August 20, 2004


Falstaff marks the 20th year of artistic excellence from the Civic Opera
By David Ollington

Twenty years ago, local opera enthusiasts Barbara Dahlor and Edythe McNown founded the Meistersingers, a group dedicated to bringing quality opera productions to the Kansas City area. In 1990, Martha Longmire, professor emeritus and former chair of the voice division at the University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory of Music, took over as general director and changed the name to the Civic Opera Theater of Kansas City.

The Civic Opera, since its inception, has sought to promote and enrich cultural life in the metropolitan area with fully staged, entertaining operas and operettas, featuring accomplished volunteer singers, actors, dancers and technicians under professional leadership. A noteworthy mounting of Verdi’s opera Falstaff, Aug. 13-15 at the Folly Theater, marked the opening of the Civic Opera’s twentieth season.

Roberto Mancusi, who starred in the Aug. 13-15 production of Falstaff, is shown here in the Civic Opera’s production of The Elxir of Love. (photograph courtesy Civic Opera)

In December 1984, the Civic Opera, as the Meistersingers, produced their first offering, The Gift of the Magi, on a small church stage. The group’s history demonstrates consistent growth and some crowning achievements. A few years later (1995) marked the Kansas City premiere of Conrad Susa’s The Wise Women, an operatic retelling of the nativity from the perspective of the wives of the Three Wise Men. For nine years, the Civic Opera made this holiday opera a local Yuletide tradition, including a feature on KCPT in 1996.

In 2000, Longmire arranged a production of composer Mark Adamo’s Little Women, making the Civic Opera only the second organization to sing the piece. Last year, they made their Folly Theater debut with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, innovatively incorporating puppetry, thanks to Paul Mesner, into the staging.

Conductor Andy Anderson currently serves at the Civic Opera’s artistic director. Anderson brings impressive credit to the job. Holding a Master of Music degree from the UMKC Conservatory of Music, he’s led orchestras nationwide, founded the Kansas City Puccini Festival, and has served as assistant conductor for the Kansas City Ballet.

“We wanted to do something special,” said Anderson in reference to the recent Falstaff, which he conducted, and the 20th Anniversary of the organization. “Producing is a lot of work. The larger the opera, the more people are involved, the more elements you add. It was Verdi’s last opera. Anytime you hear the last score of a master composer, you know you’ll have everything in it but the kitchen sink.”

The Folly Theatre, an ornate and historical building downtown, represents an important part of Kansas City theatrical tradition. Photographs of vaudeville comedians and burlesque exotic dancers adorn the walls of the lobby. The brick and mortar, the antiquated décor of the house, and the grand but intimate stage all attest to a rich theatrical lineage. The Folly is a perfect choice for a group marking its longevity.

“It’s a great space,” Anderson remarked. “I love the people who work there. What a great history it has. It’s a small pit, but we have a 28-piece orchestra and it’s still comfortable.”

Sidonie Garrett, artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, served as a guest director for Falstaff.

“It’s beautiful,” she said about the Folly Theatre. “I wish the stage were a little bit bigger. It’s a matter of being very creative with light and space. It wasn’t designed to do what we do. But we find a way. We make it work. The Folly’s staff is terrific.”

“I think Falstaff is a big endeavor for the Civic Opera,” Garrett continued, “It’s a major step up. This particular show is very difficult to produce musically for the orchestra and for the singers. And then to be funny on top of that.”

Verdi based Falstaff on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sir John Falstaff (Roberto Mancusi), a braggart and a buffoon, insults and enrages people around him so that they plot ignominious revenge.

Anderson impressively brought forth expressive sounds from the 28-piece orchestra, effectively matching the convoluted sound that Verdi created to embody the vengeful plotting of Shakespeare’s story.

Garrett staged the work with physical comedy using traditional and humorous theatrical devices such as sneaking, drunken pratfalls, kisses up a woman’s arm and hiding to overhear a conversation. Verdi’s music hits a myriad of levels in Falstaff from poignant aria to lilting chatter, but some dense phrases of sound offered some of the most gripping musical moments in the piece.

The characters do a lot of planning and discussion around their vengeance. Verdi had up to eight characters, all singing a different line against each other, building intensity and suspense. Garrett effectively realized these moments by placing the characters in close proximity and having them sneak about the space plotting intrigue.

Mary Traylor’s costumes were visually pleasing, particularly for the female characters. Lighting Designer Bradley Hull created stunning shadows that believably delineated the light from very Renaissance-looking windows.

Twenty years striving to produce quality musical productions, the Civic Opera Theater of Kansas City deserves recognition. Their next production will be Gilbert and Sullivan’s A Christmas Carol, 2 and 8 p.m., Sat., Dec. 4 and 2 p.m., Sun., Dec. 5 at the Hall Center of the Pembroke Hill School Ward Parkway Campus. Call 816-235-6662.

The Civic Opera is looking for all voice types and people of all ages for A Christmas Carol. Auditions will be held on Sat., Sept. 18, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the UMKC Performing Arts Center. Each auditioner is to prepare a Gilbert and Sullivan piece and a one-minute monologue, also from Gilbert and Sullivan. For audition information, contact Sylvia Stoner at 913-485-4364.

David Ollington is a Kansas City-based writer and teaches at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He can be contacted at or



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