Alaska Life

Met singers join Alaskans in Fairbanks 'Don Giovanni'

On a hot, sunny Fairbanks night last week, 40-some musicians on the stage of Davis Concert Hall rehearsed Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

The players were all local. The soprano, Alexandra Deshorties, was from New York's Metropolitan Opera, where she sings the same role, Donna Anna. Two other Met veterans are also in the performances, which will take place next weekend under the auspices of the farthest north opera company in America -- maybe the world.

Hanging on every note was a short, bespectacled Fairbanks lawyer in a bright jacket, Cassie Tilly, director of Opera Fairbanks, the reason for all this.

Cassandra Jo Kunkel was born and raised in Palmer. She caught the opera bug while still a girl, when her mother drove her through heavy snow to see "Rigoletto" in Anchorage.

"Watching the opera changed my life," she said. "I was transfixed."

She later studied voice with Gloria Marinacci Allen, who sang the lead female role in that production, and Cassie tried to pursue her own career as an opera soprano in the Lower 48. But by age 28, she decided "I just wasn't getting the breaks."

So she switched from being a soprano to being a patron.

She married Christopher Tilly, a computer analyst from Fairbanks, in 1999 and moved to his home town.

"The agreement was that we'd make trips to see opera two or more times each year," Cassie Tilly said. "But the timing was always off. For one reason or another, we could never get away. Opera's what I missed most."

When she complained, her husband said, "Well, this is the town where, if you want it, you can make it happen. You should start your own company."

Her musical education at Rice University in Houston had steeped her in technique, music history and theory. But there is no college curriculum for how to start an opera company. Tilly had to figure that out on her own, first talking with musicians and music promoters in Fairbanks, approaching other opera lovers as prospective board members and trying to figure out what the company, if it ever got off the ground, would present.

Perusing opera scores on e-bay, she stumbled upon "Wuthering Heights" by Carlisle Floyd. Floyd is America's pre-eminent living opera composer, whose "Susannah" and "Of Mice and Men" have been particularly successful. But "Wuthering Heights" is an obscurity. Tilly had never heard of it and could find no recording. But she got the score and was bowled over by it.

She called one of her former teachers, conductor Gregory Buchalter. She told him she was starting an opera company in Fairbanks and could he come up and conduct "Wuthering Heights." The idea was to make a splash by producing the first recording of it.

Those aspirations turned out to be over-ambitious. Nonetheless, the proposal got the company off the ground. Buchalter stepped in as artistic and music director as well as conductor and has worked to develop a more practical step-by-step plan for the organization.

(That plan doesn't include "Wuthering Heights," though Floyd and his first Susannah, Phyllis Curtain, are both listed as Opera Fairbanks "directors emeritus," out-of-state experts who consult with the company.)

In 2007, two years after Opera Fairbanks incorporated as a non- profit group, it presented two concerts of opera music at the small theater in Pioneer Park. Since then they've produced "Madama Butterfly," "Tosca" and Rossini's "Cinderella." Next year's lineup includes "The Elixir of Love" and "The Magic Flute."

Fairbanks has had opera off and on since the gold rush. "Toyon," by Willard Straight and Frank Brink, was presented here in 1967, and the late Gordon Wright directed Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." In fact, Fairbanks has given the world two notable opera stars, contemporary coloratura diva Vivica Genaux and Robert Crawford, "The Flying Baritone" of the 1930s, better known as the composer of the Air Force anthem.

But establishing a permanent opera presence in an extremely remote town of fewer than 100,000 people a few miles south of the Arctic Circle takes enormous perseverance and money. Where that runs short, Tilly counts on the hospitality and enthusiasm of her board and supporters.

It seems to work.

"I can't remember the last time I was treated so well," said Richard Bernstein, the Leporello in the production. (Anchorage fans will remember him in the title role of "The Marriage of Figaro" here in 1991. He's also in the Met broadcast of "Eugene Onegin" showing at Century 16 Theatres on Wednesday and Thursday.) "It's like a family."

Bernstein has been enjoying flying and motorcycle riding courtesy of Fairbanks opera buffs since he arrived. Similarly, Deshorties, the Donna Anna and a devoted knitter, as is Tilly, has connected with local weavers and spinners and is hoping to leave with some qiviut, the delicate warm under-fur of the Alaska musk ox.

For up-and-coming singers, just being here is enough. Tenor Eapen Leubner, a native New Yorker, singing Don Ottavio, noted, "I had to come to Alaska to perform alongside Met singers for the first time."

Alaska talent also has its day in the sun, with three singers from Anchorage in primary roles. Anastasia Jamieson has the big, sustained part of Donna Elvira. Christine Renee Keene is the perky Zerlina and Kyle Gantz has the brief but beefy music of the Commendatore.

Rounding out the cast, Keith Miller, another Met singer, no relation to the former Alaska governor of the same name, has the title role, and Stephen Brody, a young tenor from Texas is Masetto.

A tougher problem is figuring out how to place the singers when they perform. The company has presented shows in various locations, but there's no ideal venue in Fairbanks. The theater at Pioneer Park is tiny. Hering Auditorium at Lathrop High School is suitably big, 1,600 seats, but school needs take precedence.

"The University (of Alaska Fairbanks) has been good about letting us use their space," Buchalter said. But the Lee Salisbury Theatre, designed for spoken plays, isn't conducive to opera and Davis, the only space specifically designed as an orchestral concert hall in Alaska, has no orchestra pit and limited room for stage or scenery.

Nonetheless, for "Don Giovanni," as with "Tosca," the opera will be presented in Davis, the orchestra pressed against the back wall, Buchalter conducting above them. Behind his back will be a few scenery elements, then the singers, in full costume, maneuvering around on a strip of stage about 10 feet wide. They'll watch Buchalter's cues on television monitors.

"It worked fine for 'Tosca,' " said Marinacci, who directed that show and is directing this one.

Marinacci recalled her reaction when her former student told her about the company and asked her to pitch in. "I told her -- everyone told her -- you're crazy. But she went ahead and did it anyway. She's the core of this company. She hasn't had more than three hours of sleep on any night for the past six months."

"I was a little naive with 'Wuthering Heights,' " Tilly confessed. "But, four years later, we have a company and it's still developing. The first season I was cautiously optimistic. Now it's taken off like a rocket."


Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.