Have you been to the opera in Orlando? It’s been on my “someday list” and I’m finally going to make it happen. Join me and find out why Opera Orlando’s The Secret River is a must-see this holiday season and learn more about its lead soprano Kyaunnee Richardson as I had a chance to chat with her about her inspiration, the importance of this role as well as a bit of movie, Disney and foodie fun because it wouldn’t be Go Epicurista without it! I hope you’re inspired, get tickets and go #MakeSomedayHappen
What is The Secret River?
Friday December 17th – Sunday December 19th, Opera Orlando is proud to premiere the Company’s first commissioned new work, and the first original chamber opera adaptation of The Secret River, based on the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Central Florida resident, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
I had the opportunity to attend a media preview, chat with the cast, director, and conductor, and watch as they rehearsed a few of the numbers. It was absolutely mesmerizing! And that was without the stage set up, the accompaniment of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and the Opera Orlando Youth Company or the puppetry created and performed by MicheLee Puppets. It all promises to be visually stunning. Immersive as well with the audience wrapping around most of the stage at the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater at Dr. Phillips Center.
“The Secret River is a beautiful story that we were excited to turn into an opera,” shares Opera
Orlando’s general director Gabriel Preisser. “It has been a labor of love getting to this point
among me, the creators, and the production team. I know our audiences will be blown away by
this magical and earnest opera that has taken three years to develop, write, and produce. I am
particularly grateful for all the support from the community and local and national foundations as
we have workshopped the piece. After hearing the public reading of the work this past April at
Mead Garden, I know we have something really special to share with Central Florida and beyond.”
5 Reasons Opera Orlando “The Secret River” is a Must See!
1. The Secret River is Opera Orlando’s first commissioned new work.
This is the world premiere of a brand new original opera! The first for Opera Orlando and one they hope is commissioned by opera companies around the country. Be there and be part of history!
2. The Secret River is a Central Florida Story.
The Secret River is based on the young adult book of the same name by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Ms. Rawlings was well known for her novel, The Yearling, and several other writings that chronicled her experiences living in and around Central Florida. Her young adult book, The Secret River, was published posthumously in 1955 and subsequently awarded a Newbery Honor Book Award.
There’s more local connection with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize and Grammy award-winner Mark Campbell and music by University of Central Florida Pegasus Professor Stella Sung, The Secret River is set in Central Florida during the Great Depression and follows the journey of Calpurnia, a young, intelligent girl with a robust imagination as she searches for a secret river to help her family and small town.
Emily Pulley who plays the role of the author in the production said “The Secret River is a local story. Rawlings was so profoundly in love with this part of Florida. She had a great admiration for the resilience of the people around her. The book is infused with that energy of the people in Central Florida.”
3. The Secret River is Fun For The Whole Family.
If you’re looking to introduce your kids to the opera, this is the production to do it with. Bring the whole family and enjoy the heartwarming story of how a young, African-American girl, Calpurnia, searches for a secret river to help her family and small town. This story for all ages demonstrates the power of trusting one’s imagination and the goodness within us all: a perfect sentiment for this holiday season.
Sung in English with English supertitles, The Secret River will run approximately seventy-five minutes with no intermission. And, if that’s not enough, it also features a puppet show! Stay after the show for a special talk back with the cast and puppeteers where you and your family will get a chance to see the puppets up close and maybe even play the part of the puppeteer. A great experience for all.
4. The Secret River Features an All Star Cast.
Opera Orlando welcomes back former studio artist soprano Kyaunnee Richardson, singing the role of Calpurnia. A fan favorite last season for her star turn as Adele in Die Fledermaus and as Gretel in the Company’s Hansel & Gretel. She will be joined by acclaimed soprano NaGuanda Nobles and 2021-22 studio artist, baritone Geoffrey Peterson, playing the role of Calpurnia’s mother and father. Mezzo-soprano Kimberly Milton will sing the role of the town’s wise woman, Mother Albirtha, and Metropolitan Opera soprano Emily Pulley rounds out the cast, singing the role of the author herself, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Also on stage, musicians from the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and members of the Opera Orlando Youth Company under the baton of Dr. Everett McCorvey, founder and music director of the American Spiritual Ensemble. It is directed by up-and-coming stage director Dennis Whitehead Darling, with puppetry created and performed by MicheLee Puppets and dance choreographed by Maxine Montilus, performed by students from the University of Florida.
5. The Secret River is an Inpiring Story.
“How many stories do you see where a young black girl is the heroine? Not only a hero for her family but for the whole community.” says stage director Dennis Whitehead Darling. “She’s using her perseverance, smarts, ingenuity, and bravery to confront the jungle (of life). Although it’s set in the Great Depression, it’s amazing how timely this story is.”
“It’s a great message for young audiences, especially young black girls to see a young black girl on stage who loves reading, writing, and being creative. She loves it so much there’s one scene where she’s writing and walking at the same time. It touched me so much to see that.” said music director Dr. Everett McCorvey.
“A secret river, Flows through us all, Young and old, Big and small.”
As a first-timer to the opera, I wondered why should I go see The Secret River?
When I asked the cast to tell me why The Secret River was a great opera for my first opera experience, they had so much to say. In fact, I had a tough time keeping track of who said what. Here are a few of the reasons they shared why you should go see it, especially if it’s your first time to the opera like me.
- “This is a good first! It’s short and it’s in English!”
- “The music is enjoyable.”
- “It’s relatable. The story is about a family at the breakfast table. The character of Mother Albirtha will remind you of your wise grandmother.”
- “It’s so creative. Your eyes, your ears, your heart will be touched.”
- “It’s accessible for all ages without being dumbed down.”
- “Leave your ideas of what you think about the opera at the door. Opera is more than powdered wigs and foreign languages.”
If you need one more reason to go…
The Secret River is Fun!
If the show is anything like the rehearsal, we are in for a treat! Click here to get your tickets and go support Opera Orlando and our local arts community.
Get To Know Lead Soprano Kyaunnee Richardson
Here’s the fun part of this story: I “met” Kyaunnee on TikTok! She followed my “50 Things To Do In Orlando This Fall” series and when she mentioned she was performing in Orlando I had to learn more about her. I followed her back and this is how I learned about Opera Orlando’s The Secret River. The Secret River is now on my list of “Fun Things To Do in Orlando this Holiday Season”. This is one of the reasons I love how we can connect on social media! As I watched Kyaunne’s videos I was so captivated by her voice (she should be doing books on tape too!) and I loved that she was a Disney-loving foodie like me. Read along for a bit of inspiration and be sure to follow Kyaunnee!
Soprano Kyaunnee Richardson made her professional debut as Papagena in Mozart’s The Magic Flute with the Festival of the Arts Boca in 2016. Most recently, she made her debut as Adele in Die Fledermaus with Opera Orlando. She’s a frequent soloist with local orchestras and ensembles, has been a finalist, and won numerous awards and singing competitions including the Audience Favorite Award in the Harlem Opera Theater Competition. She counts among her highest honors singing for President Barak Obama and other dignitaries at the funeral of South Carolina Senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
1. What inspired you to pursue your career in opera? What made you say “I want to do that!”?
“I began singing at the age of two. My mom used to put a cassette player at the head of the bed and I would listen to different genres from classic Disney to Beethoven and even some Whitney Houston. During Christmastime, I remember listening to Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. But it wasn’t until the age of 14/15 years old that the movie The Phantom of the Opera came into my life — I actually had a cassette tape of it but couldn’t remember what the melody was — Immediately, I read the book and discovered composers such as Gounod, Meyerbeer, and Puccini.
This led me to research them and it led me back to singers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, Renee Fleming, and Anna Netrebko. I made the decision to try this out. But the moment that solidified that I was on the right path was when I was in grad school at FSU. I was just about to make my first entrance, I felt someone press up against me and whisper in my right ear, “This is what you were meant to do.” I turned around and no one was there but I knew within my heart of hearts that this is what I was meant to do.”
2. What does this role mean to you and how special is it to be a part of creating a role for the first time in an original production vs. playing a role of an established production?
“I remember watching a documentary called the Opera House where the great legendary soprano Leontyne Price opened the now Lincoln Center with a brand-new opera, Anthony and Cleopatra, written for her by composer Samuel Barber. I thought to myself, “It would be cool if I could have something that was written for me.” Singing an established role, we are going off of traditions that have lasted over hundreds of years. There’s a certain expectation to be met with those roles and they are still fun to play. However, to create something totally from scratch, one has the freedom to put their personal mark on it. To make it extra special. To be asked to sing/create Calpurnia is an honor and a blessing. I get to put my mark on it and craft it into a role that fits me which makes it even more special.”
3. In The Secret River, Calpurnia uses her imagination to get through challenging times. How have you and/or the cast & production team of The Secret River been able to use imagination to get through the challenges of the pandemic?
“When the pandemic hit, many people in our industry just didn’t know what to do. I immediately saw that, for the time being, we were going online. That’s when I created a TikTok and began focusing on how can I craft my brand and reach other people through this other digital medium. It also opened up a way for me to try new things and allow me to think outside the box! Opera Orlando had a system in place last season which allowed them to still have live performances in a safe environment.
Plus, they used the live-stream medium to reach another group of audiences. I believe they were the only functioning opera company in the nation this time last year. And now with the story of The Secret River, it reflects the current situation of our climate so perfectly. I believe, collectively, we want to bring people into a safe space where they hear a familiar simple story that allows them to escape just for a few hours and understand that they can use their gifts and talents to turn their hard times into soft times.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyaunnee performed virtually, including Opera Fusion’s #SongStrong and Music to Eat Chocolate By e-concerts, Hued Songs in Make Music Miami, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s International online Cadenza Competition.
4. As a black woman in a field that has not traditionally been very inclusive, what is your advice to others who are inspired by your story?
“Work hard, stay humble and never give up on your dreams! Someone once told me the richest place on earth is the cemetery. There are people who lived life, passed on, and never utilized their gifts and talents to change the world. We all have a purpose in life. We all have been given gifts and talents. It is our responsibility to discover what the purpose is and how to do we utilize and develop those gifts and talents to serve one’s purpose. I don’t want others and myself to live a life and not be able to touch others and change the world for the better. There are those who will try to put you down because you are different but we must fight. Whatever was put on the inside of your heart of hearts – your soul of souls – you must strongly believe in it, fight for it and protect it.”
5. How did you celebrate when you were cast in the leading role of Calpurnia for The Secret River?
“Well, I haven’t celebrated…yet. My initial reaction was very calm and focused. I didn’t bounce all over the ceiling. I thought, “I have a very important job to do and my goal is to do an excellent job in telling this story.” It still hasn’t hit me that I am creating a brand-new role that no one has ever heard of or seen — a world premiere! It really hasn’t sunk in yet. I think it will probably sink in after the run is over with, for me. I will say how I plan on celebrating after closing is going to Disney World!”
I’m going to Disney World!”
6. Speaking of Disney, what is your favorite Disney experience?
“Ooh! I can talk for days about Disney! So, my favorite Disney park is the Magic Kingdom. I’m a hopeless romantic and always believe in dreams coming true. The most recent mini-trip I had was finally experiencing the Christmas Party! I never saw snow at the Magic Kingdom! The 25th Anniversary Celebration and singing in Epcot’s Candlelight Processional for the first time was a memory but the number one experience was my 21st birthday I stayed at Saratoga Springs, traveled to Magic Kingdom by bus, saw all the characters, rode my fave rides, searched for Hidden Mickey’s, waited until nightfall to watch SpectroMagic glitter down Main Street USA, watched Wishes sparkling in the sky and came back to surprised birthday cake and signed Mickey Mouse Photo in my room.
My fave treat is the classic Mickey Premium Ice Cream. I think the best place to get them is right by Indy Speedway in Tomorrowland. My fave character is a cross between Peter Pan (because he called me a princess and told me to keep believing in my dreams) and Prince Naveen (because he made me feel that True Love is real and I had so much fun laughing).”
7. What is your favorite movie with an opera tie-in?
“This is a tough one! So, it is a tie between Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement — there is a scene with famed opera singer Anna Netrebko singing “Sempre libera” from Verdi’s La Traviata – and the 1989 Phantom of the Opera starring Robert Englund – the plot makes a direct tie to Gounod’s opera Faust. There is one other Phantom movie that features a lot of opera in it, the 1990 mini-television series starring Charles Dance which features scenes from Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s La Traviata, Gounod’s Faust and an aria from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment.”
8. Have you discovered any new favorite foodie experiences in Orlando?
“Yes! Your blog on TikTok has been such a helpful guide for me. I have fallen in love with Milkhouse, Houndstooth Kitchen, The Sugar Factory, The Nook and I cannot wait to try La Luce, Steakhouse 71, and a few other places.”
9. What is on your “someday list” you hope to check off in this new year?
“I want to travel and sing all over Europe. I want to see all of those beautiful places I’ve read in books – Effiel Tower, ride a boat in Venice, the Paris Opera where the Phantom of the Opera was born, Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen of England, the countryside of England where they filmed Downton and Pride and Prejudice — there’s so much to list. I’d love to debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, La Scala, Royal Opera House, and several other places, get back into roller-skating, go on a hike in the mountains, stargazing out west, visit the other Disney Parks around the world… may not be this year but I would love to build a house in the Smokey Mountains for my family and I to escape there anytime we want… my list keeps growing each year”
10. Do you have a favorite inspirational quote to leave us with?
“Music expresses what cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” – Victor Hugo
“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” – Beverly Sills
The Details About Opera Orlando The Secret River:
- Where: The Secret River at the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater
- When: Friday, December 19, 2021 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 20, 2021 at 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, December 21, 2021 at 2 p.m.
- Tickets for The Secret River can be purchased here. Season ticket packages are also available for Opera Orlando on the Town. Call (407) 512-1900 or visit www.operaorlando.org for “On the Town” subscriptions.
Thank you Kyaunnee Richardson, Gabriel Preisser, and everyone at Opera Orlando and The Secret River for sharing your gifts and inspiration. I’m happy to say my first opera experience will be in Orlando and I’m certain it won’t be my last. I hope you’re inspired to go to the opera! #MakeSomedayHappen
Disclosure: I have been hosted as a media guest for promotional purposes. I am under no obligation to share this post. As always, all opinions are my own. I only share with you products and experiences I love to inspire you to safely get together with family and friends, celebrate life, and go #MakeSomedayHappen one delicious bite, sip, and trip at a time! You can read more about my guidelines in my disclosure policy. Cheers!