Cleveland’s Ingenious Great Lakes Light Opera

'The Gift of the Magi' was presented by the Great Lakes Light Opera in Cleveland, Ohio.
‘The Gift of the Magi’ presented by the Great Lakes Light Opera.

This past weekend I made my way out to the East Cleveland Theater to see the Great Lakes Light Opera’s (GLLO) production of The Gift of the Magi, written by composer, David Conte. For those of that are unfamiliar with GLLO, it is an esteemed organization built on the mission of providing educational and outreach-focused programs to all audiences. Whether you’re completely unfamiliar with classical music or a regular opera-goer, the GLLO has dismantled the 400-year old barricades that have been long constructed around the art form. Through the work of this opera company, now the most diverse audiences can come together, experiencing music in a brand new way.

Great Lakes Light Opera Shatters the Misconceptions of Opera

Those not accustomed to opera often buy into the stereotypes surrounding the art form; they might call it “elitist,” “expensive,” “boring,” or “hard to comprehend.” For many this seems to be true, but the GLLO shatters these misconceptions by creating affordable and welcoming experiences for all. One of my favorite things about the GLLO is that their performance spaces are usually atypical. You’ll find the GLLO connecting with real people in unconventional locations such as bars, libraries or museums. Not only does this make the company unique, but it is a genius, well-formulated method to engage with the public in a way that opera has never been able to accomplish. In many ways, the company is a vanguard in its form, executing innovative solutions to save – what many would claim as – an endangered art form.

Besides being easily accessible to the public, another standout about the GLLO is that they remove all the layered misconceptions about opera to create performances that are digestible, informative and meaningful. I especially saw this in their weekend run of The Gift of the Magi. “The Gift of the Magi is actually the biggest production we’ve ever done,” said Executive Director, Megan Thompson. Under Thompson’s direction, it is clear that her team of artistic collaborators have become one of the most exciting opera companies in the city of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.

Great Lakes Light Opera presented 'The Gift of the Magi' in Cleveland. Photo by: Great Lakes Light Opera.
Matthew Brennan (left) as Jim and Anna White (right) as Della. Photo by: Great Lakes Light Opera.

‘The Gift of the Magi’

The Gift of the Magi, which was composed by David Conte, was a beloved, “near and dear to your heart” show in the hands of the GLLO. In fact, David Conte himself was a collaborator on this production, working alongside the performers during the creative and rehearsal process. Based on the 1905 short story by O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi details Jim (Matthew Brennan) and Della (Anna White), a poor couple who we meet on Christmas Eve. In secret, both Jim and Della sell their prized possessions – Jim’s gold watch (a family heirloom) and Della’s long, beautiful hair – in order to purchase a gift that reciprocates their love to one other. Along the way, we meet Della’s dear friend Maggie (Jennifer Woda) who counsels Della’s decision making. Woda’s frantic and comedic depiction of Maggie was especially tasteful as I found myself laughing when I didn’t expect it. Likewise, Jim’s concerned acquaintance Henry (Bryant Bush) played a polar opposite personality to Maggie. Henry’s serious, but friendly demeanor towards Jim and choices helped to create a nice balance to the show.

When Della gets Jim a chain for his watch, Della quickly grows upset when she learns that Jim sold the watch. Likewise, when Jim presents the extravagant combs he purchased for Della’s hair, he also grows rather frustrated when he sees that she has cut off all of her hair. In an attempt to show their love for one another, both Jim and Della mistakenly forfeit their treasures for gifts that serve no purpose. At the end of the production, we see the three Magi (Seth Johnson, Joel Kincannon and Jonathan Stuckey) speak of their sacrificial gifts while highlighting one of the most important gifts of all.

It was interesting to explore the relationship between both Jim and Della. Are they fools for giving up their possessions for the other, or are they as selflessly devoted to one another as two partners should be? Brennan and White executed both of these roles well, not only matching the necessary tone and characterization, but both performers teetered between the two previous questions I posed in a very artistic, calculated approach. Throughout the show, I continuously questioned myself as to whether I’ve been a fool in love, or whether I’ve rightfully given up so much for people because I’ve loved them. When you really love someone, does anything else matter? Furthermore, Conte’s beautiful compositions elevated the emotions of the characters to exquisite heights. This is especially true in light of the incredibly talented group of singers and musicians bringing them to life on the East Cleveland Theater stage. I should also mention that Mike Lenzo’s intimate set design really allowed audiences to peek inside the life of Jim and Della, driving home the idea that less is more. Overall, The Gift of the Magi is an opera that I – and all audience members – could walk away with something tangible and relevant.

At the closing of the show, I sat in awe reflecting on how material our society has become. The latest iPhones, cars or devices surely bring us enjoyment, but how useful are they if we have no one to share them with in our lives? At the end of the day, isn’t it true that love is all you need? At least with GLLO’s The Gift of the Magi, we can see that love is one of the most powerful, important and resilient gifts of all.

Cleveland’s One-of-a-Kind, Great Lakes Light Opera

I highly encourage you to stay tuned for the next set of performances from the GLLO. Although The Gift of the Magi has closed, it is no doubt that the GLLO is a company encompassing a high-caliber consortium of artists. In the meantime, you can check out their free, upcoming lecture series, “Kill Da Wabbit: Opera in Pop Culture” happening at a library in January near you! For a list of all upcoming engagements, click here.

By all means, do not hesitate to put the Great Lakes Light Opera on your to-do list. Not only will you expand your horizons, but I guarantee you that even in the coldest of Cleveland temperatures, you’ll warm up to opera like you never thought possible.

By: Logan Foster

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