Discovering Opera, Poetry, and Humanity

By: Neal Long

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In 2021, we started a series called Community Conversations to explore the “here and now” implications of our mainstage productions and discover our shared humanity, on and off the stage. Every Community Conversation is different and always held in community spaces in collaboration with partner organizations and individuals. In the last year and a half or so, we have learned that audiences respond especially well to experiential, “hands-on” events—as evidenced by Community Conversation: Love and Division, held on February 21, 2024, at Greenwood Social Hall in dialogue with our upcoming production of Roméo et Juliette. More on that in a second!

Attendees participate in an interactive poetry workshop. Community Conversations, Photo by Andrew Schwartz for Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

I am often asked how we get ideas for Community Conversations. We start by examining the opera we are exploring and asking a series of questions. What are its themes? What is the application of those themes to our community? What organizations in our city are doing work in a similar or adjacent area? What music can be easily excerpted and performed by our Resident Artists? Where can we hold the event? Who do we know that can come on board as a facilitator? In short, we strive to be creative, practical, and responsive.

In the case of Community Conversation: Love and Division, we were first approached by Dr. Cecilia Cozzi, Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at The University of Kansas. Before her appointment in Lawrence, Cecilia had previously worked with Cincinnati Opera on initiatives connecting opera and Greek tragedy. She was interested in collaborating with Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Knowing Roméo et Juliette was on the horizon, we had a Zoom meeting and brainstormed possible ideas, identifying themes of love and division as areas to explore through ancient literature and civilizations and Shakespeare’s timeless tale. A seed was planted, and we waited patiently for the rest to fall in place.

Over holiday break in December, I learned of Greenwood Social Hall, recently acquired by local singer, author, and artist Calvin Arsenia. Upon seeing pictures of the gorgeous space, I knew it would be a perfect and inspiring venue. A mutual friend made an introduction to Calvin, and in January, we had a coffee meeting, fleshed out the event structure and details, and got a date on the calendar!

Greenwood Social Hall, located in the Westside Neighborhood, just a few blocks away from the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Community Conversations, Photo by Andrew Schwartz for Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

As I reflect on Community Conversation: Love and Division a few days later, I am pleased to offer this brief evening recap.

We started the night with intentional time for gathering and conversation—complimented by beverages, of course! A reading of the prologue from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set the tone and established some context. Cecilia then introduced us to ancient depictions of love as seen in the stories of Aphrodite and Eros, the Argonautica, Medea, and Cupid and Psyche—setting the stage for a performance of the aria “Je veux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette as sung by Resident Artist Kelli Van Meter.

Resident Artist soprano Kelli Van Meter sings “Je veux vivre,” Juliette’s introductory aria. Community Conversations, Photo by Andrew Schwartz for Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Cecilia continued her presentation, exploring the complications of love through the stories of Metamorphoses and Pyramus and Thisbe. As you likely know, Romeo and Juliet is indeed complicated, especially considering how far its characters go to allow the star-crossed lovers to be together. Does anyone care for a sleep-inducing brew? Accordingly, Kelli offered “Amour mon ranime courage”—often called the “poison aria.”

Dr. Cecilia Cozzi explaining an ancient Greek story, illuminated by a slideshow of curated images. Community Conversations, Photo by Andrew Schwartz for Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Exploring (un)divided love, Cecilia walked us through the stories of Antigone and Oedipus, followed by Calvin Arsenia’s touching presentation of the song “A Time for Us” from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Calvin remarked that it was the first song he ever learned on piano and accompanied himself on his harp, aptly named Romeo!

Calvin Arsenia and his harp, Romeo. Community Conversations, Photo by Andrew Schwartz for Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

After a brief break, Calvin led attendees in a poetry workshop. Participants were encouraged to reflect on themes of love and division and to respond to a portion of the lyrics chosen at random from “A Time for Us.” Four folks shared their poetry at the conclusion. It was fascinating hearing their words and so inspiring to see their vulnerability in “taking the stage” to share.

A guest sharing her poem. Community Conversations, Photo by Andrew Schwartz for Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

A musical digestif—the beloved “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, sung by Calvin and Kelliconcluded the evening. Personally, I think it was our best Community Conversation yet! But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what our guests had to say:

Admittedly, I know very little of the opera scene, or those who are part of it. I was pleasantly surprised last night to find it to be a fun and engaging evening, and was able to learn more about the arts in Kansas City.

Love the space. Love the talent. Love the information that was shared. Very intimate setting.

How different forms of expression provide a fuller experience and understanding of what it means to be human. The combination of story, myth, art, poetry, and opera created an immersive way to think about what it means to love and desire.

It was a very delightful evening. I met a new friend and had a wonderful chat with her.

New friends enjoy conversation. Community Conversations, Photo by Andrew Schwartz for Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Stay tuned for our next Community Conversation in dialogue with our upcoming concert production of Journey to Valhalla. Details coming soon!