When last you presented to your opera audience the grandeur and tenderness of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (with orchestra, at the newly re-opened Arkansas Repertory Theatre, no less) how do you follow that act? If you’re Opera in the Rock, you program a nimble one-act to fill out your season, pen some custom radio jingles and capitalize on your local roster of talent.
Breaking the fourth wall as often as its foley artist Erick Saoud breaks glass, a compact cast of singers and pianist/songwriter John Willis put up Menotti’s 1939 radio opera “The Old Maid & The Thief” at The Studio Theatre this weekend, under the direction of Kevin Lambert, who doubled as the play’s radio station manager.
And why should you go to one of the two remaining performances? To hear the couture commercials the small-but-mighty company came up with, for one. In the breaks Menotti built into the opera — originally conceived and commissioned as a radio play — Willis and Co. opined about the glories of local businesses with singing advertisements, giving the opera buffa a hyper-local spin and giving a handful of OITR sponsors one of the most unique pieces of promotional material they’ll likely ever buy.
And go for the local cast. Shannon Rookey, who stepped into the role of Laetitia as a stand-in for the soprano originally cast, is winsome in the role, fun to watch and comfortable bouncing around notes above the staff. Singers and educators Diane Kesling and Christine Donahue toy deftly with faux melodrama and playful timing, as does soprano Sarah Stankiewicz Dailey, and Ron Jensen-McDaniel’s “When the Air Sings of Summer” is worth the price of admission, especially against the aria’s retail counterpart, in which Jensen-McDaniel — pivoting to his “commercial break” identity — croons suavely through his cigarette smoke about how confident you’ll feel with a “blow out before you go out” from Little Rock’s Face Your Day salon.
Oh, and because I doubt I’ll ever get to say this about an opera again, allow me to mention that there’s a tiny dog in a tutu.
OITR’s “The Old Maid & The Thief” will be performed again 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25. Get tickets here.