It’s not every day that a poodle plays a dragon in an opera, but Verismo Opera Club isn’t your average opera company. Bradley and Yasmeen Schuller, the husband and wife behind Oak Park’s newest opera troupe, aren’t afraid to step outside the box—even if it means persuading their six-year-old dog, Shakespeare, to don a shiny set of scales and chase Tamino into a magic realm in The Magic Flute’s first scene.
“We’re trying to keep opera alive with a different take on things, whether it’s in the show or through playful marketing,” managing director Yasmeen says. “We want our productions to be fresh, exciting and fun so that new audiences can learn to love opera.”
Getting kids exposed to classical is a large part of Verismo’s mission. For founder and artistic director Bradley, the desire to express opera’s fun underbelly spurred him to stage a family-friendly Magic Flute.
A successful tenor in his youth, the former DePaul voice major once aspired to be the next Pavarotti. Eventually the emotional roller coaster of performance got the better of him, and the 37-year-old returned to school for an M.B.A. in finance. Verismo was his reward to himself for finishing school, and now gives creative balance to his analytical day job. “I wanted to create my own company, but run it smartly,” he says. “I wanted to do something with my singing career that I haven’t already done, stage operas that speak to my passion and voice type.” His blue eyes shine as he casts a glance at the stage. “This really is my dream come true. You’re looking at it.”
“This production is very different from any I’ve ever done,” remarks bass David Govertsen, a graduate student at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music who will join the Lyric opera chorus next season. He’s starring as high priest and golf-fanatic Sarastro—Verismo is giving the entire opera a sporty makeover—and will be whacking soft “golf” balls into the audience to get the kids squealing. “Verismo’s not afraid to break some rules,” he says, laughing. “This is a great new take on an old chestnut.”
Behind this rule-breaking, lighthearted retelling of Mozart’s 1791 two-act classic is energetic actor and stage director Aaron Hunt. “This cast isn’t shy about getting goofy,” the Detroit native tells us. “That’s such a wonderful quality for opera. It’s so easy for it to be stodgy.” Hunt says he was most excited about the opportunity to make kids feel a part of the opera. All youngsters will be handed goodie bags when they come in, complete with bells to ring and glow sticks to wave along with the cast.
Yasmeen also sees a plus side for parents: “A lady on the school board for Oak Park recently told me that she didn’t quite feel comfortable bringing her daughter to Lyric because of the ticket price, but she still wanted to introduce her daughter to opera. She loved the fact that Verismo is putting on family-friendly operas in her neighborhood.”
“We’re very proud of what we’re doing,” says Bradley as he packs up his score, ready to wrap up the afternoon’s rehearsal. “We’re the little guy trying to survive, but we’re going to keep growing organically. Verismo means realism for the people, and we stand by that. You get by if you’re honest and passionate. People respond to passion more than anything.”
Verismo Opera Club presents The Magic Flute Friday 25 and Sunday 27 at [node:7554947 link=Arts Center of Oak Park;].