy seller, in “La Bohème,” which he also sang in the company’s inaugural production.
Singing with the opera in 13 productions over the years is something he said often relieved the stress of his medical career, and continues to bring him joy in his retirement. Koch is also excited to have the opportunity to make music with his son, a professional oboist, who has played with the Opera’s orchestra for many years.
“It’s something I never dreamed I’d be able to do,” Koch said. “I can’t tell you how special it is.”
And for Jo Ann Bardeen, who continues to serve as the chorus master of the company she first championed, the experience of being part of the opera has been transformative, and she believes it has enhanced the lives of others as well.
She recalled how she once counted up the islanders listed in the credits for one opera and discovered that 105 locals had helped bring the company’s production of “Carmen” to the stage on Vashon.
“To be part of the entire process of creating an opera is absolutely magical,” she said.