Expanding Cultural Horizons

Mark Sorensen, costume designer for Opera Wilmington, will bring to life the costume for the character Grissette from Franz Lehár's opera 'The Merry Widow.' Photo courtesy of Opera Wilmington

Mark Sorensen, costume designer for Opera Wilmington, will bring to life the costume for the character Grissette from Franz Lehár’s opera ‘The Merry Widow.’ Photo courtesy of Opera Wilmington

What: Fundraising Concert for Opera Wilmington, in support of its summer production, ‘The Merry Widow’
When: Sunday, April 6th • 3 p.m.
Where: Southport Community Building
233 E. Bay St., Southport
Cost: No charge but donations appreciated
Info: www.opera-wilmington.org

Wendy and Jerry Fingerhut, retirees from Manhattan, are opera devotees—Wendy from birth and Jerry from falling in love. Seat subscriptions to the Metropolitan Opera were passed down through Wendy’s family from her grandparents. “Every single Saturday when we were at home, the radio was on with the opera being broadcast from the Met,” she recalled. “It was there all the time.”

Wendy attended her first show at the age of 11 with eager enthusiasm. “I cannot sing; I do study the piano. But if I believed in it, if I ever said I wanted to come back as something else, I would come back as an opera singer,” she shared. “I think there is such vulnerability in an opera singer—standing up on the stage in a huge auditorium. They are not mic’ed. Everybody else is these days, even on Broadway, which in our day was not mic’ed. Opera singers have the most incredible musculature and breathing techniques to really get it out there. To have the skill and confidence to interpret a role in song, to me, is just—I’m in awe of it.”

Jerry, on the other hand, never ventured to the opera in his life before meeting his wife at 35. “After she knew me for 24 hours, she said, ‘I’m not giving up the opera for you,'” he quipped. But Jerry was raised in Manhattan and was no stranger to cultural affairs. “You get into it. And we were subscribers to the Met for probably 40 years in New York.”

The Fingerhuts relocated to Wilmington, NC, in 2011 (Wendy finally agreed to retire as long as the city broadcast the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD). While attending an opera lover’s dinner sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Center (OLLI), Wendy met UNC Wilmington music professor Nancy King.

Within months of their friendship, Nancy approached the Fingerhuts with an idea: to form an opera company to serve southeastern North Carolina. By January 2014, the couple welcomed multiple professors into their home to sit around their dining room table and plot.

Nancy, the Coordinator for Vocal Performance for UNCW, a presenter through UNC-WOOP! (UNC Wilmington’s Opera Outreach Program), and an active performing soprano, was the natural fit for artistic director. Dr. Steven Errante, conductor of  the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra since 1986, would fill the role as conductor for the company. Of course, Mark Sorensen, who has worked on Broadway shows and national tours, would design the costumes. Jerry, a former certified public accountant, was assigned the role of financial director, while his wife, chairman of the OLLI Opera Committee, would become president. The company, dubbed Opera Wilmington, is rounded out by choreographer Nancy Carson and set designer Max Lydy.

By mid-February, a fundraising party roused 50 guests—again, welcomed to the Fingerhuts’ home—who relished in arias performed by the artistic director and tenor Michael Rallis. “It was rapt attention,” Jerry revealed. “People were just enthralled.”

Wendy mused that support has flowed from the art sector of Wilmington, especially from those who know Nancy King as well as from vocal performers eager to audition. The short-term goal is to produce one opera per year, in the summer. The first production, Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow,” will take place July 25-27 at the UNCW Cultural Arts Building.

“It’s a love story, and the music is accessible and popular,” Wendy urged of the show, which will be performed in English. “There’s nothing atonal. Nancy couldn’t have picked a better opera to open up the company.”

By the time “The Merry Widow” takes the stage, Opera Wilmington will not yet be one year old. However, it has already garnered support from the Arts Council of Wilmington and its executive director, Rhonda Bellamy, who is eager to be a part of the company’s long-term mission. “We have very lofty goals,” Wendy began. “What we would love is to have a mini music festival that would involve the symphony, chamber music, all of the things that would be centered around this. Long-range, people would know you can go to Wilmington for this festival. There are not that many music festivals by the sea. We really do envision that happening.”

Furthermore, Opera Wilmington will be used as an avenue for Opera Angels, a philanthropic group that has attempted formation in the past, to support local students through scholarships and funds for educational trips. “We feel the company will be a focus that we can cultivate and then generate funds sufficient to accomplish the Opera Angels objective,” Jerry informed. “Nancy’s using students in the production of ‘The Merry Widow.’ We’re doing it at the university. It’s, in large part, a student-involved program. So we are trying to fulfill that mission while trying to get Opera Wilmington off the ground.”

Currently the organization is seeking corporate sponsorships and individual donations to cover the costs of production: the score, costumes, sets, tickets, etc. Those interested in contributing may visit www.opera-wilmington.org for more information. “We’ve applied for, and I know we will receive, 501(c)(3) status,” Jerry noted. “All the money received now will be retroactively deductible.”

Likewise, a fundraising concert will be held on Sunday, April 6th at the Southport Community Building. Guests will enjoy performances from soprano Nancy King and tenor Michael Rallis. The show also will feature Ellen Parrish and Heather Bobeck, as well as  Elizabeth Loparits on the piano. Light refreshments will be served.

“I think this is one of those ‘fate’ moments,” Wendy concluded. “I feel I was at the right place at the right time when I met Jerry; I think it’s similar to our connection to Wilmington and the opera community here, and I think Wilmington is the perfect place to do this sort of thing.”

One Response to Expanding Cultural Horizons

  1. JoAnn Long says:

    Thank you Wendy. Very nice article. Wish I were available for
    Sunday’s gala in Southport.

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